Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

He celebrated his 91st birthday on February 21 this year. He is now the world’s oldest ruler, and has led Zimbabwe since 1980. And yet, Robert Mugabe shows no signs of leaving power.

Mugabe’s lavish million dollar birthday bash was slammed by the opposition as “obscene” in a country wracked by poverty.

Thousands of supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF, many wearing party regalia emblazoned with the president’s image, sang and danced as he arrived for the jamboree at a luxury hotel in the famed Victoria Falls resort.

Assisted by his wife Grace, the elderly liberation leader, who wore a black suit, white shirt and red tie, threw 91 balloons into the air.

Mugabe was a key figure in the struggle for independence, which involved a bitter bush war against a white minority which had cut the country loose from the colonial power Britain.

He was born on February 21, 1924, near Kutama, northeast of Salisbury (now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe), in what was then Rhodesia.

The former school teacher, with seven university degrees, first came to prominence after waging a bloody guerrilla war against the white colonial rulers who jailed him for 10 years over a “subversive speech” he made in 1964.

Soon after his release from jail in 1974, he caused a seismic shift in the then Rhodesian politics, riding a wave of popular outrage against the racist colonial rulers.

Then married to Ghanaian Sally Hayfron, who died of a kidney disease in 1992, he crossed the border to neighbouring Mozambique to launch a protracted guerrilla war for independence.

He returned to Rhodesia in 1979 and became prime minister in 1980 of the newly independent country renamed Zimbabwe.

When he was first elected in 1980 he was praised for reaching out to the white minority and his political rivals, as well as for what was considered a pragmatic approach to the economy.

However, he soon expelled from his government of national unity the party whose stronghold was in the south of the country and launched an anti-opposition campaign in which thousands died.

He was concurrently spearheading a brutal crackdown on his political opposition led by now deceased nationalist Joshua Nkomo that claimed more than 20,000 lives, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. 

Tens of thousands of people were killed during the so-called “Gukurahundi”, a suppression campaign waged by the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in the predominantly Ndebele regions of Zimbabwe. Most of the victims were supporters of Nkomo, Mugabe’s fierce political opponent. 

Nkomo was the founding father of the nationalist struggle for independence in Zimbabwe, and the “Gukurahundi” crackdown only ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU. 

In the mid-1990s he embarked on a programme of land redistribution, in which commercial farmers were driven off the land by mobs. The programme was accompanied by a steady decline in the economy.

As the opposition to his rule increased, he and his ruling Zanu-PF party grew more determined to stay in power. Critics accuse him of heading a military regime.


In the elections of 2008, Zanu-PF lost its parliamentary majority and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the presidential vote but with insufficient votes to avoid a run-off.

Mugabe was sworn in for another term in June 2008 after a widely-condemned run-off vote from which Tsvangirai withdrew, citing attacks on his supporters.

Under international pressure, Mugabe agreed a power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai, who was made prime minister.

However, Mugabe made no secret of his distaste for the arrangement and Tsvangirai complained of a lack of co-operation and a return of violence against his party’s supporters.

After years of wrangling, the two parties in early 2013 agreed on a new constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved at a referendum in March that year.

It curbed the president’s powers, set a two-term limit for the office, abolished the post of prime minister, created elected provincial legislatures and establishes a constitutional court.

Mugabe was able to govern alone again after winning 61 per cent of the vote against 34 per cent for Tsvangirai in the 2012 election, while Zanu-PF party clinched a two-thirds majority in parliament. Tsvangirai dismissed the polls as fraudulent.

In late 2014, the president fired Vice-President Joyce Mujuru and seven ministers, accusing them of being involved in a plot to kill him. Mujuru denied the allegation.

Ideologically, Mugabe belongs to the African liberationist tradition of the 1960s - strong and ruthless leadership, anti-Western, suspicious of capitalism and deeply intolerant of dissent and opposition.

Cancer claims

In 2012, secrets-spilling website WikiLeaks released US embassy cables detailing briefings with top members of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party claiming he is suffering from cancer, a claim his spin-doctors have persistently rejected, insisting instead that his myriad trips to Singapore, where he is rumoured to be undergoing chemotherapy, were in fact for an eye problem.

Critics say he has failed to groom a successor and that the old Zimbabwean order is falling apart.

He stands accused of presiding over a corrupt system, vandalising the economy and squandering the country’s vast mineral wealth on his re-election drive.

Mugabe vowed at one rally after another to press ahead with his “revolutionary” social policies, including a drive to transfer ownership of white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks.

He constantly rails against foreign firms, threatening to seize their shareholding for redistribution to black Zimbabweans, and keeps reminding Zimbabweans of its colonial conquest.

Yet, in an interview marking his birthday, Mugabe admitted he blundered by giving ill-equipped black farmers vast tracts of farmland under his controversial land reforms. 

“I think the farms we gave to people are too large. They can’t manage them,” Mugabe said. 

He also shrugged off questions over an incident earlier this month in which he missed a step and stumbled from a podium. 

“I have yet to come across to a person who has not fallen. It was a slight fall, missing a step,” Mugabe told state-controlled television. 

Despite his age, Mugabe appears to be in reasonable health, and according to one analyst, can regard himself as having plenty to celebrate following years of international criticism. 

“If his aim was to rule Zimbabwe and become the king of Zimbabwe for a long time, and whatever happened to the country he would stay there and become a continent-wide hero, I think he’s achieved those aims,” said Richard Dowden, director of the London-based Royal African .

“The fact that Zimbabwe has been ruined in the process and it’s now just run by thieves who call themselves ministers, looting the place continually, I don’t think that worries him a bit,” he added.

Source: BBC, Aljazeera and agencies. 

This column aims to profile personalities who made the news once but have now faded from the spotlight.