Harare, Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe, the former leader of Zimbabwe forced to resign in 2017 after a 37-year rule whose early promise was eroded by economic turmoil, disputed elections and human rights violations, died on Friday. He was 95.
His successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa confirmed Mugabe’s death in a tweet yesterday, mourning him as an “icon of liberation.” He did not provide details.
Former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe dies at 95
“Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mnangagwa said.
Mugabe, who took power after white minority rule ended in 1980, blamed Zimbabwe’s economic problems on international sanctions and once said he wanted to rule for life. But growing discontent about the southern African country’s fractured leadership and other problems prompted a military intervention, impeachment proceedings by the parliament and large street demonstrations for his removal. The announcement of Mugabe’s November 21, 2017 resignation, after he initially ignored escalating calls to quit, triggered wild celebrations in the streets of the capital, Harare.
Well into the night, cars honked and people danced and sang in a spectacle of free expression that would have been impossible during his years in power and reflected the hopes for a better future.
No tears to shed
On the streets in the capital Harare yesterday, people gathered in small groups sharing the news. “I will not shed a tear, not for that cruel man,” said Tariro Makena, a street vendor. “All these problems, he started them and people now want us to pretend it never happened.” Others said they missed him.
“Things are worse now. Life was not that good but it was never this bad. These people who removed him from power have no clue whatsoever,” said Silas Marongo, holding an axe and joining men and women cutting a tree for firewood in suburban Harare to beat severe electricity shortages that signify the worsening economic situation in the southern African country.
On February 21, 2018, Mugabe marked his first birthday in near solitude, since his resignation, far from the lavish affair of past years. While the government that removed him with military assistance had declared his birthday as a national holiday, his successor and former deputy Mnangagwa did not mention him in a televised speech on the day.
Mugabe’s decline in his last years as president was partly linked to the political ambitions of his wife, Grace, a brash, divisive figure whose ruling party faction eventually lost out in a power struggle with supporters of Mnangagwa, who was close to the military.
Signs of weariness
Spry in his impeccably tailored suits, Mugabe as leader maintained a schedule of events and international travel that defied his advancing age, though signs of weariness mounted toward the end. He fell after stepping off a plane in Zimbabwe, read the wrong speech at the opening of parliament and appeared to be dozing during a news conference in Japan. However, his longevity and frequently dashed rumours of ill health delighted supporters and infuriated opponents who had sardonically predicted he would live forever.
“Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realise I am still there?” Mugabe told an interviewer from state television who asked him in early 2016 about his retirement plans.
After independence, Mugabe reached out to whites after a long war between black guerrillas and the white rulers of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known. He stressed education and built new schools. Tourism and mining flourished and Zimbabwe was a regional breadbasket.
However, a brutal military campaign waged against an uprising in western Matabeleland province that ended in 1987 augured a bitter turn in Zimbabwe’s fortunes. As the years went by, Mugabe was widely accused of hanging on to power through violence and vote fraud, notably in a 2008 election that led to a troubled coalition government after regional mediators intervened.
“I have many degrees in violence,” Mugabe once boasted on a campaign trail, raising his fist. “You see this fist, it can smash your face.”
Mugabe was re-elected in 2013 in another election marred by alleged irregularities, though he dismissed his critics as sore losers.
Amid the political turmoil, the economy of Zimbabwe, traditionally rich in agriculture and minerals, was deteriorating. Factories were closing, unemployment was rising and the country abandoned its currency for the US dollar in 2009 because of hyperinflation.
The economic problems are often traced to the violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began around 2000. Land reform was supposed to take much of the country’s most fertile land — owned by about 4,500 white descendants of mainly British and South African colonial-era settlers — and redistribute it to poor blacks. Instead, Mugabe gave prime farms to ruling party leaders, party loyalists, security chiefs, relatives and cronies.
Mugabe was born in Zvimba, 60 kilometres west of the capital of Harare. As a child, he tended his grandfather’s cattle and goats, fished for bream in muddy water holes, played football and “boxed a lot,” as he recalled later.
Mugabe: From a liberation hero to a despot
Robert Mugabe, who has died aged 95, used repression and fear to hold on to power in Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was finally ousted when his previously loyal military generals turned against him.
After his humiliating fall from office in November 2017, his phenomenal physical stamina seeped away rapidly.
First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white-minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe will instead be remembered a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy.
The former political prisoner turned guerrilla leader swept to power in the 1980 elections after a growing insurgency and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.
In office, he initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.
But his lustre faded quickly.
Mugabe had taken control of one wing in the guerrilla war for independence - the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed forces - after his release from prison in 1974.
His partner in the armed struggle - the leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), Joshua Nkomo - was one of the early casualties of Mugabe's crackdown on dissent.
Nkomo was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982.
Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo's Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents.
Yet it was the violent seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mugabe's transformation into an international pariah - though his status as a liberation hero still resonates strongly in most of Africa.
Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into economic misery.
At the same time, Mugabe clung to power through increased repression of human rights and by rigging elections.
"He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees," said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.
Britain's former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe's independence.
"Mugabe wasn't human at all," Carrington told biographer Heidi Holland. "There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.
"You could admire his skills and intellect... but he was an awfully slippery sort of person."
In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe - one of the world's most recognisable leaders with his thin stripe of moustache and thick-rimmed spectacles - embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West.
He used blistering rhetoric to blame his country's downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe's economy.
"If people say you are dictator... you know they are saying this merely to tarnish and demean your status, then you don't pay much attention," he said in a 2013 documentary.
After decades in which the subject of succession was virtually taboo, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite when he reached his 90s and became visibly frail.
He had been rumoured for years to have prostate cancer, but according to the official account, his frequent trips to Singapore were related to his treatment for cataracts.
Mugabe's second wife Grace - his former secretary who is 41 years his junior and had been seen as a potential successor - boasted that even in his 80s he would rise before dawn to work out.
"The 89 years don't mean anything," Mugabe said shortly before his last election in 2013.
"They haven't changed me, have they? They haven't withered me. They haven't made me senile yet, no. I still have ideas, ideas that need to be accepted by my people."
But in his later years, he stumbled and fell more than once.
The Catholic Marxist
Born on February 21, 1924 into a Catholic family at Kutama Mission northwest of Harare, Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush.
After his carpenter father walked out on the family when he was 10, the young Mugabe concentrated on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, meeting many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders.
After teaching in Ghana, where he was influenced by founder president Kwame Nkrumah, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia where he was detained for his nationalist activities in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the years in prison left their mark.
His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.
He once said that he'd rule his country until he turned 100, and many expected him to die in office.
But as his health weakened, the military finally intervened in late 2017 to ensure that his wife Grace's presidential ambitions were ended in favour of their own preferred candidate.
"His real obsession was not with personal wealth but with power," said biographer Martin Meredith.
"Year after year Mugabe sustained his rule through violence and repression - crushing political opponents, violating the courts, trampling on property rights, suppressing the independent press and rigging elections."
Mugabe leaves two sons and a daughter by second wife Grace.
Timeline: A look at the life of Zimbabwe's late president Robert Mugabe
Following are key milestones in the life of Zimbabwe's former leader Robert Mugabe.
1924 - Mugabe is born on Feb. 21 in what was then British-ruled Southern Rhodesia.
1940s-1950s - He is educated at Catholic schools and attends South Africa's University of Fort Hare. He teaches in Zambia and Ghana, where he is influenced by African independence movement leaders.
1960s - Mugabe campaigns for Zimbabwe's independence and is imprisoned in 1964 for political agitation. While incarcerated, he earns two law degrees from the University of London External Programme.
1974 - Released from prison, he escapes to Mozambique were Zimbabwe African National Union guerrilla fighters elect him to lead their struggle against white minority rule. A number of rivals die in suspicious circumstances, rights groups say.
1980 - Mugabe's ZANU-PF party wins independent Zimbabwe's first election. He takes office as prime minister on April 18.
1982 - Mugabe deploys North Korean-trained troops to crush an insurgency by former guerrillas loyal to his liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo. Government forces are accused of involvement in the killing of 20,000 civilians, which Mugabe denies.
1987 - He becomes president with sweeping executive powers after changes to the constitution and signs a unity pact with Nkomo, who becomes one of his two deputies.
1990 - ZANU-PF and Mugabe win parliamentary and presidential elections.
1998 - An economic crisis marked by high interest rates and inflation sparks riots.
2000 - Zimbabweans reject a new constitution in a referendum, Mugabe's first defeat at the ballot box.
- Thousands of independence war veterans and their allies, backed by the government, seize white-owned farms, saying the land was illegally appropriated by white settlers.
2001 - The United States puts a financial freeze on Mugabe's government in response to land seizures, beginning a wave of Western sanctions. Mugabe's relationship with the West, especially the U.S. and Britain, never recovers.
2002 - Mugabe wins a disputed presidential vote, which observers condemn as flawed.
- Zimbabwe is suspended from the British Commonwealth over accusations of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement.
- Mugabe pulls his country from the grouping the following year.
2008 - Hyperinflation reaches 500 billion percent, the nadir of an economic implosion that forces millions of people to leave the country, many to neighbouring South Africa.
- Mugabe loses a presidential vote but wins the run-off after opponent Morgan Tsvangirai withdraws citing violence against his supporters by security forces and war veterans. A power-sharing agreement is signed.
2010 - Media reports say Mugabe is seriously ill with cancer, speculation that continues in following years.
2013 - Mugabe wins another disputed presidential vote.
Western observers site multiple accounts of electoral fraud.
2016 - Protesters led by a pastor stage the biggest show of defiance against Mugabe in a decade, prompting speculation about life after the veteran leader.
2017 - Mugabe is forced to resign in November following an army coup and is replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man he had fired as his deputy two weeks earlier.
2018 - Mugabe is seen in public for the first time since leaving power. He berates his former ZANU-PF allies and backs opposition leader Nelson Chamisa on the eve of an election.
2019 - Mugabe travels several times to Singapore to seek medical treatment as pictures of the gaunt, gray-haired former leader circulate on social media.