Robert Mugabe, the one-time freedom fighter who led Zimbabwe to independence before ruling his country with an iron fist for 37 years, has died. He was 95.
Mugabe became an icon of African resistance to colonialism as a leader of the armed struggle against white minority rule in what was then Southern Rhodesia.
Yet following his accession to power in 1980, he gradually squandered that reputation by leading Zimbabwe to international isolation as his rule became a byword for poverty, repression and cronyism.
His death comes less than two years after he was overthrown in a military coup engineered by his long-time deputy and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa, as huge crowds celebrated his forced departure from Harare.
Born on 21 February 1924 in rural Kutama, Mugabe served as a teacher before being drawn into political activities in the early 1960s as resistance to white rule mounted. He soon gained a reputation for his uncompromising, militant stance, and clashed repeatedly with Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union [ZAPU], in a bitter conflict that would come to define the early years of the independent nation.
Mugabe left ZAPU to form a rival nationalist movement, the Zimbabwe African National Union [ZANU] as government repression continued. Having been arrested upon his return to Southern Rhodesia in December 1963, Mugabe spent almost a decade in prison, but continued his activities and became instrumental in shifting nationalist politics towards outright guerrilla warfare.
ZANU played an instrumental role in the brutal ‘bush war’ that commenced in the early 1970s, receiving military support from China and enthusiastically adopting Mao’s guerrilla tactics in running battles with government forces. The attritional conflict, which took tens of thousands of lives, forced the inflexible government of Ian Smith to the negotiating table and paved the way for majority rule following talks brokered by the UK at Lancaster House.
Mugabe secured an overwhelming victory in the hastily arranged 1980 general election, as he became the first Prime Minister of a truly independent Zimbabwe.
The early years of his leadership proved to be something of a honeymoon period. Long labelled by the white minority as an unrepentant communist, Mugabe proved more conciliatory than expected and resisted moves towards redistribution of white land and assets as he sought domestic stability and international support for the fledgling state.
Yet in 1983, the simmering conflict with his rivals ZAPU exploded into the open, culminating in Gukurahundi, a four-year campaign of widespread massacres against the Ndebele, the ethnic group from which ZAPU drew much of its support. Scholars believe more than 20,000 were killed as Mugabe deployed North Korean-trained troops to to crush all dissent in the Matebeleland region.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zimbabwe became increasingly repressive as Mugabe consolidated his power and quelled domestic political opposition. By the late 1990s, Mugabe’s rule had reached crisis point after years of economic underperformance and mounting corruption.
In a desperate attempt to placate hardliners in his party, including the powerful ‘war veterans’ movement, Mugabe sanctioned a land reform programme which stripped white farmers of their land and property. The violent campaign led to international sanctions, while the redistribution of farms to the politically connected and those with limited agricultural experience sparked food shortages. The resulting bout of extraordinary hyperinflation led to the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar as the government desperately printed money in a bid to meet its obligations. Once lauded for the strength of its education system and its enviable agricultural productivity, the country entered a state of almost complete economic and institutional collapse.
The following years saw increasingly violent repression as Mugabe’s popularity plummeted and a vigorous opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, launched a series of electoral challenges. In 2008, a vicious post-election crackdown engineered by Zanu-PF following a probable MDC victory led to a power-sharing government with rival Morgan Tsvangirai, which stabilised the economy but failed to lead to an era of lasting change. In his final flawed poll victory in 2013, Mugabe crushed his coalition partners and once more emerged unchallenged.
Having seen off so many rivals and consolidated his grip on the army and security services, many Zimbabweans had grown resigned to Mugabe’s lifelong rule, even as the nonagenarian leader appeared physically weak and forgetful in his public appearances or flew to Singapore for extended medical treatment.
Yet in 2017, following a lengthy period of economic malaise, citizens took to the streets again to protest his decrepit rule and the possible accession to power of his unpopular wife, Grace.
Spying an opportunity amid a bitter power struggle, vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, for years a loyal and feared head of the security services, arranged a military takeover to bring an end to 37 years of Mugabe’s rule. As the tanks rolled in to Harare – promising a new era to initially enthusiastic citizens that has yet to materialise – one of the longest and most storied careers in African politics was brought to a sudden, inglorious end.
His nemesis led the tributes, calling Mugabe “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people,” even as the country he led for 37 years again lurches into economic crisis.
David Thomas in Cape Town
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