Zimbabwe - Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe: Father of a nation, leader, tyrant

Freedom fighter, father of his country, liberation ideologue, benevolent president, oppressor, tyrant. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe wore many hats, depending on who you spoke to. The longtime leader had always said he would die in office. Instead, he died thousands of miles away in a Singapore hospital.

File photo of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at his 90th birthday celebration in February 2014.
File photo of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at his 90th birthday celebration in February 2014. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

“Of course we say, ‘Go to hell.’ Our people have decided and that’s what matters to us. It is not the right or responsibility of the British to decide on our elections…why should they poke their pink noses into our business?”  a defiant Mugabe asked the appreciative crowd as he campaigned in 2002 for the presidential elections, although this could have been at any time during his 37-year reign.

But it did not start that way.

Born in white-ruled Southern Rhodesia in 1924, Robert Mugabe was the product of a strict Jesuit Catholic upbringing. Studying and then working as a teacher, he lived in Zambia, South Africa, and then Ghana, where he met his first wife, Sally, and was inspired by Kwame Nkruma, the then-prime minister and pan-Africanist.

He returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960, a country still in the shadow of white rule, where dissidence was rewarded with brutality. Mugabe vowed to break the yoke of white domination, entering politics by joining the National Democratic Party, until the party was outlawed by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. NDP changed names and became Zapu, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union, run by Joshua Nkomo.

Switching sides, Mugabe joined the rival Zanu party the Zimbabwe African National Union. Although it would become his party, as he would exclaim on occasion, it was formed by Reverend Ndabaningi Sitholé, the leader of the party, lawyer Herbert Chitepo and other like-minded pan-Africanist freedom fighters.

The late Vesta Sitholé, Ndabaningi’s widow, who was also part of the struggle, told RFI in 2012 that Mugabe was not very charismatic, showing signs of the leader he was to become.

“He had no mercy. You couldn’t ask for anything. All he just wanted was to honor his word. What he said was it,” she said.

“People didn’t just like him because of that kind of attitude, because all the young people who had come out to join the armed struggle didn’t expect to see anyone who didn’t care about that,” she added.

Rival nationalist groups Zapu and Zanu had party members killed on both sides. After Zanu members murdered a white farmer, Smith banned both parties in 1964 and imprisoned the leaders, who were released in 1975.

The armed struggle would be the beginning of the end for the white government. Prime Minister Smith said blacks would never be in power in the country, which solidified Zimbabwe’s freedom movement. Those words inspired musician Thomas Mapfumo, who came out with a response song, “Pamuromo Chete”, or ‘These are Mere Words’ in Shona.

The liberation war continued in the 1970s and the United Kingdom called for a cease-fire to broker the Lancaster House talks in 1979, paving the way for a referendum and the new Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980. Mugabe took the helm in the talks, and returned to the country a national hero.

Intimidation set the tone of the campaign but the Shona majority came out and ensured that Mugabe was elected as the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe in March 1980, with his Zanu party taking a majority of the parliamentary seats.

In a radio speech on the eve of his inauguration, he reassured the country that all Zimbabweans would be united.

“The time of retribution is over. Now is the time for reconstruction, and nation building. Let us put aside our differences once and for all, and pull together and I assure the prize is great,” he said.

The spectre of Gukurahundi

Part of the healing was also extending a hand to Joshua Nkomo and his rival party Zapu.

“Resentments didn’t die, he couldn’t overcome them, so I think the resentments about the Ndebele and the sense of feeling Joshua Nkomo was trying to outdo him in the early 80s led him to over-react with the presence of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland,” said John Stewart, Zimbabwean human rights activist, speaking to RFI in Harare.

Stewart is referring to Gukurahundi, the Shona term for “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains,” considered a genocide.

Zimbabwe rights activist Jenni Williams, leader of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise or WOZA, was 18 when Mugabe came to power. She said she had a lot of hope for the future of her country as a mixed race person. But Williams, who is from Matabeleland in the south, where many in the Ndebele community live, saw her region had no voice within the two years of Mugabe’s rise to power.

“Over 20,000 of my tribespeople, some of his own tribespeople, from this region, were totally exterminated. He was doing this to completely silence any opposition again his reign,” said Williams.

“So within two years you can basically say his promises of a more democratic equal society were completely shoved aside,” she added.

Mugabe later said this was a mistake, but he never apologised.

In 1987, Mugabe abolished the prime minister position and became the president of Zimbabwe. This followed with re-elections in 1990 and 1996.

Public opinion turns against former freedom fighter

The 1990s turned international opinion against Mugabe. Although once held high as the symbol of international struggle, his reputation began to tarnish with land and economy scandals… and the long walk to freedom of another liberation hero.

“Mugabe had been the icon of Southern Africa until Mandela was free. So in some ways I think Mugabe resented the loss of status from when Mandela came into the picture,” said Stewart.

One of the most polarizing issues in Zimbabwe was land reform. When signing the Lancaster House Agreement, Mugabe accepted the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ plan proposed by the UK. This would protect the white farmers, who owned 70 percent of the best farming land.

Timeline of Robert Mugabe's Life

  • 21 February 1924 – Born in Kutama, near Salisbury (now Harare), Southern Rhodesia

  • 1960 – After working as a teacher in Zambia, South Africa and Ghana, Mugabe returns to Southern Rhodesia

  • 1961 – Joins Zapu

  • 1961 – Marries Sally, his first wife

  • 1964 – Imprisoned by southern Rhodesia Prime Minister Ian Smith for killing white farmer

  • 1964 – Liberation war begins

  • 1974 – joins Zanu

  • 1975 – Released from prison after 11 years

  • 1979 – UK-brokered Lancaster House talks

  • March 1980 Elected as the first Prime Minister of Republic of Zimbabwe

  • 1982 – Gukurahundi begins in the south after Mugabe deploys Fifth Brigade to kill Ndebeles

  • 1987 – Zanu-PF created from Mugabe-Nkomo party merger

  • 1987 – Mugabe abolishes Prime Minister seat and becomes President of Zimbabwe

  • 1990 – Re-elected as president

  • 1996 – Re-elected as president

  • 1996 – Marries Grace, his second wife

  • 1998 – Economic crisis heightens; Zimbabweans riot

  • 2000 – Voters reject Mugabe’s constitutional change at the ballot box

  • 2001-2002 European Union, US slaps sanctions on Zimbabwe

  • 2002 – Mugabe re-elected

  • May – July 2005 – Mugabe orders Operation Murambatsvina, where shanties are destroyed

  • May 2008 – Tsvangirai wins most votes, but not enough to beat Mugabe

  • June 2008 – Mugabe declared winner

  • September 2008 – Mugabe enters power-sharing government

  • July 2013 – Mugabe wins seventh term in office

  • November 2017 – Mugabe forced to resign

  • 6 September 2019 – Mugabe dies

But under the Tony Blair government in 1997, the UK stopped payments to the Mugabe government which were to compensate white farmers so the land would be distributed to poor Zimbabweans. This was not the case, as Mugabe cronies and Zanu-PF members were given the farms, while many white farmers left.

The former freedom fighter used land as a carrot before a government-sponsored draft constitution was defeated in a referendum in the year 2000.

“He had to come up with a gimmick [and used] the land question, because most people in Zimbabwe would love to own a piece of land,” said Wilf Mbanga, the founder and editor of the now-defunct UK-based The Zimbabwean newspaper. After 18 years in exile, he returned to Zimbabwe.

“He came and said, ‘everybody, we’re just going to take this land without paying for it, we’re going to give it to the people.’ He thought it would win him votes …people saw through it, that it was not a genuine attempt to transfer land to the landless poor. But the people who benefitted to this day were the people in the army, judges, police. They’ve become the landed gentry in our country,” he added.

Thousands of Zanu-PF self-styled war veterans took over commercial farms. The High Court ruled that the occupiers had to leave, but Mugabe unilaterally amended the Land Act via temporary presidential power, refusing to compensate farmers. Those who refused to leave were tortured or killed.

“The fact that the papers in Britain all expected me to order the war veterans out, I say, I will not do that at all,” said Mugabe.

His handling of the land issue contributed to Zimbabwe losing its position as the farming centre of the continent. Those kicked off their lands were commercial farmers, and the majority who took the farms over were not farmers, with no expertise on creating a commercially viable enterprise. This contributed to a food shortage in 2002, bordering on famine.

“The majority of Zimbabweans today are poorer than they were in 1953. Mugabe reduced that nation from the breadbasket of southern Africa into a begging bowl,” said Mbanga.

“Today, Zimbabwe can’t feed itself. And yet, we used to feed our neighbours,” he said.

“We will proceed with current land reform, with or without sanctions,” said Mugabe in 2002. “Let that position be known here and abroad,” he added.

During his 37 years in power, Mugabe had at times a strained, at times a strong relationship with neighbouring countries, and especially the regional grouping SADC, the Southern African Development Community. Neighbours such as Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique also sheltered Zimbabwean freedom fighters during the struggle, but Mugabe was not universally liked, especially by Botswana.

“The impression [of Mugabe] is often cast as the mad dictator, “said Blessing-Miles Tendi, professor and author of the book Making History in Mugabe's Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media.

“There were many good things about his rule – take education for instance. Today, there are 10 to 12 universities in the country; there was only one in 1980,” he added.

Rising MDC opposition… and Operation Murambatsvina

As civil liberties declined, the European Union imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. Mugabe was faced with a growing opposition. The Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, gained ground in the 2000 parliamentary polls. By 2005, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won two-thirds of the votes in the parliamentary polls, while MDC, under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai, said the election was rigged.

MDC had captured the interest of the poor urban voters, both in the capital, Harare, and Bulawayo, the country’s second city.

In 2005, the government bulldozed shanties, calling this Operation Murambatsvina, or ‘getting rid of the rubbish’ in Shona. The UN said more than 70,000 lost their homes or their livelihoods, and many had voted MDC.

Daily life was soon to become more difficult throughout the country: in May 2006, inflation exceed 1,000 percent. Zimbabweans became 'billionaires' overnight, but did not have enough money to buy food. Electricity cuts gripped the country.

By 2008 parliamentary elections, however, the opposition MDC party had solidified its power base. Two months after elections, Morgan Tsvangirai, the then-head of the MDC, had won more votes than Mugabe, but not enough to avoid a run-off. MDC voters were attacked in the days leading up to the run-off, prompting Tsvangirai to pull out.

“Our decision to pull out of this sham election was in the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe,” he said.

”Any election conducted arrogantly, unilaterally on Friday, will not be recognized by the MDC, by Zimbabweans, and by the world over,” he added.

Mugabe was declared the winner in June, and the EU and the US widened sanctions against Mugabe and his cronies.

Amidst creating a power-sharing government with his rivals MDC, a national emergency was declared over the cholera epidemic.

As daily stress heightened, and in an effort to head off an economic crisis affecting every Zimbabwean, the power-sharing government officially instituted the use of foreign currency, specifically the US dollar.

The strained coalition government remained together until 2013, when presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Although there was talk that Mugabe should retire as he approached 90, he dismissed calls to step down.

As in previous elections, fraud undermined the polls. Voter roll registration fraud prevented urban MDC supporters to vote, strengthening Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s hold on the rural rest of the country. In a rare press conference the night before the elections, Mugabe claimed he would be a gracious loser.

“If you lose, then you must surrender to those who won. And this is it, so we’ll do so, yes,” he said.

Mugabe was declared the winner for a seventh term.

While he ruled during his seventh term in office, he began making some major changes to his Zanu-PF party. Longtime Mugabe stalwart Emmerson Mnangagwa was kicked out of his vice president position and fled the country on 6 November 2017, but returned 16 days later, with the backing of the military. Mugabe was forced to resign in a bloodless coup d’etat.

Angry, but with his age showing, he called for a press conference during the 2018 elections, the first time his name would not be on a Zimbabwe presidential ballot. He claimed he would not vote for the party he formed, namely, for Mnangagwa. He said he would vote for Nelson Chamisa, MDC candidate.

Defeated, tired, and in declining health, Mugabe checked into a hospital in Singapore, where he died on 6 September 2019, aged 95. He leaves behind his second wife, Grace, and three children.


Listen to the special edition of Paris Live on the death of Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe. A look back at his life and legacy, as well as reaction from Harare, southern African neighbours, and of course here in France.

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