In Depth

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: three decades of revolution

How The Week has reported the turbulent events in the African country

Zimbabwe is facing the prospect of a military coup over who will succeed President Robert Mugabe.

The current political crisis is “a very public showdown” between the youth faction of Zimbabwe's ruling party Zanu-PF, who are loyal to the president’s wife Grace Mugabe, and veteran liberation fighters who back the recently deposed deputy leader Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation wars, “was popular with the military, which viewed his removal as part of a purge of independence-era figures to pave the way for Mugabe to hand power to his wife Grace”, says Reuters.

“Some army generals backed Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe and have publicly said they will not allow someone who did not fight in the 1970s independence war to rule – Ms Mugabe did not fight in that war,” the ABC says.

But how did we get here? Here’s a look back at how The Week has covered the trials and tribulations of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe: from freedom fighter to fearsome dictator

After more than three decades in power, Mugabe is one of the longest-serving leaders on the African continent. However, in that time he has managed to go from being a revered revolutionary to a feared despot.

Zanu-PF won a landslide victory in the British-supervised parliamentary elections of 1980, making Mugabe prime minister and the “darling of black Africa's anti-colonial struggle”.

Shortly after taking power, the Marxist politician set about improving the lives of the largely impoverished black population. He increased wages, improved social services and food subsidies.

His introduction of free education across the nation remains one of his strongest legacies. As a result of his educational reforms, Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa, at 85 per cent of the population, according to the BBC.

Despite these achievements, Mugabe was never successful at improving the economy. “He has always concentrated on the question of how to share the national cake, rather than how to make it grow bigger,” the BBC reports.

He was, however, able to acquire huge sums of wealth for himself through "elitism, cronyism and corruption", claims CNN.

In 2008, Zimbabwe had the world's fastest-shrinking economy, annual inflation was an astronomical 231 million per cent and more than half of the population was unemployed. Mugabe refused to take responsibility and instead blamed the country's growing economic problems on “a Western plot” led by the UK.

Added to that, since the state seizure of white-owned commercial farms in 2000, the former “bread basket of Africa” has failed to produce enough food for even its own needs, let alone export. The labourers who received the land had little knowledge of large-scale farming and production plummeted, reported in 2014.

Mugabe plans 90th birthday party as millions starve

Mugabe's particularly lavish living at a time of economic turmoil in the country has come under much criticism.

For his 90th birthday in 2014, the Zanu-PF insisted the landmark be a celebration of the life of a “very special person on a very special occasion”. Activists described it as an extravagant waste of money.

Dewa Mavhinga, a Zimbabwe researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian it would be “inappropriate for a country's head of state to have such a lavish and costly celebration at a time when the country is faced with the disaster of flooding and a crumbling economy”.

Mugabe urged to stand down after reading wrong speech

As the years went on, Mugabe's words and actions lead to concerns about his mental faculties.

In 2015, he delivered a 25-minute address without realising he had given the same speech the previous month, prompting opponents to claim he was not fit to hold office.

“The fact that he went on and on and on up until the very end shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mugabe is too old,” said Obert Gutu of Movement for Democratic Change.

“The rigours of his presidential office are too much for him and… at the advanced age of 91, [he] should do the honourable thing and step down from office.”

'We are not gays!' Robert Mugabe shouts at UN assembly

Also in 2015, Mugabe was greeted with laughter from United Nations delegates when a speech on human rights abruptly veered into an anti-gay outburst.

“We reject attempts to prescribe new rights that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions and beliefs," he said, before suddenly shouting: “We are not gays."

The Zimbabwean president was addressing what he called the “new human rights agenda” Western nations were imposing on Africa and vowed that his country would never accept homosexuality.

Mugabe: from brutal dictator to WHO goodwill ambassador - and back again

Last month, Mugabe was controversially made a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation (WHO), a move heavily criticised by world leaders and described by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “a very bad April Fool’s joke”.  

According to the BBC, “at no point did [WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus] seem aware that appointing as goodwill ambassador a man who has been accused of human rights abuses, and of neglecting to the point of collapse his own country's health service, might be controversial”.

According to WHO’s own statistics, there are only 1.6 physicians and 7.2 nurses available for every 10,000 people in Zimbabwe. Life expectancy at birth has fallen from 63 years in 1988 to 43.

Nevertheless, Tedros last week described Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide healthcare to all”.

Kerry Cullinan, writing in South Africa's Daily Maverick, said Mugabe's appointment showed WHO’s Ethiopian chief was “part of Africa’s old men’s club that values politicking over people”.

Struggle for succession

Grace Mugabe: the woman poised to take over Zimbabwe

Grace Mugabe has repeatedly hinted she would be up for the challenge of replacing her husband, telling crowds at a rally last year: “Some say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean too?”

But the 49-year-old remains as divisive as her husband.

“She is well-known for sharing her husband's ‘spiky’ rhetoric,” says The Guardian, once telling a crowd: “I might have a small fist but when it comes to fighting, I will put stones inside to enlarge it. Do not doubt my capabilities.”

The President’s wife has her fair share of critics in Zimbabwe. Opposition members call her “Gucci Grace” and “Dis-Grace” because of her appetite for extravagant shopping sprees – she has a particular penchant for designer clothes and shoes and allegedly spent $120,000 during a single trip to Paris.

Emmerson Mnangagwa - Struggle for survival 

As minister of state security for eight years, minister of defence for another four and a previous stint as head of the Joint Operations Command, Emmerson Mnangagwa holds significant sway within the security forces, which have been key to Mugabe's own political survival.

He was also allegedly intimately involved with many of Zimbabwe’s acts of terror and is said to have led the Operation Gukurahundi campaign in the early 1980s, when 20,000 of Mugabe's political opponents were killed.

By contrast, none of the leaders in Grace Mugabe’s Zanu-PF “G40” political faction fought in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle.

Any attempt to elbow Mnangagwa out of the succession race could therefore provoke intervention from senior military officers, who fear prosecution for past crimes when Mugabe's regime falls, with the potential to ignite a civil war.


The last days: hunger stalks Zimbabwe as Mugabe clings on

“With government ministers accusing each other of treason, and Mugabe himself talking up divisions within his armed services, fears abound that deepening fissures within the ruling Zanu-PF party may lead to civil war,” Zimbabwe journalist Mxolisi Ncube wrote last year.

“Zimbabwe's predicament is now so intractable that it can no longer be solved by Robert Mugabe's resignation – or his death.”

Maxwell Shumba, an adviser to former Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said: “Those who celebrate news of Mugabe's rumoured death are holding vanity celebrations. They will be disappointed to learn that the current problems in Zimbabwe are now beyond the agenda of removing Mugabe."

Power is so deeply entrenched in “the Triage”, says Shumba, referring to Mugabe, his Zanu-PF party and the government it controls, that the whole structure must be dismantled. “Until the Triage is effectively destroyed and a democratic system installed, Zimbabwe's political and economic problems will persist.

 “Even if the fractured opposition does coalesce around a charismatic, competent leader who is yet to emerge, few people with knowledge of Zimbabwe expect that any single party, or any one faction of Zanu-PF, will be able to resolve the country's problems without significant struggle.” 

“The big question now is whether that struggle will be political in nature – or military.”


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