In Depth

Who was the real Robert Mugabe?

The controversial ousted leader has died at the age of 95

Robert Mugabe, the first post-independence leader of Zimbabwe, has died at the age of 95 while receiving treatment for an unspecified illness.

The BBC reports that the controversial former president, ousted in 2017 after 37 years in power, had been in hospital in Singapore since April.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who overthrew Mugabe with the help of the Zimbabwean military, issued a statement on Friday in which he called his predecessor “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,” Mnangagwa added. “May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

But critics point out that Mugabe’s early success as a pioneering anticolonial leader who broadened access to health and education for Zimbabwe’s black majority has been almost entirely overshadowed by the following years of corruption, economic collapse and violent repression of his opponents.

Here we track the key dates and events in his rise and fall from power:

1924 - Mugabe is born on 21 February in Zvimba, a rural district northwest of Salisbury (now Harare), the capital of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He goes on to receive a Jesuit education while working as a cowherd, before training as a primary school teacher.

1960 - Mugabe enters politics as a publicity secretary. The beginning of his political career coincides with a speech by Britain’s then leader Harold Macmillan about the “winds of change” blowing through Africa, and the growth of African nationalism.

1963 - Following a crackdown on black nationalist campaigners, Mugabe flees to Tanzania and sets up the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) with Ndabaningi Sithole, an activist and early advocate of the armed struggle against colonial rule.

1964 - Mugabe is arrested for “subversive speech” and imprisoned for ten years.

1965 - Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith declares the country independent from British rule under a system of white minority rule.

1974 - Mugabe is released from jail and travels to Mozambique to lead the party's guerrilla movement. Zanu has now merged with the Patriotic Front party to form Zanu-PF.

1975 - Rhodesia's “vicious and prolonged” civil war between supporters and opponents of Smith’s government begins.

1979 - Peace talks in London bring the war to an end.

1980 - Zanu-PF wins a landslide victory in the British-supervised parliamentary elections, with Mugabe becoming PM and the “darling of black Africa’s anti-colonial struggle”. The newly independent country changes its name to Zimbabwe.

1987 - Mugabe changes the constitution to become president and acquires a wide range of new powers.

1990 - Zanu-PF and Mugabe win parliamentary and presidential elections.

1998 - An economic crisis marked by high interest rates and inflation triggers nationwide unrest.

2000 - Zimbabwe descends into chaos as thousands of black citizens backed by the Mugabe government seize white-owned farmland, claiming it is rightfully theirs.

2001 - The US puts a financial freeze on Mugabe’s government in response to land seizures, marking the start of a wave of Western sanctions. Mugabe’s relationship with the West, “especially the US and Britain”, never recovered, says Reuters.

2002 - Mugabe wins a controversial election fraught with allegations of fraud. Zimbabwe is later suspended from the British Commonwealth over accusations of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement.

2008 - Zimbabwe hits global headlines again after hyperinflation hits 500 billion per cent, leading millions of impoverished citizens to flee across the border into South Africa. The following year, Zimbabwe ditches its own currency, the Zimbabwean dollar, for the US dollar.

Mugabe later wins another hotly disputed presidential election.

2013 - Mugabe wins another controversial vote, with Western observers citing multiple accounts of electoral fraud.

2017 - With concerns mounting over Mugabe's failing health, a vicious power struggle emerges between his wife, First Lady Grace Mugabe, and his right-hand man, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa is exiled, before launching a devastating coup with the backing of the Zimbabwean military. Mugabe is ousted, and along with his wife, placed under house arrest. Mnangagwa later grants the couple immunity from prosecution in order to keep the country’s pro-Mugabe contingent happy.

2019 - Mugabe dies at the age of 95 while undergoing medical treatment in Singapore

What is his legacy?

During most of his nearly four decades in power, Mugabe was held in low regard by much of the Western world - seen as a corrupt dictator who brutally suppressed political dissent, committed multiple human rights abuses and presided over a devastatingly mismanaged economy.

The Guardian says that it is a mystery of how a giant of Africa’s liberation movement, an intellectual who preached racial reconciliation long before Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, could turn into a caricature of despotism”.

An obituary of Mugabe by the BBC concludes: “The man who had been hailed as the hero of Africa's struggle to throw off colonialism had turned into a tyrant, trampling over human rights and turning a once prosperous country into an economic basket case.”

But the picture in Zimbabwe - and, indeed, across the African continent - is rather different.

The New York Times says that in some circles in Zimbabwe and beyond, Mugabe was “considered an elder statesman thanks to his liberation pedigree, his longevity and his eloquence in articulating a broad resentment of Western powers’ past and present policies toward the continent”.

Zimbabwean opposition senator and human rights lawyer David Coltart this week tweeted: “He was a colossus on the Zimbabwean stage & his enduring positive legacy will be his role in ending white minority rule & expanding a quality education to all Zimbabweans.”

Meanwhile, the ruling African National Congress party in neighbouring South Africa described Mugabe as a “friend, statesman and revolutionary comrade” and “an ardent and vocal advocate of African unity and self-reliance”.


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