Robert Mugabe: Who was he?

He once said, “Only God will remove me.” In a sense, he was right. Over his long life, Robert Mugabe underwent several metamorphoses: not only as a national hero, as some claim, or as a symbol of an Africa where certain men (especially at the top) counted a great deal. However, for many Mr Mugabe had turned into a despot. He died at 95, on September 6 2019, leaving behind a country that both loved and hated him very much, which in 2017 had forced him to cede his power under strong military pressure. It was his successor and current president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with whom he had a fractious relationship, to announce his death on Twitter.

In fact, the current president went from being one of Mr Mugabe’s most loyal followers to one of his main suspects of betrayal: Mr Mnangagwa was first his right hand man and then became the enemy. However, Mr Mugabe’s idea of ​​passing on all his powers to his wife Grace, publicly accusing the then vice president of betrayal, was what led to his (political) end.
He was prime minister of Zimbabwe from April 18 1980 to December 31 1987, the day he became president (a post he held until 2017). As time passed, he was accused of having established a dictatorial regime in his country: a BBC journalist, in an article, called him “the last political king of Zimbabwe.” On November 21 2017, after holding almost absolute power, he resigned as president, having been placed in army custody a few days before.

Mr Mugabe was born, and spent much of his childhood, in the Jesuit mission of Kutama, in the district of Zyimba, northwest of Salisbury, in what was once called Southern Rhodesia. He was the third of six children, and his father, an ethnic Shona carpenter, left when he was ten years old. He was brought up by his mother, who entrusted him to the Jesuit Catholic priests for his education. At the age of 17 he secured a teaching diploma, which led to him being employed by various schools. A scholarship in 1949 allowed him to attend the South African University of Fort Hare, where he graduated in political science. There he came into contact with the Marxist ideas of the South African communists, even though the actions of Mahatma Gandhi were more influential to him at the time. He continued his studies in several African cities and obtained, by correspondence, another degree from the University of London.

In 1960, for a short period, he returned to the colony of Southern Rhodesia, where in the meantime an anti-colonialist African nationalist movement had spread. Influenced by Sally Hayfron, whom he had met during his teaching years in Ghana and who became his first wife, he practised the Marxist theories he had studied during his university years. His political debut? He took the stage in a public protest demonstration in 1961. He left teaching after this experience, determined to dedicate himself entirely to activism, and joined the National Democratic Party (NPD), which was later renamed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu).

Mr Mugabe believed armed struggle necessary to overthrow British colonial rule and for this reason he abandoned the NPD in 1963. The founder of the movement, Joshua Nkomo, was a fervent supporter of the diplomatic route through international negotiation with the British, and so Mr Mugabe, together with others who had left the NPD, became part of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), a rival faction to the Zapu. At that time, one of Zanu’s founders chose to appoint Mr Mugabe as the party’s general secretary. From there it all began.

In 1964, Mr Mugabe was arrested with other party members and sentenced to ten years in prison. In prison he continued studying and during his internment took two other degrees (by correspondence) in law and economics. He also continued to read the Marxist texts on which he had based his ideology. In 1966, the regime in Rhodesia refused to allow him to attend the funeral of his son Michael, whom he had with his wife Sally. The child had died of malaria in Ghana at the age of three.

After his release he left the country and arrived in Mozambique. There, in 1974, he met the leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front, the local independence campaigner Samora Machel, and assumed the leadership of Zanu’s paramilitary wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). ZANLA was committed to fighting the minority white government led by Ian Smith, an executive clearly in favour of segregation. The following year, in 1975, several of the party leaders died and Mr Mugabe unilaterally took control. After a clash with Zanu leader Ndabaningi Sithole, Mr Mugabe formed a militant wing, leaving Sithole the leader of the more moderate movement. In 1976, Zanu and Zapu decided to unite and formed the Patriotic Front.

The armed struggle continued, becoming fiercer. 1979 was the year of peace negotiations between the white leaders of Southern Rhodesia and Mr Mugabe’s Patriotic Front. The British colonial power managed the transition towards the country’s independence, and the British substituted the Rhodesian regime with a colonial government led by the British governor, Lord Soames. The former colony, following a brief period as Zimbabwe Rhodesia, was still named Southern Rhodesia.

Shortly afterwards, parliamentary elections were held for the Republic of Zimbabwe and, despite expectation that the favourite would be Joshua Nkomo, on March 4 1980 Mr Mugabe won and became prime minister. He was the first black African to hold that office. Having reached effective independence, the country took the final name of Zimbabwe.

The coalition government formed with Mr Nkomo was dissolved in 1982, due to talk of a coup attempt being prepared by Zapu, and Mr Nkomo was forced to leave the government. The Fifth Brigade, an elite armed force trained by North Koreans, was used by Mr Mugabe in the Matabeleland region to suppress an insurrection of former guerrillas loyal to Mr Nkomo. It was estimated that between 1983 and 1987, during a massacre known as Gukurahundi, about 20 thousand civilians were killed, all belonging to the Ndebele minority ethnic group. Mr Mugabe succeeded in exploiting the break-up of the coalition to strengthen his power and, after his re-election in 1985, made an agreement with Mr Nkomo which eliminated the Zanu-Zapu rivalry and brought Mr Nkomo back to the government as vice president. In 1987, at the request of Mr Mugabe, Zapu and Zanu merged into one new party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

In 1987, after his seven year term, the role of prime minister was abolished and Mr Mugabe became the president of Zimbabwe. He was then re-elected in 1990 and 1996. At the beginning of his term, Mr Mugabe announced his desire to improve the quality of life of the black population, and from 1991 he began economic reforms and introduced the market economy. Four years after the death of his wife from kidney disease, in 1992 Mr Mugabe married his secretary, Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, with whom he had three further children. Over the years, his wife Grace assumed an increasingly important political role, acquiring greater influence in the political life of the country.

In 1974 it was estimated that the white residents of Rhodesia were about 300 thousand (eight per cent of the total population) but that they owned the vast majority of land and held key roles in African society. However, after 1980, with the advent of a “black” government, whites began to emigrate, particularly to South Africa, still under apartheid, to the United States, and to Great Britain. In 1997 there were assaults on the land ownership of the remaining white minority by armed gangs, who occupied farms and factories and forced the owners to abandon them. These gangs were under the control of Chenjerai Hunzyi, a veteran of the Rhodesian civil war and president of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association. In 2000, agrarian reform was launched, which effectively implemented the violent expropriation of most of the holdings of white farmers, who still owned 70 per cent of the country’s arable land.

By the end of the 1980s, Mr Mugabe had already thought of making Zimbabwe a one-party socialist state, but the change in the political environment, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent liberation of Nelson Mandela damaged his reputation within the African political scene. He had decided to give asylum to the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariàm and intervened in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His government reformed the education system and aimed to make Zimbabwe the African country with the lowest illiteracy rate. However, from the end of the 1990s, corruption and inefficiency within the education system also increased.

In 2000, Mr Mugabe demanded absolute power through a popular referendum. It was rejected by 54.7 per cent of voters. In the elections of the same year, the opposition party of Morgan Tsvangirai took 57 of the 120 seats in parliament. In 2007, Mr Mugabe had the Constitution amended, abolishing the limit of four presidential mandates. He thus succeeded in participating in the presidential elections of March 29 2008, where he obtained 43.2 per cent of the votes in the first round and 85.5 per cent of votes in the run-off (which Mr Tsvangirai had boycotted in protest, claiming fraud occurred in the first round). In 2013, Mr Mugabe nominated himself as candidate once more: he won again, this time in the first round. However, the United States and the European Union reported irregularities.

In 2005, Amnesty International, after openly opposing his policies, accused Mr Mugabe of deliberately plotting human rights violations. The organisation denounced “Operation Murambatsvina” (meaning “sweep away the rubbish” in Shona), a plan implemented in the slums around big cities. According to data reported by Amnesty, between May 18 and July 5, 92,460 homes were destroyed and 700 thousand people were left homeless. Following the evictions, most of these people were forced to flee to suburbs or rural areas, and 222 thousand children aged between five and eighteen had to interrupt their schooling. In 2013, Amnesty International confirmed that the state of human rights was considered “poor” in Zimbabwe.

His “annus horribilis” was 2017. On February 21 he confirmed that he again wanted to be a candidate in the presidential elections. On November 15 he was taken into custody after joint action between the army and his former number two, Mr Mnangagawa, without however being officially dismissed. It was, though, not a complete absence from public life, because, despite his unofficial arrest by the military, Mugabe managed to appear publicly at a ceremony at Harare University on November 17 2017. Two days later, on the 19th, he was officially ousted as Zanu-PF leader and was replaced by Mr Mnangagawa, but he still refused to resign as president.

Mr Mugabe resigned on November 21 2017, after negotiating an agreement with the military, under which he and his wife were granted immunity, in addition to a promise not to touch the family’s assets (which allowed them to remain in Zimbabwe with a pay-out of not less than ten million dollars) and a series of lifetime privileges.

Following his death, Mr Mnangagwa described him thus:

He was an icon of liberation, a Pan-Africanist who had dedicated his life to the emancipation of his people: his contribution to the history of our nation and our continent will never be forgotten