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From widely acclaimed emancipator of his nation to loathed leader, Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule of Zimbabwe has been one of Africa’s most controversial and influential. He leaves the country in a state of economic ruin and upheavel.
Thirty-seven years ago, Robert Mugabe was feted as a titan, a widely acclaimed liberator who had won Africa’s last great war against colonialism. On Tuesday, in the twilight of his life, he resigned, loathed by millions of his citizens for a rule tarnished by despotism, cronyism, corruption and economic ruin. Deserted by the forces that propped up his power for decades, Mugabe had faced the humiliation of impeachment proceedings launched by the ZANU-PF – the party he had forged into a tool of unquestioning loyalty.
In a bombshell letter read to Parliament by the speaker Jacob Mudenda, the 93-year-old said: “I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, in terms of section 96 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe hereby formally tender my resignation... with immediate effect.”
Wily and ruthless, the 93-year-old Mugabe outmanoeuvred his opponents for decades but was undone by his own miscalculation in his final weeks in power. He blundered when he sidelined his right-hand man in order to position his wife, Grace, as his successor. He didn’t anticipate that the fired vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would swiftly and skillfully depose him.
For years Mugabe inspired other leaders across the continent to emulate his tactics and extend their rule by manipulating constitutions and suppressing opposition through violence and intimidation. Now, he has fallen. While his rule may have been influential in Africa, but the quick way he fell now may be a warning to all who would follow his ways.
BORN IN RHODESIA
Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, into a Catholic family at the Kutama Mission, northwest of Harare – a city then called Salisbury, capital of the white-ruled British colony of Rhodesia. As a child, Mugabe was a loner and studious, carrying a book to read even while tending cattle in the bush. His father, a carpenter, walked out on the family when he was 10, prompting the youngster to focus on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17. In these formative years, Mugabe was an intellectual who initially embraced Marxism. He enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.
After teaching in Ghana, where he was influenced by the country’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia – where he was detained in 1964 for his nationalist activities. He spent the next decade in prison camps or jail as the colony declared its independence from Britain. During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the harsh years in prison also left a mark and honed his ruthlessness and guile.
His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.
Released in 1974, Mugabe took over as head of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which joined forces with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
The conflict for independence that erupted in 1964, coupled with international sanctions, forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table. The country finally won independence as Zimbabwe in 1980. In elections that year, Mugabe swept to power as prime minister, initially winning international plaudits for his policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.
But the glory faded as Mugabe cracked down on dissent.
Nkomo, his former comrade-in-arms, was a first casualty. In 1982 he was dismissed from the government, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland stronghold. Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo’s Ndebele people in a campaign that left an estimated 20,000 people dead. Human rights groups and the Catholic Church documented and condemned the killings, which remain the darkest stain on Mugabe’s record.
Mugabe’s transformation into international pariah was made complete by his seizure of white-owned farms. Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and turned the bread basket of southern Africa into an economic basket case of barren fields and hungry people.
It was his signature action. Mugabe cloaked the land grabs in ringing rhetoric, shaking his fist and shouting that Africa’s land should be held by Africans. It didn’t matter that the farms, which had been pledged to poor blacks, instead went to his generals, Cabinet ministers, cronies and his wife — or that many of the fields lay fallow years later. Even now Mugabe is widely revered by many Africans as the continent’s most radical decoloniser.
His mismanagement of Zimbabwe’s economy was staggering. The country today has been transformed from one that could offer good employment opportunities to its welleducated population to a place of so little hope that people left in droves. An estimated three million Zimbabweans are in neighbouring South Africa, and it is routine to find a former schoolteacher working as a waitress at a Johannesburg restaurant.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans are in Britain. And the 13 million who stayed behind in Zimbabwe have coped with an unemployment rate estimated at higher than 80 percent. By 2008 Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation reached 500 billion percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Fistfuls of 100-trillion Zimbabwe dollar banknotes were not enough to buy basic groceries. The inflation was brought under control only when Zimbabwe dropped its currency and started operating on the US dollar in 2009.
Zimbabwe’s industrial sector is estimated to be operating at less than 30 percent of capacity. Tourism has dried up to a trickle. With significant deposits of diamonds, platinum, gold and chrome, Zimbabwe’s mining sector has continued to function, but Mugabe’s frequent threats of nationalisation discouraged most foreign investment. The Marange diamond fields, discovered in 2009, proved an unexpected windfall.
The high-quality gemstones in easily exploited alluvial fields brought in billions of dollars. Mugabe used the Army to take over the area and the mines were nationalised, cutting out British and Chinese companies. But very little of the funds from the diamonds went into state coffers to help the country’s dilapidated education and health services. Mugabe, his family and his closest allies amassed world-class fortunes.
Even in the last months of Mugabe’s rule the family’s lavish ways became outlandish, even to Zimbabwe’s jaded public. Grace Mugabe pressed a lawsuit against a Lebanese diamond dealer in which she charged she had paid him for a 100-carat diamond but he only gave her a gem of 30 carats. One of the couple’s sons posted images on social media of himself pouring champagne over his diamond-encrusted watch.
Once the land of liberation from white minority rule, Zimbabwe was recently one of fear as a result of Mugabe’s farreaching domestic spy network, the Central Intelligence Organisation. Hundreds of opposition supporters were killed or disappeared during election campaigns.
Many more were tortured, such as Jestina Mukoko, who after her release from prison bravely advocated for the rights of those detained.
It is hard to remember that Mugabe once enjoyed international praise for bringing Zimbabwe to independence. When he won the 1980 elections, he was relatively unknown. The country, and the world at large, was impressed by his impeccable, carefully enunciated Oxford English. He endorsed racial reconciliation to wide acclaim. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Unbending in his policies and unyielding to his enemies, Mugabe seemed immutable to everything except time. For decades, the subject of who would succeed Mugabe was virtually taboo. As he reached his 90s, he became visibly frail, but still he remained.
But as the end of Mugabe’s rule appeared on the horizon, a vicious struggle to take over after his death erupted. In the spotlight was Grace, his former secretary 41 years his junior.
She fought for the spoils with Mnangagwa, precipitating the Army takeover. Mugabe would stage a lastditch attempt to cling to office. But the pressure mounted relentlessly, forcing Mugabe towards impeachment. Amid growing outrage, as thousands people thronged the streets of Harare in anger, he finally relented.
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