Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean leader who helped liberate and destroy his country, dies at 95
washingtonpostRobert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president who rose to power as a champion of anti-colonial struggle but during 37 years of authoritarian rule presided over the impoverishment and degradation of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising countries, has died in Singapore. He was 95.
Zimbabwe’s current leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced the death on Twitter, but did not disclose the cause. Mr. Mugabe, who had displayed physical decline over recent years, had been receiving hospital treatment in Singapore since April, Mnangagwa said last month.
Mnangagwa, who formerly served as Mr. Mugabe’s vice president, is a wily and resilient veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence war who once led the feared internal security service. Nicknamed “The Crocodile” for his quick-to-strike survival skills, Mnangagwa replaced the ailing Mr. Mugabe in the 2017 coup, then was narrowly elected president last year.
Mr. Mugabe’s fall marked the end of one of the last surviving “Big Men” of the continent, the onetime revolutionary leaders who inherited the security apparatus of their former colonial rulers and used an iron fist to enrich themselves and repress their citizens.
Mr. Mugabe emerged from the bush in 1980 and took power in what was once white-minority-ruled Southern Rhodesia after a protracted civil war. He pledged pragmatism and reconciliation. But after a promising start, the country once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa descended into a nightmare of widespread unemployment, hyperinflation, hunger and disease.
Mr. Mugabe and his cronies unleashed gangs of armed thugs to beat up, torture and kill their political foes, while suffocating Zimbabwe’s fledgling democratic institutions. The regime used food aid as a way to reward supporters and starve opponents. Epidemics of AIDS and cholera ravaged rural areas, and the country’s once-thriving commercial farms were gutted.
Cities swelled with hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the countryside. In 2005, Mr. Mugabe pitilessly carried out Operation Drive Out Trash, an urban beautification effort that made hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers homeless.
Cars waited in line for days outside filling stations, rationing left most people with electricity only every other day, and residents went shopping with suitcases filled with almost worthless currency, its value falling by the hour.
Mr. Mugabe blamed those ills and more on a long list of enemies, foreign and domestic, while portraying himself as a beleaguered African hero. He conjured a paranoid vision of a major conspiracy, led by white farmers and businessmen and their black political puppets and funded by evil governments in London and Washington.
But Mr. Mugabe’s downfall came not at the hands of foreign enemies but from his once-loyal generals. They rebelled against his attempt to install his mercurial wife, Grace Mugabe, as his successor, and placed him under house arrest. Thousands marched in the streets to support Mr. Mugabe’s ouster, while his former allies in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) expelled him from his role as party chairman, an ignominious collapse for the only elected leader Zimbabwe had ever known.
As he steered his country over a cliff, many observers puzzled over how a leader once considered principled, intelligent and incorruptible could have descended so far and so quickly. But the seeds of Mr. Mugabe’s ruinous reign were there almost from the start.
A rebel rises to power
The son of a carpenter, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on Feb. 21, 1924, in the village of Kutama in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
He was educated in Jesuit missionary schools and in 1951 graduated from South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela’s alma mater and the incubator for a generation of activists who led the struggle against white-minority regimes throughout southern Africa. (Mr. Mugabe later earned several other degrees, some while in prison.)
He returned to Rhodesia in 1960 and joined the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the dominant black liberation movement led by Joshua Nkomo. But stifled by Nkomo’s autocratic leadership, Mr. Mugabe and a group of insurgents walked out three years later to form the rival ZANU-PF.
Rhodesia’s white-minority government under Prime Minister Ian Smith defied the winds of change that swept across Africa in the early 1960s and unilaterally declared its independence from Britain in 1965, locking up thousands of political opponents. Mr. Mugabe spent more than 10 years in prison without trial. While he was incarcerated, his young son died in 1966 of a form of malaria, and he was denied permission to attend the funeral.
In 1972, the conflict between Smith’s government and the black opposition erupted into a full-scale civil war in which more than 30,000 people died. When Mr. Mugabe was released in 1974 in one of several abortive peace efforts, he joined his comrades in the bush. A self-declared Marxist, Mr. Mugabe was considered a shy, somewhat bookish intellectual, in marked contrast with his hardened comrades.
Like many liberation movements, Mr. Mugabe’s was a hothouse of suspicion and betrayal. Many members died under mysterious circumstances, sometimes at the hands of white assassins, other times by the long knives of their comrades. As leader, Mr. Mugabe rode the back of a tiger; had he ever fallen off, he, too, in all likelihood would have been devoured.
He developed a sharp contempt for the British government, which was unable to bring Smith’s regime to heel; for the Soviet Union, which backed his rival, Nkomo, during the liberation struggle; and for the West in general, whose sanctions campaign against Rhodesia was halfhearted and ineffective.
Smith’s putative allies in South Africa, fearing that the conflict was destabilizing the region, finally forced his government into peace talks. Mr. Mugabe emerged from exile and won a decisive majority in the country’s first free election in 1980, the year the country became known as Zimbabwe.
He came to power — as prime minister and, starting in 1987, as president — initially pledging to bury old animosities.
“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you,” he solemnly told his countrymen on April 18, 1980. Still, even in those early days, he warned that “the open hand of reconciliation, if rejected, could turn into a clenched fist.”
Devolution of a nation
Paranoia was one legacy of the war. Mr. Mugabe, as elected leader, characterized political opponents as “enemies,” freely used detention without trial and other emergency powers that he inherited from the white regime, and intimidated opponents in his drive for a one-party state.
Each year, he sent several thousand soldiers — spearheaded by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade — into southwestern Matabeleland, Nkomo’s ethnic and political stronghold, ostensibly to root out armed dissidents. The main victims of these campaigns, which killed several thousand people, were minority Ndebeles.
Nkomo eventually submitted, folding his party into Mr. Mugabe’s ruling organization in return for an end to the brutal attacks against his followers.
Mr. Mugabe struggled at times to placate various blocs within his power base, the country’s Shona-speaking majority. Divisions within these blocs were geographic and tribal as well as ideological. Mr. Mugabe worked to hold together a consensus in part through dispensing jobs and patronage to his allies and targeting common enemies, real and imagined.
He singled out Zimbabwe’s small gay community, among other groups, denouncing homosexuals as “lower than dogs and pigs” and ordering the expulsion of a gay organization from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995. He claimed that homosexuality had been unknown in Africa before European colonization and blamed it for the AIDS crisis when, in fact, heterosexual activity was the main cause of AIDS in Africa.
After his first wife, the former Sally Hayfron, died in 1992, Mr. Mugabe married his secretary and longtime mistress, Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior. She set a new standard for conspicuous consumption, acquiring the derogatory nickname “Gucci Grace” and shattering his reputation for personal honesty. More than one flight of the state-owned Air Zimbabwe was canceled at the last minute so that she and her entourage could fly to Europe for a shopping spree.
Mr. Mugabe had three children with Marufu. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Although much of black-ruled Africa suffered bankruptcy and famine, Zimbabwe retained a modest measure of prosperity. Zimbabwe’s farmers not only fed the country’s own rapidly expanding population — now more than 16 million — but exported corn and other food to its hungry neighbors. Mr. Mugabe’s government instituted health and education programs that lowered the infant mortality rate and increased the number of high school and university graduates.
Zimbabwe’s uneasy stability began to crumble in the late 1990s as inflation, unemployment and the AIDS epidemic ate away at the country’s social and economic gains. Faced with rising discontent, Mr. Mugabe targeted one of the country’s most visible minority groups: the 4,500 white commercial farmers.
Mr. Mugabe dispatched thousands of unemployed war veterans and street thugs to harass the owners and seize their property. The government instituted a “land reform” policy that turned over the most successful farms to the political elite.
Productivity plummeted — production of corn, Zimbabwe’s main staple, fell by two-thirds — and the country swung from being a net food exporter to a basket case within a few years. Nearly 1 million black farmworkers and their families lost their jobs and homes, according to a 2008 study by Zimbabwean economists for the U.N. Development Program.
Mr. Mugabe’s unbroken string of electoral success ended in February 2000 when voters rejected a draft constitution that would have legitimized his vastly increased power. Four months later, a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, won 57 of the 120 elected seats in parliament, capturing urban centers throughout the country and falling just short of a majority.
The government responded with a wave of repression, rounding up opposition leaders and attacking urban demonstrators, while in the countryside armed gangs destroyed the homes and food supplies of opponents.
Mr. Mugabe branded his foes as traitors and saboteurs, shut down independent media outlets and undermined the country’s independent judiciary. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten, arrested and charged with plotting to kill Mr. Mugabe — only later to be acquitted.
Zimbabwe’s economic and political misery deepened. Basic public services, such as water and sanitation, public schools and hospitals, collapsed, and by 2008 the rate of inflation exceeded 10 million percent. Even many of Mr. Mugabe’s former allies called on him to step down. He was outpolled by Tsvangirai in the 2008 presidential election but refused to cede power.
Mr. Mugabe won a sixth term as president after Tsvangirai dropped out of the runoff contest because of threats against his life. But conditions continued to deteriorate so rapidly that Mr. Mugabe was finally forced to accept a power-sharing arrangement with his rival. The aging president retained full control of the security forces and other instruments of state repression.
As his megalomania and isolation grew, Mr. Mugabe’s rhetoric became more extravagant and bizarre. He accused “gay gangsters” in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government of fomenting political violence. He compared Blair and President George W. Bush to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and accused them of waging “a relentless campaign of destabilizing and vilifying my country.”
The economy plummeted so far that Mr. Mugabe was forced to accept some reforms. Inflation stabilized, average annual growth rates rebounded and the European Union lifted its 12-year-old sanctions while maintaining a travel ban on Robert and Grace Mugabe. Tsvangiriai’s opposition party splintered, paving the way for Mr. Mugabe’s landslide electoral victory in 2013 and an end of power sharing.
Zimbabwe’s international isolation continued. In 2014, President Barack Obama excluded him and Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir — the latter pursued by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges — from a 2014 summit in Washington of 50 African leaders. Nonetheless, many Africans applauded Mr. Mugabe’s defiance and viewed him as a champion in the struggle against neocolonialism, and the next year, Mr. Mugabe began his one-year ceremonial role as chairman of the African Union, a body representing many of the continent’s governments.
Back in sole control, Mr. Mugabe sought to clear out potential rivals to Grace Mugabe succeeding him as leader of Zimbabwe. He ousted two successive vice presidents, including Mnangagwa in early November 2017, while naming his wife as head of ZANU-PF’s influential women’s league.
Grace Mugabe’s unstable behavior had increasingly alienated her from party elders. In the summer of 2017, a 20-year-old South African model accused her of beating her with an electrical cord. Grace Mugabe escaped prosecution in South Africa by invoking diplomatic immunity.
For the generals and the security establishment, Mnangagwa’s ouster — a government spokesman accused him of “disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability” — appeared to be the last straw. A week later, the army made its move, confining Mugabe to his home in the northern Harare suburbs.
Even while seeking to orchestrate the struggle for succession, Mr. Mugabe had been in steep physical decline for several years. Cameras caught him stumbling down the steps of a dais in February 2015, while later that year he read to parliament the State of the Nation address he had given to the same chamber a few weeks earlier.
But he clung tenaciously to power even after his ouster from leadership. On the same day the ruling committee of ZANU-PF voted for his dismissal, he gave a rambling and disjointed television address to the nation in which he conceded that changes were needed but initially refused to announce his resignation, prolonging the leadership crisis. He announced his resignation after lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against him.
Proud, obstinate and self-righteous to the end, Mr. Mugabe never accepted responsibility for the damage he caused his country. For all his intelligence and cunning, critics said, he never made the jump from running a liberation movement to governing a nation. Instead, he turned one of Africa’s most promising national experiments into one of its most embarrassing failures.
Frankel was The Washington Post’s southern Africa bureau chief, based in Harare.