“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabwe,” said Mnangagwa in a Twitter post, referring to the veteran Zimbabwean politician by “comrade” – in tribute to Mugabe’s days in the nationalist resistance.
Mnangagwa described his predecessor as “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people,” adding, “His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”
Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe either as prime minister or president since 1980 when he was first elected into power on a wave of euphoria and hope after leading his liberation army to victory against the country’s white minority rulers.
At the time, he was heralded as a revolutionary hero throughout Africa in an era when Zimbabwe’s neighbour South Africa was still living under the divisive apartheid system.
But the optimism that marked those early years was soon forgotten as the revolutionary leader turned tyrant, killing opposition supporters in their hundreds and eventually leading his country to the brink of ruin.
Mugabe’s lasting legacy was epitomised by British author Andrew Norman in his book, Robert Mugabe and the Betrayal of Zimbabwe.
“Instead of leading his people to the promised land, Mugabe on the one hand amassed a fortune for himself, his family and his followers and on the other hand presided over the deliberate murder, torture and starvation of those who opposed him. In short Mugabe betrayed his people,” Norman wrote.
From teacher to revolutionary leader
Mugabe was born in 1924 and raised by his devout Catholic mother Bona after his father abandoned his family.
His father gone, Mugabe showed his willingness to take responsibility when he took financial control over his five siblings as well as three other children his father had had with a different woman.
He studied at Jesuit schools where he was a keen student who became known for being a solitary figure. “His only friends were his books,” his brother Donato was once quoted as saying.
He qualified as a teacher and spent time working in schools in Ghana and Zambia before returning to the country of his birth in 1960 when he joined the National Democratic Party (NDP).
He married his first wife Ghanaian Sally Hayfron in 1961. Her death in 1992 from cancer was a big blow to Mugabe and some say deprived him of a moderating influence. His second wife Grace, is 40 years his junior.
In 1963, Mugabe left the NDP to join rival Marxist party ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), which later became ZANU–PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front). After violence erupted between the NDP and ZANU, Mugabe was imprisoned. Behind bars he continued to study, gaining two further degrees and his reputation continued to grow.
In 1975, a year after his release from prison, Mugabe took control of the ZANU party and continued waging a guerilla war from bases in Mozambique – against the white majority government, headed by Prime Minister Ian Smith.
A ceasefire agreement was reached in 1979 and elections were held a year later with Mugabe triumphantly voted in as prime minister. A new independent state was declared with the country’s name changing from Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.
From that moment on Mugabe held a grip on power for the next 37 years and time and again proved he was willing to go to any length to maintain his control. Between 1982 and 1985, thousands of dissidents were killed as Mugabe ruthlessly crushed the armed resistance against his leadership. His troops were accused of committing horrendous atrocities.
“Violence breeds violence”, Andrew Meldrum, a former Observer newspaper correspondent in Zimbabwe, told FRANCE 24. “Mugabe had to use violence against the white regime of Rhodesia and from the very beginning he showed he was willing to use it to maintain his position in power. Violence corrupts, just like power does.”
Zimbabwe in ruin
After seizing political power, Mugabe soon focused his attention on taking control of the country’s economy from the white minority.
In 2000, after an electoral defeat in a referendum, he implemented a controversial land reform program targeting large commercial white owned farms, which accounted for around 80 percent of the land in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe had promised to redistribute the land among poor blacks but instead farms were handed over to his cronies who simply helped to cement his stranglehold on power.
As the farms were seized – many of them violently and illegally, the country’s agricultural based economy collapsed. The scheme was, according to Meldrum, Mugabe’s greatest blunder.
“He marred his own legacy. For 20 years, he established something that was a model and then took it apart in order to maintain his position and that of his party,” said Meldrum, who now writes for the US-based Global Post website.
As the crisis deepened, Zimbabwe recorded the world’s highest level of inflation in 2007 at one point hitting 11 million percent. The country was hit by nationwide food shortages and unemployment rose to 80 percent.
In 2009, a report released by the charity Save the Children found that 10 million out of the country’s population of 13 million were living in poverty and according to the UN, 1.5 million Zimbabweans were in need of food aid in 2011.
One of the few achievements Mugabe did manage during his reign was in education. In 2011, Zimbabwe had the highest literacy rate in Africa with 90 percent of the population able to read.
But for Mugabe, who was awarded an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, the blame for the country’s disastrous state lay elsewhere.
Speaking at a UN summit in New York in 2010, Mugabe slammed the “illegal and debilitating” sanctions imposed on the country by the US and the European Union.
“As a result of these punitive measures the government of Zimbabwe has been prevented from making a positive difference to the lives of the poor, the hungry, the sick and the destitute,” Mugabe said.
Zimbabwe’s climate and environment were also at fault for the crisis, he said and when a cholera epidemic broke out Mugabe pointed the finger at the country’s “former colonial masters” for bringing the disease to the country.
The embattled leader proved to be a wily and an astute operator. Time and again he would “run rings round other political figures” Meldrum said.
In most other countries such a catastrophe would have forced the leader out of power but Mugabe clung on. Each time an election came around, he spread fear among opposition groups through intimidation, torture and murder.
The fiercely disputed elections of 2008 against Morgan Tsvangirai provided proof to many in Zimbabwe and beyond that Mugabe would never relinquish power.
Shortly after voting in the first ballot Mugabe said “If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, its time to leave politics.”
But days later as he headed into a run-off vote against Tsvangirai, Mugabe had a change of heart and swore that “only God” could remove him from office. Tsvangirai eventually withdrew citing intimidation and violence.
But even Tsvangirai, who was eventually appointed as Prime Minister to appease the opposition, admitted judging Mugabe was not a simple task.
Speaking in 2010 he said: “You must understand this man has got a split personality – from being a hero to being the villain the international community would like to define him as.”
“I cannot defend what he did over the last ten years in terms of violence but there is also a positive contribution to our country that he made. He was a national liberation leader.”
But others have been less sympathetic. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was reported as saying Mugabe became the typical African dictator and something of a « cartoon figure ».
Mugabe’s political end also followed the script of an African despot, when he was ousted from power in November 2017.
On November 6, 2017, Mugabe made a choice that would seal his political downfall when he sacked his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The former vice-president, who had also served as Zimbabwe’s defence minister, seized on the momentum built on Harare’s streets, where protests against the economic situation had broken out.
The army ousted a by now ailing Mugabe, with Mnangagwa taking over as the country’s president.
Mugabe was put under house arrest, but the wily resistance hero refused to go without a fight. In a March 2018 televised interview, Mugabe insisted he was still Zimbabwe’s president and that the previous year’s “coup d’etat” was “illegal”.
But by then, it was already too late for the ageing Zimbabwean politician. The untouchable aura he projected had been pierced and his long-suffering people had moved on.
For many people with ties to Zimbabwe, memories of Mugabe battling for the freedom of his nation and the right for blacks to vote have been long forgotten after years of repression.
“His legacy is horrific”, Rose Benton who runs the opposition group Zimbabwe Vigil in London told FRANCE 24. “The violence and human rights abuses have been horrendous.”