Final years in power were characterised by financial collapse, surges of violent intimidation and a vicious internal power struggle
Robert Mugabe, a hero of Africa’s independence struggle whose long rule in Zimbabwe descended into tyranny, corruption and incompetence, has died at the age of 95, president Emmerson Mnangagwa has said.
Mnangagwa said in a statement on Friday Mugabe was “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. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”
The passing of the former president, who ruled Zimbabwe for close to four decades before being ousted in a military takeover in November 2017, marks the definitive end of an era in the history of the former British colony.
Mugabe is believed to have died in Singapore, where he made frequent visits to receive medical care in recent months as his health deteriorated. As far back as November 2018, Mnangagwa, who took over from him as president, told members of the ruling Zanu-PF party that Mugabe could no longer walk.
Though once widely celebrated for his role in fighting the white supremacist regime in his homeland, Mugabe had long become a deeply divisive figure in his own country and across the continent.
His final years in power were characterised by financial collapse, surges of violent intimidation and a vicious internal power struggle pitting his wife Grace, 41 years younger, against Mnangagwa, his former righthand man.
Mnangagwa, a Zanu-PF stalwart, took power with military support when his rival appeared on the point of consolidating her position as the declining dictator’s preferred successor. Mugabe reluctantly resigned following vast demonstrations of support from civilians and implicit threats from the army. The news of his decision prompted widespread rejoicing.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, at a rally in Murombedzi, a town in the Mashonaland West province of Zimbabwe, in November 2018. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images
In the decades since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, power had concentrated in Mugabe’s hands. Before Mnangagwa took over, an entire generation of Zimbabweans have known no other leader.
Mugabe was granted the status of a respected father of the nation and a generous pension – a strategy that has infuriated his many opponents and upset many of the victims of his regime.
His frustration and sense of humiliation over his ousting were clear, however, and voiced with typical rhetorical force at an extraordinary press conference in the grounds of his residence in Harare, the capital, days before elections in July.
Mugabe, flanked by his wife, suggested he would vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, a party he had brutally suppressed before co-opting it in 2008 to form a supposed unity government that he still dominated.
Until the end he retained friends on the African continent but increasingly became an international pariah. Mugabe was stripped of an honorary knighthood by the British government in 2008.
Educated at Catholic missionary schools, Mugabe became a teacher in Ghana then returned to Rhodesia in 1960 to fight white minority rule. He was jailed for 10 years and fled to neighbouring Mozambique, where he became one of the leaders of the guerrilla forces fighting Ian Smith’s regime.
Then a leader of Rhodesian fighters, Robert Mugabe attends a meeting in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with George Silundika, deputy secretary of information in the African National Congress, and Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the Zapu party Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Eventually freedom was won and Mugabe promised to embrace the country’s white population. He led the country through a golden period of economic growth and educational development that was the envy of Africa.
The international community turned a blind eye, however, to human rights abuses, most notably the 1980s ethnic cleansing of at least 20,000 people in Matabeleland province that crushed opposition from his rival Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the rival Zapu.
Opposition rose again in 1999 as the economy floundered and trade unions organised around the Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe rigged elections and began a programme of land reform in which white farmers were forcibly evicted to make way for Zanu-PF party cronies or black Zimbabweans who lacked the skills and capital to farm.
This helped throw the economy into disarray, leaving Zimbabweans to rely on foreign food aid to avoid starvation. Hyperinflation ran riot and supermarket shelves were empty. The once-proud school and health systems began to crumble.
Mugabe election posters of are covered in opposition MDC slogans, in Harare, 2008. Photograph: EPA
The political environment also became increasingly hostile, with activists and journalists persecuted, jailed or murdered. More than 200 people died in political violence around the 2008 election, which Mugabe was widely seen as having stolen from the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.
The late John Makumbe, a politics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said: “He’ll be remembered as a villain. His legacy was destroyed by his staying, his violence, his imposing his own political allies and rivals.
“Robert Mugabe always had the seed of bad governance, cruelty, selfishness: ‘It’s only me who matters.’ He came in 1980 and donors flooded in; Mugabe looked angelic, he took on the colour of his surroundings. But by 2000 he had to rig elections and the rot had set in.
“The chameleon has its own colour: when it’s frightened, it takes on its original colour, and it’s ugly. He showed his true colours. His true colour is a killer. He killed his enemies.”
Robert and Grace Mugabe. The former president’s second wife remains a controversial figure in Zimbabwe. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, became known for her lavish lifestyle, and joined the Zanu-PF politburo by virtue of her leadership of the party’s influential Women’s League in 2014.
She became a political liability for the ageing autocrat, however, and her outspoken criticism of Mnangagwa was one of the triggers for the military takeover that ousted her husband.
Mugabe remained devoted to his wife, calling her “my Grace” in his last press conference and demanding better treatment for his spouse from Zimbabwe’s new rulers.