Robert Mugabe obituary: Zimbabwe liberator turned ruthless despot

President once hailed as beacon of African liberation whose rule bankrupted country

Robert Mugabe
Born: February 21st, 1924
Died: September 6th, 2019

As the armoured vehicles rolled in to Harare in November 2017, after weeks of political fencing and brinkmanship, Robert Mugabe could not believe he had lost. The senior military leadership who placed the Zimbabwean president under house arrest made it clear they were conducting the politest of coups, while stressing to the outside world that it was not a coup at all. It was merely a corrective action and, indeed, at its end, with Mugabe's resignation, it was still his party, Zanu-PF, in power.

Mugabe, who has died aged 95, came to power as a result of the gun – wielded by others, as he himself never fought in the field – and fell by those who wielded the gun. And, as he fell, the true depths of the economic mire into which he had plunged Zimbabwe – spending so much time on party and succession battles, and seemingly none on issues of deep impoverishment and national non-productivity – became apparent. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new president, in stressing an economic emphasis and outreach to the world, seemed to admit that the country was bankrupt and that Mugabe had made it so.

Mugabe’s fall from power lifted the political paralysis that had gripped Zimbabwe, which he led as prime minister from 1980, and president from 1987. His authoritarian nature, his ruthless manoeuvres, his stature as the leader of liberation and his scathing disdain of rivals could be a dead hand on friend and foe alike.


However, Mugabe was a highly complex man. He saw himself as last in a line of African liberators and was determined to carry that legacy with him until his death, but he remained an enigma to the non-African world. Even in the 1980s, when he was the darling of the west, diplomats in Harare would characterise him as secluded, deeply private, and monastic in his self-discipline. Though he was also often elegant and eloquent, these characteristics did not disguise his capacity for ruthlessness.

Nor did his immense self-regard as an intellectual. The collector of several master’s degrees, he looked down on his principal democratic challenger, the less well educated Morgan Tsvangirai, and on all those not schooled in the texts of pan-Africanism and African liberation. His problematic affinity with the South African president Thabo Mbeki after the 2008 elections stemmed from Mbeki’s own liberation credentials, but also from Mbeki’s essays on the black struggle as defining both a new Africa and a postcolonial era. Those essays, however, and the Pan-Africanism they espoused, were centred on a doctrine of inclusivity. As a result, Mbeki discouraged Mugabe’s efforts to marginalise completely an opposition leader who had demonstrated significant popular support.

For all his stature and his hugely controversial legacy, Mugabe’s start in nationalist politics was courageous and principled, but not auspicious. He was never a fighter, carrying a rifle in the campaigns against white rule. And nor, despite his commitment to nationalisation of the land, was he ever a peasant, a farmer, or someone who had gripped a hoe until calluses formed.

It was in prison that he began his rise in the nationalist ranks. His militant opposition to white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia led to a 10-year jail term in 1964, after the banning of the newly formed Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Mugabe refused to break under pressure – whereas the Zanu founder and leader, Ndabaningi Sithole, did, renouncing subversion and terrorism after he was sentenced in 1969 for incitement.

By 1974 Mugabe had taken over as leader of the imprisoned movement, but this did not mean he was recognised as a leader outside. Much of his time in prison was spent reading for external degrees from universities in London and South Africa. He was helped by academics at the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies. As with the African National Congress (ANC) detainees on Robben Island, a university of the cells was established by the detainees and Mugabe, who had been a teacher in Ghana in the early 1960s, was one of the lecturers.

By the time of his release, he had well-developed views and was vehemently opposed to any accommodation or compromise agreement between the frontline states of southern Africa – committed to ending apartheid and white minority rule – and Rhodesia. Zambia’s president, Kenneth Kaunda, considered Mugabe such a risk to his ambitions for a peaceful region that he had him arrested in 1974. The man who had tasted white imprisonment now found himself detained by a black president. It is perhaps no coincidence then that after Zimbabwe’s independence was achieved and the presidents of the frontline states were honoured with Harare streets named after them, Kaunda’s street was a polluted road beside the railway station.

Kaunda had considered Mugabe an unreasonable and disruptive force and was glad to be rid of him. Arresting him had been an embarrassment, and his “escape” was probably engineered by the Zambians themselves. Mugabe resumed his nationalist activities in Mozambique.

Once across the border, Mugabe found that his prison credentials were not enough to persuade the Zimbabwean nationalist forces – who had massed in Mozambique and had begun a military onslaught against Rhodesia – to accept him as leader.

In Mozambique, President Samora Machel arrested him, ostensibly for Mugabe’s own safety in the face of antipathy from the guerrilla leaders already there, but Machel also shared Kaunda’s suspicion of Mugabe. However, by a series of adroit manoeuvres which established his early reputation for ruthlessness, Mugabe sidelined the rebels’ military command with the support of one key commander, Solomon Mujuru (at the time known by his nom de guerre, Rex Nhongo), and in 1977 he was elected president of Zanu.

Mugabe politicised Zanu to an unprecedented degree. He subordinated the military leaders to party rule and infused the sense of nationalist struggle with his pan-Africanist ideals. The combination of the gun and Mugabe’s political ascent sparked the imagination of young people in Rhodesia, and they flocked to fight under his banner. Trained with Chinese assistance in Mozambique and Tanzania, they were sent back to fight the white regime.

Rival armies

It is part of the mythology created by Mugabe that his guerrillas won independence and majority rule for Zimbabwe, forcing the white Rhodesian forces to capitulate. There is little doubt that his forces inflicted much more damage on the white establishment and infrastructure than the rival forces of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union, operating from Zambian bases. The two rival armies were made up of differing ethnicities from opposite ends of the country. Though never on friendly terms, the two men had entered a negotiating alliance to secure independence.

Mugabe's fighters had forced a bloody stalemate on the battlefield, one that – just by pure paring down of numbers – the minority white population could not have sustained for ever. But the white army was not defeated. It took the advent of Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in 1979, her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, and the diplomacy of Kaunda and the Commonwealth secretary general, Shridath Ramphal – not to mention the co-operation of apartheid South Africa – to force negotiations at the end of 1979 that led to the transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.

The white minority Rhodesian government, alarmed by the attrition of the war, contrived a coalition with moderate black nationalists. Thatcher, anxious to be rid of a diplomatic burden, was prepared to recognise the coalition, but despatched Carrington on a last effort to find a compromise to accommodate all parties. Kaunda and Ramphal persuaded Mugabe and Nkomo to come to the negotiating table, and South Africa, anxious not to have a militant black government on its borders – one which had taken the country by force – persuaded the Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith, to attend.

The truce that resulted was followed by elections at the end of February 1980. Mugabe won a landslide victory. The newly enfranchised black majority recognised those who had fought for them. It was not the result Thatcher and Carrington had anticipated, but Mugabe’s national address of reconciliation between black and white mollified almost everyone. Mugabe began his rule in Zimbabwe as an internationally acclaimed freedom fighter and apostle of reconciliation.

Beacon of Africa

Almost overnight, he became the new beacon of Africa. He remained in power for 37 years, fighting and winning every election during this time. His concern for electoral validation, even as he entered his last authoritarian phase, was in some senses the mark of a man who, despite all his intellect and ruthlessness, never quite got over the bodies sacrificed during his ascent.

Those bodies accumulated as he held power. The west seemed unaware of the slaughters he instigated in Nkomo’s powerbase, the two Matabeleland provinces of eastern Zimbabwe, from 1982 to 1987. On the suspicion that a rebellion was forming among disaffected former members of Nkomo’s guerrilla army, Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained units to crush them. Exact figures are difficult to ascertain, but some tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a “police action” that turned into a bloody and gratuitous pogrom.

Away from the Matabelelands, Mugabe’s first years in power were regarded internationally as peaceful and democratic. He easily won the 1985 elections but in 1990 faced opposition from his former liberation colleague Edgar Tekere. Mugabe engaged in a series of intimidatory tactics that flawed an election that he would have won anyway. It set a tone of “democracy if there is no serious opposition”. There seemed no irony when, in 1991, the Commonwealth released the Harare Declaration on Human Rights (covering all member states), nor in 1992, when Mugabe lectured the Chinese on the desirability and harmlessness of opposition parties.

But it was also in 1992 that the land question returned to haunt Mugabe. Carrington had pointedly refused to have land ownership included in the negotiations that led to independence in 1980, despite Mugabe’s insistence that most of the landowning settlers were historically of British origin. Also, early efforts at negotiation in the mid-70s had included compensation for land nationalisation, paid from western sources.

However, 1992 saw drought sweep Zimbabwe and questions of productivity of the land were swiftly caught up in those to do with ownership of it. Although the Land Acquisition Act of that year was never enforced, it should have been a warning sign to all, including the international community, that a gradual, phased and compensated programme of land nationalisation should be placed on the agenda before it was forced on to it.

Instead, when Mugabe approached the newly elected Tony Blair about the issue in 1997, he received such a curt dismissal that an antipathy towards Blair became a burning element of Mugabe's feelings towards Britain. Some, like the British Commonwealth secretary general of that period, Emeka Anyaoku, maintain that the land issue had been postponed in 1992 so as not to alarm white negotiators in South Africa, as that country made its final steps towards majority rule. After Carrington, the British had hoped to nudge the question of land ownership off the main agenda by small but regular funds for land nationalisation. John Major had ensured that this was the case in the early 1990s, but Blair adamantly refused any assurance of increase or even continuation.

This was a lack of historical comprehension on Blair’s part. Although Mugabe’s latter-day views of historical need highlighted the land question, the struggle for independence was as much about racism, equality and freedom. Carrington thought he could sideline land while delivering an acceptable breakthrough on the other goals of the struggle. The British government argued that it could not afford large-scale compensation at that point, and Carrington had been given a hard time by the white delegation at the 1979 negotiations.

But the land issue could not be kept off the agenda for ever. Two-thirds of the arable land of Zimbabwe was in white ownership, acquired by seizure and legislation in which black voices played no part. The argument of the white farmers would have rested on what they had done to make the land commercially productive – so the debate, had Britain been wise, should have been over compensation, but not over historical rights. However, it was the rights issue that, after 1997, Mugabe wheeled out with great literal force.

Mugabe had always been committed intellectually to a vision of black culture having its historical moment. The achievement of the black personality in terms of both its heritage and its place in the modern world was of extreme importance to him. However, given a choice between the fulfilment of that heritage – and to Mugabe that increasingly came to mean ownership of the land – and place within modernity, then he was prepared to choose heritage.

In many ways 1997 was the year that marked the beginning of the downturn of Zimbabwe. Although Mugabe had won the 1995 elections easily, the advent of the war veterans as a pressure group made itself felt soon afterwards. The economy was slowly but markedly deteriorating. Civil society began to campaign with increasing effect for a new constitution, and Mugabe began to express his immense distaste for the British legacy in Zimbabwe, based on both the land issue and what rapidly became a visceral animosity towards Blair.

Had Mugabe retired in 1995, he would have been hailed internationally as a great leader. The slaughters in the Matabelelands would have been considered an unfortunate aberration. Now, as the century turned, Mugabe was well into his 70s. He finally seized the land, but bankrupted the country he had fought so hard to win, divided his own citizens, oppressed those who refused to support him, and created in the midst of a new national poverty a class of oligarchs who stole money from his “historical moment” and supported him as much for their own gain as their deep belief in him and his vision. Land was gained, but equality and freedom lost.

Authoritarian demeanour

If the decline of Zimbabwe began in 1997, recovery with good management was still possible. Mugabe, however, was sucked into the war then raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This caused great expense, but it also helped him to consolidate the support of his generals as they were given free rein to plunder the mineral resources of the DRC. However, the public expense and other economic issues, coupled with Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian demeanour, prompted the creation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Tsvangirai, in 1999. It became immediately apparent that the new opposition party had a national following.

Against all Mugabe’s expectations, it defeated him in a referendum in early 2000 which he had called over constitutional issues, including an amendment to give the presidency even more power. It was his first defeat, and although it had not been at an election, Mugabe came to recognise the opposition’s strength and was determined that, in elections to come, he would triumph over Tsvangirai and the MDC.

Shortly after the referendum, the pro-Mugabe war veterans were unleashed to begin the seizure of white-owned farms, and administrative and financial chaos descended. For what Mugabe never factored in to his pastoral vision of African heritage was that the agricultural economy of his country was based, not on a romanticised sense of peasant ownership and what it could produce, but on an aggressive and highly modern agriculture industry that sold food and tobacco on the international markets.

Mugabe and Zanu-PF won the 2000 parliamentary elections, then the 2002 presidential ones. He followed this with victory at the 2005 parliamentary polls. But he resorted increasingly to violence and vote-rigging. The violence could be naked, but the rigging was of a highly sophisticated nature and no one has yet uncovered all the details of how it was done. Away from polls, everything the MDC could throw at Mugabe – strikes and protests – was met by repression, heavy-handed police action and violence from hired thugs and paramilitaries. Tsvangirai was charged with treason and, though acquitted, a campaign of psychological harassment was unleashed on him. He began to make mistakes and the MDC split.

A dispirited Tsvangirai then faced the combined presidential and parliamentary elections of 2008 with a split among MDC supporters. All popular wisdom and political punditry suggested that he would be crushed. Mugabe was supremely confident. But the ruination of the country had been such that the electorate insisted on change. By some estimates, Tsvangirai and the MDC won 56 per centof the vote. But when the pattern of results became apparent, Mugabe and his party panicked. Counting promptly stopped.

There followed many weeks of painstaking recounts of the opposition’s vote until it fell below 50 per cent. A runoff was then declared for the presidency which prompted Mugabe to resort to further violence and intimidation. Tsvangirai withdrew in protest and Mugabe was declared the victor.

He had stolen it, but the nature of the theft was such that, at last, other African countries would not stomach a pretence of such magnitude. South Africa’s Mbeki intensified his mediation efforts to bring Mugabe and Tsvangirai together. It was a protracted twisting of arms that eventually led to a fractious power-sharing coalition. Mugabe remained president, his generals and hard men remained powerful and rich, while Tsvangirai was made prime minister and given the task of lifting Zimbabwe out of the economic mire that Mugabe had caused. Mugabe’s party made life difficult for Tsvangirai at every step.

Even so, Tsvangirai’s efforts at government, including the appointment of Tendai Biti as finance minister, and Biti’s wise ministrations of the economy, did bring stability to Zimbabwean financial transactions. And they allowed the consolidation of a Zimbabwean middle class that had been threatened by rampant hyper-inflation. But, despite a huge raft of appeals to surrounding presidents, Tsvangirai could not demilitarise Mugabe’s hold on the election machinery, and the shadow of military power on society as a whole.

The electorate, anxious to hold on to its new financial stability, were drawn once again to Mugabe’s party in the 2013 elections, fearing chaos and military struggle if it was defeated.

Tsvangirai, although impressive as an opposition leader, never really inspired as a prime minister. Although the 2013 elections were rigged to an extent, it was also clear that large numbers voted for Mugabe willingly, and that Tsvangirai had not done enough to break his iron grip on the institutions of Zimbabwe.

The presidency from 2013 onwards became an economic disaster. Mugabe began to concentrate increasingly on party matters, rather than national government. Obsessed with the possibility of plots against him, he purged the party of even his most prized lieutenants. Joice Mujuru, his vice-president, a war heroine and the widow of Solomon Mujuru – who died in mysterious circumstances in 2011 - was purged in December 2014.

The economy began to plummet as Mugabe’s plans to extend nationalisation from land to industry abruptly halted foreign direct investment of any sizeable nature. The stabilisation of the economy during the coalition years under Tsvangirai and Biti had depended on the substitution of the Zimbabwean currency by US dollars. Now, without investment, and increasingly without productivity - aided and abetted by an increase in corruption by Mugabe’s militarised oligarchy - the dollars dried up. The country went through increasing periods when there were simply no physical dollars in everyday circulation.


In the midst of this meltdown, citizen protest began to increase. Demands for salaries to be paid on time began to be transformed into a critique of corruption and, increasingly, of an old man in his 90s with no new ideas and a constant need for medical rejuvenation in a variety of foreign clinics. In the face of widening unrest and the loss of support from his war-veteran allies, Mugabe vowed to stay in power, insisting he would stand again for the presidency in 2018.

It was not to be. Preoccupied with holding party factions in check both for the sake of a balance of power within Zanu-PF, and then increasingly to position his wife, Grace, for the succession, Mugabe failed to give attention to the economy and indeed began sabotaging his finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, by reinstating public servants whom Chinamasa had wanted to dismiss as part of a programme to curtail public expenditure. There were no plans to increase productivity or search for new markets. A bottle of cooking oil became cheaper to import from South Africa than its Zimbabwean production cost. The shortage of US dollars, introduced in 2009, meant the printing of bond notes that heralded the beginnings of new hyperinflation.

When the generals moved against Mugabe, it was a move against mismanagement, the prospect of more of the same from his wife, and Mugabe’s willingness to sacrifice a noted war veteran, Mnangagwa, to placate Grace and smooth the path for her ambitions. It was an ignominious downfall for someone who had risen so high from nothing.

Born and raised at Kutama Mission, in Zvimba district, west of Harare (then Salisbury), Mugabe was a bookish child. His father, Gabriel, deserted the family when Robert was 10, leaving his mother, Bona, to bring up the boy and his five siblings. He was educated by Jesuits, who imbued in him a deep faith, before in 1949 he won a scholarship to Fort Hare University in Eastern Cape, South Africa – a private institution that accepted black students – following closely behind Nelson Mandela. An entire generation of future African leaders passed through its doors and emerged with a taste for learning and for resistance.

It was not until the 1970s and his time in Mozambique that Mugabe became a crypto-Marxist. His belief was anchored in a stages-of-history view of the world, with black liberation constituting a critical stage. It was a cultural and, to an extent, racist view of history – the latter perhaps inevitable as a reaction to the climate of minority white-ruled Rhodesia. Many shared this view and a good number of Zimbabwean intellectuals stood by him for years. His death is unlikely to diminish the sense of enigma that surrounded him, with passionate mourning expected in many parts of Africa and a sense of good riddance among many in the west.

Mugabe’s domestic life was marked by tragedy and controversy. He met Sally Hayfron while teaching in Ghana and they married in 1961. Their only son, Michael Nhamodzenyika (“suffering country” in Shona), died aged three while Mugabe was in jail. He was denied compassionate release for the funeral and it is said this embittered his view of the white population. Sally died in 1992.

He then married his secretary, Grace Marufu, who had borne him two children, Bona and Robert Jr, while he was still married to Sally. A third child, Chatunga, came once they were wedded. Grace was an extravagant figure, nicknamed both “Dis Grace” and “Amazing Grace” – almost the perfect symbol of the oligarchic class around Mugabe – but she was loyal to her husband.

However, when it became clear that Tsvangirai had won in 2008, but before the decision to rig the result was taken, she pleaded with Mugabe to stand down for the sake of their children, who were being taunted at school because their father “had ruined the country”.

After the 2013 elections her demeanour became more and more preoccupied with maintaining her husband in power before she became involved in the struggle for the succession of an increasingly frail old man – seeking that succession for herself.

With the death of Mugabe, questions of his enigma remain. He was, however, a nationalist leader with moments of greatness. He had a far more intellectual sense of African destiny than his critics would acknowledge. He would, in some ways, have made a better professor than a president but, as a president, he clung to power far too long. He achieved liberation and created a tragedy.

He is survived by Grace, and their children, Bona, Robert and Chatunga.

– Guardian service