Robert Mugabe dies at 95: Liberation hero who turned into a despot

Former Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe had been in Singapore for medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment since April. PHOTO: AFP

HARARE • Mr Robert Mugabe used repression and fear to hold on to power in Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was finally ousted when his previously loyal military generals turned against him.

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe will instead be remembered as a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy.

The former political prisoner turned guerilla leader swept to power in the 1980 elections after a growing insurgency and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.

He initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.

But his lustre faded quickly.

Mr Mugabe had taken control of one wing in the guerilla war for independence - the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and its armed forces - after his release from prison in 1974. His partner in the armed struggle - the leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu), Mr Joshua Nkomo - was one of the early casualties of his crackdown on dissent.

After the discovery of an arms cache in Mr Nkomo's Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982, he was dismissed from government.

Mr Mugabe then unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Mr Nkomo's Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents.

Yet, it was the violent seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mr Mugabe's transformation into an international pariah - though his status as a liberation hero still resonates strongly in most of Africa.

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 helped plunge the country into economic misery.

At the same time, he clung on to power through increased repression of human rights and by rigging elections.

"He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees," said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.

In the final decades of his rule, Mr Mugabe embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West.

He used blistering rhetoric to blame his country's downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mr Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe's economy.

After decades in which the subject of succession was virtually taboo, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite when he reached his 90s and became visibly frail.

He had been rumoured for years to have prostate cancer, but according to the official account, his frequent trips to Singapore were related to his treatment for cataracts.

Mr Mugabe's second wife Grace - his former secretary who is 41 years his junior and had been seen as a potential successor - boasted that even in his 80s, he would rise before dawn to work out.

Born on Feb 21, 1924, into a Catholic family at Kutama Mission north-west of Harare, he was described as a loner and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush.

After his carpenter father walked out on the family when he was 10, the young Mugabe concentrated on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.

An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, meeting many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders.

After teaching in Ghana, he returned to Rhodesia, where he was detained for his nationalist activities in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.

During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the years in prison left their mark. His four-year-old son by his first wife died while he was behind bars, and Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.

He once said that he would rule his country until he turned 100, and many expected him to die in office.

However, as his health weakened, the military finally intervened in late 2017 to ensure that his wife Grace's presidential ambitions were ended in favour of their own preferred candidate.

Mr Mugabe leaves two sons and a daughter by second wife Grace.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2019, with the headline Robert Mugabe dies at 95: Liberation hero who turned into a despot. Subscribe