Mugabe: Liberator who became an oppressor

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe resigned as president on Nov 21, ending 37 years of rule. PHOTO: REUTERS

HARARE • When he came to power, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe was feted as an African liberation hero in a country that had endured nearly a century of white colonial rule.

Nearly four decades later, after the country's independence from Britain in 1980, he is regarded by many as an autocrat, willing to unleash death squads, rig elections and trash the economy in his relentless pursuit of power.

The 93-year-old resigned as president on Tuesday, ending 37 years of rule. He is the only leader Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, has known since its independence from Britain. While the West regards him as an autocrat, some in Africa see him as an anti-colonial champion.

Born in a Catholic mission near Harare, Mr Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a primary school teacher before going to South Africa's University of Fort Hare, then a breeding ground for African nationalism.

Returning to Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics, but was jailed for a decade for opposing white rule.

After his release, he rose to the top of the powerful Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, and was known as the "thinking man's guerilla" on account of his seven degrees, three of them earned behind bars. Later, as he crushed his political enemies, he boasted of another qualification - "a degree in violence".

After the seven-year-long bush war ended, Mr Mugabe was elected as the nation's first black prime minister. Initially, he offered reconciliation to old adversaries as he presided over a booming economy.

But it was not long before he began to suppress challengers such as liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.

Faced with a revolt in the mid-1980s which he blamed on Mr Nkomo, Mr Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained army units, provoking an international outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians. Human rights groups say 20,000 people died, mostly from Mr Nkomo's Ndebele tribe. After two terms as prime minister, Mr Mugabe changed the Constitution and was elected president in 1990, shortly before the death of his first wife Sally, seen by many as the only person capable of restraining him.

When, at the end of the century, he lost a constitutional referendum and faced a groundswell of black anger at the slow pace of land reform, his response was uncompromising. As gangs of blacks calling themselves war veterans invaded white-owned farms, Mr Mugabe said it was a correction of colonial injustices.

"If the settlers had been defeated through the barrel of a gun, perhaps we would not be having the same problems," he said in 2000.

The farm seizures helped ruin one of Africa's most dynamic economies, with a collapse in agricultural foreign exchange earnings unleashing hyperinflation. The economy shrank by more than a third from 2000 to 2008, sending unemployment above 80 per cent. Mr Mugabe did not mind being likened to Adolf Hitler, saying the Nazi leader had wanted justice, sovereignty and independence for his people. "If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold," he said.

The country hit rock bottom in 2008, when 500 billion per cent inflation drove people to support Western-backed former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Facing defeat in a presidential run-off, Mr Mugabe forced Mr Tsvangirai to withdraw after scores of his supporters were killed by Zanu-PF thugs.

In the 2013 election, Mr Mugabe won by a landslide by manipulating the voter roll, the Tsvangirai camp said.

"To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician," former US ambassador Christopher Dell wrote in a cable released by WikiLeaks.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2017, with the headline Mugabe: Liberator who became an oppressor. Subscribe