Robert Mugabe, founding prime minister and then president of Zimbabwe, was initially hailed as a human rights freedom fighter who helped lead the country, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, to independence from British rule. He served as its leader from 1980 until his forced resignation in 2017, having driven the country into economic, political and social turmoil.
Mugabe died on September 6, 2019, at the age of 95 in Singapore, where he had been receiving treatment for an unspecified illness.
He leaves behind his wife Grace, as well as a daughter named Bona, two sons named Robert Jr. and Bellarmine Chatunga and a stepson Russell Goreraza — as well as a complicated legacy that has left many feeling conflicted about his place in history.
While attending university, Mugabe committed to Marxist theories
Mugabe was born in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia, on February 21, 1924, just months after it became a British colony. An eager learner, he was taken under the wing of a local Jesuit mission school director Father O’Hea who instilled the importance of education and social equality in him.
He studied in various parts of the continent, including at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, “then a breeding ground for African nationalism,” according to Reuters. While living in Ghana to pursue his economics degree, he committed to Marxist theories, believing all social classes should receive an equal education.
In 1960, two years after getting his degree, Mugabe went home to Southern Rhodesia and found a shocking reality for him: The white population had increased exponentially and black families were being displaced.
He quickly found himself elected as public secretary of the National Democratic Party, fighting for independence from British rule, and eventually formed a breakaway part known as ZANU, or Zimbabwe African National Union.
When a crackdown came on those opposite the government, Mugabe was among those arrested, eventually spending 11 years in prison. Even behind bars, he managed to utilize undercover communication to help launch guerrilla operations toward freedom. He eventually escaped and recruited troops along the way, continuing the fight through the 1970s. In 1979, the British agreed to monitor the changeover to black majority rule. A year later, the liberation was complete and Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980.
He founded the Republic of Zimbabwe, independent from British rule
While his guerilla tactics were controversial, his landmark accomplishment in ridding of British rule and, in essence, founding the independent Republic of Zimbabwe, was hailed as a heroic effort against colonialism.
During a radio broadcast when he first took office, he was clearly set on uniting the people: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you.” He was showered with accolades, including being nominated with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington for a Nobel Peace prize in 1981.
His tenure as the leader — which started as prime minister and turned into president after a unity agreement with ZAPU, or Zimbabwe African People’s Union — seemed to begin with all the right intentions. First on the agenda: fix the economy.
By 1989, things seemed to be looking up. Farming, mining and manufacturing were up and schools and clinics had been built for the black population. He was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.
Soon the state of affairs had flipped. There was outcry about how white landowners’ property was seized without compensation, but Mugabe insisted it was a necessary step toward equality. The one-party constitution and extreme levels of inflation were other sore subjects. By the turn of the millenium, the free-falling economy reached new lows, even having to issue billion-dollar banknotes. By 2002, of the 4,500 white farmers, only 600 had retained parts of their property and what was dubbed a “violent agricultural revolution” led to food shortages.
The controversies started to add up: There were constitutional amendments forcing the British to pay reparations for land that they had previous seized from the black population. There were (numerous) accusations of ballot-box stuffing during his elections. There was growing levels of famine, widespread disease, spiraling unemployment and shady foreign policies. All from a man who claimed his goals were equality for all.
His new reputation became a man who refused to give up power. He was committed to the idea that he was meant to serve as Zimbabwe’s leader for life, saying in 2008, “I will never, never sell my country. I will never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”
Mugabe's reputation as power-hungry led to his forced resignation
Calls for his resignation ran rampant, but his stubborn obsession with staying in office remained. He started being labeled as a strongman, an autocrat and even a dictator. But he strangely wore those titles well. In fact, in 2013, he declared, "I am still the [Adolf] Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold."
And in order to assure his influence as he started to rise in age, he started positioning his wife, who was four decades younger than him and nicknamed “Gucci Grace,” as his successor. Ultimately, that strategy ended his reign.
In 2017, the army staged a soft coup, forcing his resignation. And on November 21, 2017, his letter was written: “My decision to resign arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire to ensure a smooth, peaceful and non-violent transfer of power that underpins national security, peace and stability.”
Mugabe's death left many feeling conflicted about his life and legacy
While his rise and forced fall leaves a complex space in the history of Zimbabwe, on the occasion of his death, some heralded his achievements, while others noted the controversies.
"There will be mixed emotions in Zimbabwe at today's news,” the United Kingdom’s prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokeswoman said. “We, of course, express our condolences to those who mourn, but know that for many he was a barrier to a better future. Under his rule, the people of Zimbabwe suffered greatly as he impoverished their country and sanctioned the use of violence against them. His resignation in 2017 marked a turning point and we hope that today marks another which allows Zimbabwe to move on from the legacy of its past and become a democratic, prosperous nation that respects the human rights of its citizens.”
Current Zimbabwe president Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa tweeted, “Cde [Comrade] 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.”