Robert Mugabe, Independence Leader Who Sent His Nation To Disaster, Dead At 95

Robert Mugabe led a nation to independence only to become a dictator who destroyed its economy, has died at the age of 95.

Robert Mugabe, the anti-colonialist leader who led the movement to free his country from British rule in the 1970s only to become a dictator who raped his country, imprisoned dissidents. and destroyed his country’s economy, has died at the age of 95:

Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president who rose to power as a champion of anti-colonial struggle but during 37 years of authoritarian rule presided over the impoverishment and degradation of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising countries, died Sept. 6 at a hospital in Singapore. He was 95.

Zimbabwe’s current leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced the death on Twitter but did not disclose the cause. Mr. Mugabe, who had displayed physical decline over recent years, had been receiving hospital treatment in Singapore since April, Mnangagwa said last month. Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said his body would be flown back to Zimbabwe.

Mr. Mugabe was forced to resign as Zimbabwe’s leader days after the army staged a coup in November 2017. At the time, he was world’s oldest head of state and one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Mnangagwa, who formerly served as Mr. Mugabe’s vice president, is a wily and resilient veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence war who once led the feared internal security service. Nicknamed “The Crocodile” for his quick-to-strike survival skills, Mnangagwa replaced the ailing Mr. Mugabe in the 2017 coup, then was narrowly elected president last year.

Mnangagwa has struggled to achieve the economic recovery he promised and has cracked down on opponents with some of the same repressive measures Mr. Mugabe’s regime wielded, causing some Zimbabweans to say they missed Mr. Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe’s fall marked the end of one of the last surviving “Big Men” of the continent, the onetime revolutionary leaders who inherited the security apparatus of their former colonial rulers and used an iron fist to enrich themselves and repress their citizens.

Mr. Mugabe emerged from the bush in 1980 and took power in what was once white-minority-ruled Southern Rhodesia after a protracted civil war. He pledged pragmatism and reconciliation. But after a promising start, the country once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa descended into a nightmare of widespread unemployment, hyperinflation, hunger and disease.

Mr. Mugabe and his cronies unleashed gangs of armed thugs to beat up, torture and kill their political foes, while suffocating Zimbabwe’s fledgling democratic institutions. The regime used food aid as a way to reward supporters and starve opponents. Epidemics of AIDS and cholera ravaged rural areas, and the country’s once-thriving commercial farms were gutted.

Cities swelled with hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the countryside. In 2005, Mr. Mugabe pitilessly carried out Operation Drive Out Trash, an urban beautification effort that made hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers homeless.

Cars waited in line for days outside filling stations, rationing left most people with electricity only every other day, and residents went shopping with suitcases filled with almost worthless currency, its value falling by the hour.

Mr. Mugabe blamed those ills and more on a long list of enemies, foreign and domestic, while portraying himself as a beleaguered African hero. He conjured a paranoid vision of a major conspiracy, led by white farmers and businessmen and their black political puppets and funded by evil governments in London and Washington.

But Mr. Mugabe’s downfall came not at the hands of foreign enemies but from his once-loyal generals. They rebelled against his attempt to install his mercurial wife, Grace Mugabe, as his successor, and placed him under house arrest. Thousands marched in the streets to support Mr. Mugabe’s ouster, while his former allies in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) expelled him from his role as party chairman, an ignominious collapse for the only elected leader Zimbabwe had ever known.

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The son of a carpenter, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on Feb. 21, 1924, in the village of Kutama in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

He was educated in Jesuit missionary schools and in 1951 graduated from South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela’s alma mater and the incubator for a generation of activists who led the struggle against white-minority regimes throughout southern Africa. (Mr. Mugabe later earned several other degrees, some while in prison.)

He returned to Rhodesia in 1960 and joined the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the dominant black liberation movement led by Joshua Nkomo. But stifled by Nkomo’s autocratic leadership, Mr. Mugabe and a group of insurgents walked out three years later to form the rival ZANU-PF.

Rhodesia’s white-minority government under Prime Minister Ian Smith defied the winds of change that swept across Africa in the early 1960s and unilaterally declared its independence from Britain in 1965, locking up thousands of political opponents. Mr. Mugabe spent more than 10 years in prison without trial. While he was incarcerated, his young son died in 1966 of a form of malaria, and he was denied permission to attend the funeral.

In 1972, the conflict between Smith’s government and the black opposition erupted into a full-scale civil war in which more than 30,000 people died. When Mr. Mugabe was released in 1974 in one of several abortive peace efforts, he joined his comrades in the bush. A self-declared Marxist, Mr. Mugabe was considered a shy, somewhat bookish intellectual, in marked contrast with his hardened comrades.

Like many liberation movements, Mr. Mugabe’s was a hothouse of suspicion and betrayal. Many members died under mysterious circumstances, sometimes at the hands of white assassins, other times by the long knives of their comrades. As leader, Mr. Mugabe rode the back of a tiger; had he ever fallen off, he, too, in all likelihood would have been devoured.

He developed a sharp contempt for the British government, which was unable to bring Smith’s regime to heel; for the Soviet Union, which backed his rival, Nkomo, during the liberation struggle; and for the West in general, whose sanctions campaign against Rhodesia was halfhearted and ineffective.

Smith’s putative allies in South Africa, fearing that the conflict was destabilizing the region, finally forced his government into peace talks. Mr. Mugabe emerged from exile and won a decisive majority in the country’s first free election in 1980, the year the country became known as Zimbabwe.

He came to power — as prime minister and, starting in 1987, as president — initially pledging to bury old animosities.

“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you,” he solemnly told his countrymen on April 18, 1980. Still, even in those early days, he warned that “the open hand of reconciliation, if rejected, could turn into a clenched fist.”

As it turned out the open hand that Mugabe talked about closed relatively quickly as Mugage quickly turned into exactly the same kind of authoritarian dictator as the person he was repressing. This was demonstrated to be true no only in the manner in which his government treated the minority white population of farmers that had been Smith’s supporters but who decided to remain in the country even as the white leadership fled the country in fear of retribution, but also in how Mugabe and his supporteres treated blacks who were part of opposing political movements that had rallied around Mugabe in favor of independence but who disagreed with Mugabe politically:

Paranoia was one legacy of the war. Mr. Mugabe, as elected leader, characterized political opponents as “enemies,” freely used detention without trial and other emergency powers that he inherited from the white regime, and intimidated opponents in his drive for a one-party state.

Each year, he sent several thousand soldiers — spearheaded by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade — into southwestern Matabeleland, Nkomo’s ethnic and political stronghold, ostensibly to root out armed dissidents. The main victims of these campaigns, which killed several thousand people, were minority Ndebeles.

Nkomo eventually submitted, folding his party into Mr. Mugabe’s ruling organization in return for an end to the brutal attacks against his followers.

Mr. Mugabe struggled at times to placate various blocs within his power base, the country’s Shona-speaking majority. Divisions within these blocs were geographic and tribal as well as ideological. Mr. Mugabe worked to hold together a consensus in part through dispensing jobs and patronage to his allies and targeting common enemies, real and imagined.

As the political repression continued, the economy of Zimbabwe began to suffer as well. In the beginning of Mugabe’s rule, the nation remained relatively prosperous compared to most of its neighbors and, thanks to a healthy agriculture sector, it continued to be what many referred to as “the breadbasket of Africa” and the nation was, for a time, at least, a net exporter of corn and some other foodstuffs at a time when many of its other neighbors were beginning to experience the famines that would grip the continent for much of the 1980s. As time went on, though, the realities of Mugabe’s rule, his looting of the economy to enrich himself and his economy, and his refusal to allow a free market economy that had been flourishing to continue sent Zimbabwe down the road to disaster:

Zimbabwe’s uneasy stability began to crumble in the late 1990s as inflation, unemployment and the AIDS epidemic ate away at the country’s social and economic gains. Faced with rising discontent, Mr. Mugabe targeted one of the country’s most visible minority groups: the 4,500 white commercial farmers.

Mr. Mugabe dispatched thousands of unemployed war veterans and street thugs to harass the owners and seize their property. The government instituted a “land reform” policy that turned over the most successful farms to the political elite.

Productivity plummeted — production of corn, Zimbabwe’s main staple,fell by two-thirds — and the country swung from being a net food exporter to a basket case within a few years. Nearly 1 million black farmworkers and their families lost their jobs and homes, according to a 2008 study by Zimbabwean economists for the U.N. Development Program.

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Zimbabwe’s uneasy stability began to crumble in the late 1990s as inflation, unemployment and the AIDS epidemic ate away at the country’s social and economic gains. Faced with rising discontent, Mr. Mugabe targeted one of the country’s most visible minority groups: the 4,500 white commercial farmers.

Mr. Mugabe dispatched thousands of unemployed war veterans and street thugs to harass the owners and seize their property. The government instituted a “land reform” policy that turned over the most successful farms to the political elite.

Productivity plummeted — production of corn, Zimbabwe’s main staple,fell by two-thirds — and the country swung from being a net food exporter to a basket case within a few years. Nearly 1 million black farmworkers and their families lost their jobs and homes, according to a 2008 study by Zimbabwean economists for the U.N. Development Program.

Mr. Mugabe’s unbroken string of electoral success ended in February 2000 when voters rejected a draft constitution that would have legitimized his vastly increased power. Four months later, a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, won 57 of the 120 elected seats in parliament, capturing urban centers throughout the country and falling just short of a majority.

The government responded with a wave of repression, rounding up opposition leaders and attacking urban demonstrators, while in the countryside armed gangs destroyed the homes and food supplies of opponents.

Mr. Mugabe branded his foes as traitors and saboteurs, shut down independent media outlets and undermined the country’s independent judiciary. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten, arrested and charged with plotting to kill Mr. Mugabe — only later to be acquitted.
Zimbabwe’s economic and political misery deepened. Basic public services, such as water and sanitation, public schools and hospitals, collapsed, and by 2008 the rate of inflation exceeded 10 million percent. Even many of Mr. Mugabe’s former allies called on him to step down. He was outpolled by Tsvangirai in the 2008 presidential election but refused to cede power.

Mr. Mugabe won a sixth term as president after Tsvangirai dropped out of the runoff contest because of threats against his life. But conditions continued to deteriorate so rapidly that Mr. Mugabe was finally forced to accept a power-sharing arrangement with his rival. The aging president retained full control of the security forces and other instruments of state repression.

As his megalomania and isolation grew, Mr. Mugabe’s rhetoric became more extravagant and bizarre. He accused “gay gangsters” in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government of fomenting political violence.

He compared Blair and President George W. Bush to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and accused them of waging “a relentless campaign of destabilizing and vilifying my country.”

The economy plummeted so far that Mr. Mugabe was forced to accept some reforms. Inflation stabilized, average annual growth rates rebounded and the European Union lifted its 12-year-old sanctions while maintaining a travel ban on Robert and Grace Mugabe. Tsvangiriai’s opposition party splintered, paving the way for Mr. Mugabe’s landslide electoral victory in 2013 and an end of power sharing. (Tsvangiriai died in 2018.)

By 2017, the situation in Zimbabwe had become so untenable that even Mugabe’s supporters could not ignore it, nor could they ignore Mugabe’s increase paranoia, frailty, and blatant efforts to keep political power in his family’s hands even after he had died. Over the course of a week in November 2017, Mugabe’s own political party had removed him from his leadership position and setting a deadline for his resignation as President, a deadline which he initially ignored. In the end, though, Mugabe finally resigned after 37 years in power and he was replaced by a former supporter who had become one of his chief political rivals.

In the end, Mugabe ended up doing far worse for his nation than did good, thus following a pattern that has been followed by other African independence leaders. Certainly, British colonial rule was repressive toward the nation’s overwhelmingly black majority but it’s also the case that quality of life was much better at least. While Mugabe appeared content at first to allow the white minority that made up most of the farming community operate free from government control, the dictatorial impulse soon overtook him, and the result was inevitable. Repression, dictatorship, and economic ruin. Two years after he left power, it’s still unclear if his nation will ever recover from the damage he did.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Obituaries, World Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Mugabe once said it was his goal to exterminate every tribe in Zimbabwe but his own, and that he admired Hitler beyond any other leader. Good riddance.

  2. JKB says:

    Democratic socialism in action

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  3. An Interested Party says:

    Democratic socialism in action

    Disingenuous as always…as if that political philosophy is directly connected to the thuggery, kleptocracy, and terror of Mugabe and his henchmen…

  4. Gustopher says:

    @JKB: Are you saying that Bernie Sanders killed him?

  5. JKB says:

    @Gustopher:

    Marxist who gained power via democratic election

  6. Gustopher says:

    @JKB: Bernie Sanders is not a Marxist.

    Dude, try harder. You’re being boring.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: Sorry, you’re just falling into the same idiocies we see emitted from all paranoid narcissists like Trump, Maduro, Mugabe, etc. etc. and so forth: everything that goes well is obviously due to my great genius and everything that goes wrong is due to the enemies I have around me.

    ….the possibility that your failures are due to your own incompetence never enters your brain. Because you’d then have to admit you aren’t the Great Man you claim that you are, and that in fact you are, deep down, a complete and utter failure.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist: I think you’re likely making a mistake in assuming that he is sincere with his one sentence posts.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “I think you’re likely making a mistake in assuming that he is sincere coherent with his one sentence posts.”
    Fixed that for you.