Robert Gabriel Mugabe (1924-) is the founding father of Zimbabwe and a dictator of 37 years. At age 93, he was, until very recently, the world’s oldest serving head of state. A champion of Black Nationalism against white minority rule Mugabe was once a glimmering hope for post-colonial Africa. Nearly four decades later and he has left a nation plagued by corruption and tyranny.
The former schoolteacher was a hero in 1980, fiercely popular within Zimbabwe and without. He had led the insurrection against Rhodesia’s white minority government and won the following election in a landslide. Like Nelson Mandela, he was a Marxist, a revolutionary, an intellectual, a political prisoner for over a decade and a relentless crusader against minority government and Apartheid. At the official independence ceremony, Bob Marley played his ‘Zimbabwe’ to a jubilant crowd in Mugabe’s honour. Mugabe was lauded by both his Communist backers and the western left. The US gave 25 million dollars in aid to his nascent regime.
Mugabe had been born in 1924 in Southern Rhodesia, a British settler colony named for Cecil Rhodes, the famed British imperialist, diamond magnate and De Beers founder. Three ethnic groups called Rhodesia home: the majority Shona, a Bantu speaking people, the Ndebele, a Zulu offshoot comprising 20% of the population, and a minority of white British settlers. The latter ruled the greater black population as a ‘subject race’, exploiting the nation’s rich mineral reserves and owning the vast majority of its arable land. In 1964 Rhodesia gained independence but under a white ruled government. Mugabe was Shona and Catholic.
Two parties led the liberation movement. Fighting alongside his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, who were largely Shona and backed by China, were the Ndebele led, Soviet backed ZAPU party of Joshua Nkomo. Mistrusting his former ally and fearing a power grab from ZAPU, Mugabe dispatched the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade into the Ndebele homeland of Matabeleland. Suspected Ndebele malcontents and ZAPU members were summarily executed in the ‘Gukurahundi’, ‘the rain that washes away the chaf before spring’. Ndebele men of fighting age were forced to dig their own graves before execution. Others were herded into their houses and burned alive. Genocide watch estimates Mugabe’s government killed 20,000 Ndebele from 1983-1987.
Though the 80s saw substantial improvements in Zimbabwe’s literacy and standard of living, Mugabe’s rule became increasingly tyrannical and corrupt. By the 90s the economy was faltering. The now president’s dubious human rights record and electoral fraud soured western opinion. In 1997 Tony Blair rescinded on Britain’s pledge to compensate the new government and froze Zimbabwean assets.
In 2000 Mugabe violently appropriated white-owned farms, parcelling out the vast estates to landless blacks and political favourites. The new owners, however, had no experience as commercial farmers and the resulting mismanagement, white exodus and foreign sanctions drove Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous economy to ruin.
By now Mugabe’s dictatorship was entrenched in mismanagement and cronyism. Zimbabwe’s vast mineral wealth found itself in the pockets of Mugabe and his followers while the common people starved. In 2016 Reuters estimated over a billion USD a year had been lost to corruption. To afford foreign imports after the 2000 land reforms Mugabe’s Central Bank printed extra money. Incredible hyperinflation resulted: when Zimbabwe abandoned its currency in 2015 the exchange rate was 35,000,000,000,000 ZWD to 1 USD. Unemployment reached 95%.
On November 14th, 2017, a 93 year old President Mugabe was arrested and expelled from his own party in a bloodless coup. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s right hand man, orchestrated the takeover to ensure his succession on Mugabe’s death. He had been fired from the vice presidency eight days earlier. On the 22nd of November the president officially resigned. The leadership has reshuffled, but Mugabe’s party remains in control, and Zimbabwe must now face the dismal legacy he has left behind.
Update 7/09/19: Robert Mugabe dies age 95.