Newsmaker: Robert Mugabe

The controversial human rights-defying dictator has run Zimbabwe with an iron fist for more than 30 years since its independence. His re-election this week is the latest tainted episode of an ugly political career, writes Saul Austerlitz.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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For as long as there has been a Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been its leader. August 3 marked the sixth election since, under Mugabe's leadership, the white-run apartheid dictatorship of Southern Rhodesia transformed itself into the Republic of Zimbabwe. The man who had begun as Zimbabwe's liberator is now, at age 89, its jailer-in-chief, clinging to power even at the cost of violence and electoral mischief. The official tally suggested that Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), garnered 61 per cent of the vote, with the chief rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, receiving only 33 per cent - a stark reversal of the results from their 2008 standoff.

"World opinion saw him as a revolutionary hero, fighting white racist, white minority rule for the freedom of his people," wrote Dr John Chibaya Mbuya of Mugabe in his book Mugabe's 21 Dictatorship Strategies. "Since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 the world has moved on, but his outlook remains the same. The heroic socialist forces of ZANU-PF are still fighting the twin evils of capitalism and colonialism."

Mugabe, Peter Godwin argues in his book The Fear, "has been surprisingly consistent in his modus operandi. His reaction to opposition has invariably been a violent one, inherent in his political DNA."

This was never more visible than in the aftermath of the disputed 2008 election, in which Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change won a plurality of the vote in the first round, and then refused to compete with the ZANU-PF in the controversial second round of balloting. Human Rights Watch documented cases of government-instigated and -approved violence during the election season that resulted in 200 deaths, 5,000 people beaten or tortured and another 36,000 displaced from their homes. Mugabe reluctantly agreed to a mostly cosmetic power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai, in which Tsvangirai was named prime minister, but gave up little actual authority. According to Mbuya: "One of Mr Mugabe's closest associates … told me that, in Zimbabwean culture, kings are only replaced when they die 'and Mugabe is our king'."

Robert Mugabe was born in what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1924. His father left the family when Robert was 10 years old, after his two elder brothers died. Mugabe received a scholarship to attend a Jesuit school, and then enrolled in the University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape, South Africa, the first Western-style institution of higher learning in Africa to accept black students. He received his bachelor's degree in history and English literature, going on to collect two further degrees, from the University of South Africa and the University of London External Programme, while teaching in then-Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Ghana.

He returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960, and enmeshed himself in political activity, becoming a member of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) before joining the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Mugabe was arrested in 1964, accused of "encouraging subversion", and described by Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith as a "Marxist terrorist." He served more than a decade in prison, studying for three more degrees, including two in law, during his incarceration. While he was in prison, his first wife, Sally, fled to Ghana, where his only child, Michael, died of malaria.

After his release in 1974, Mugabe left Rhodesia for neighbouring Mozambique, where many ZANU members had already fled, overseeing a bloody insurgency against Smith's regime. Eventually, ZANU split into two factions, with Mugabe taking charge of the more radical group. His troops joined with Joshua Nkomo's to form the Patriotic Front, devoted to overthrowing Smith.

After the Lancaster House accords of 1979 ended Smith's rule, Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first prime minister in 1980 (his role switched to president in 1987). In his first speech after taking office, he asked whites not to flee the country: "Stay with us, please remain in the country and constitute a nation based on national unity." Mugabe was an anti-colonialist fighter with colonialist tastes for tea and cricket, a pastime that "civilises people and creates good gentlemen".

Mugabe's economic mismanagement transformed Zimbabwe's once-vibrant economy into a hollow shell of its former self - the breadbasket of Africa, in Archbishop Desmond Tutu's stinging critique of Mugabe's rule, having become its basket case. Hints had been present all along of Mugabe's disinterest in the economic realities of governance, but accelerated in 1997, when he promised veterans a hefty government grant. Matters were made even worse by Mugabe's enlisting Zimbabwean soldiers in the roiling Congolese war in the late 1990s.

Much of the current chaos, though, stems from Mugabe's decision, in 2000, to release his supporters to attack and commandeer white-owned farms. Mugabe had long promised land reform, but the failure of a referendum to garner more power encouraged him to "fast-track land reform". After the collapse of Rhodesia, a small but wealthy subset of white farmers still owned much of the country's fertile land. The gripe - that a majority of black Zimbabweans were barely eking out a subsistence living - was genuine, but the results of fast-track land reform were slipshod and chaotic, and the methods were brutal, ensuring the disapproval of many of Zimbabwe's international supporters.

The economy never fully recovered from the post-2000 uncertainty, resulting in unprecedented 231 million per cent inflation by the summer of 2008. Mugabe, who had once insisted that it was impossible for a country to go bankrupt, was unfazed, believing this, too, to be a product of Western meddling. The country, meanwhile, has since formally adopted the American dollar as its currency, stabilising the panic.

Mugabe has permanently soiled his international reputation, but his anti-colonialist jibes have won him some supporters among his domestic constituents. "Keep your pink nose out of our affairs, please," Mugabe told the US before the election, seeking to avoid a repeat of the post-electoral chaos of 2008. Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master, comes in for particular opprobrium in Mugabe's speeches and public statements, with former prime minister Tony Blair dismissively referred to as "Bliar". The economic chaos of the past decade is all blamed on Western interference. "The sanctions … must be lifted," Mugabe told Christiane Amanpour in a 2009 CNN interview. "And we should have no interference from outside. The continued imperialistic interference in our affairs is affecting the country, obviously."

Mugabe's first wife, Sally, died in 1992 of kidney failure, but before she died, he had begun a relationship with the woman who would become his second wife, Grace. "Even as Sally was still going through her last few days," Mugabe told interviewer Dali Tambo earlier this year, "although it might have appeared to some as cruel, I said to myself, well, it's not just myself needing children, my mother has all the time said: 'Ah, am I going to die without seeing grandchildren?'." Mugabe has three children with Grace, including the eldest, conceived while both were still married to other people.

Mugabe's warrior mentality, formed in the crucible of the struggle against Smith, has proven to be a switch that, once flipped, can never be turned off. The fighters who assisted Mugabe have become his freelance militia, there to be set against his own people, whether political rivals like Tsvangirai (who has been the subject of three attempted assassinations) or the younger, more educated cohort of Zimbabweans who form the bulk of the opposition.

While Mugabe has never shifted from his stance of permanent revolution, he has made subtler adjustments to his persona. "The olive military fatigues in his early portraits," writes Godwin, "have given way to Italian suits, now accessorised with an operatically pompous green silk sash, and the ludicrous moustache that begs for Adolfian allusions, ones he is not averse to making himself."

Tsvangirai's MDC is not a rival political party, but the newest form taken by Ian Smith and his white-rule henchmen. Mugabe is forever battling the same enemies, unwilling, or unable, to note the substantial differences between his foes past and present. According to Bishop Dieter Scholz of Chinhoyi, "Robert Mugabe is a prisoner of his own past and he is a prisoner of his own political generation. I see in his character many similarities with Ian Smith -[particularly,] obduracy …"

In the speech that he delivered shortly before Zimbabwe officially became independent in 1980, Mugabe offered a preliminary verdict that would, in retrospect, reprimand him for his own later decisions. "An evil remains an evil whether practised by white against black or by black against white. Our majority rule could easily turn into inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us."


1924 Born in the Zvimba District of Southern Rhodesia

1964 Jailed, accused of 'encouraging subversion'

1974 Released from prison and leaves for Mozambique to lead insurgents against the Rhodesian government

1979 The Lancaster House Agreement ends white rule and approves free elections

1980 Elected the first prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe

2000 Ends the 'willing seller, willing buyer' system, where white settlers were encouraged to sell their land to black farmers, replacing it with wholesale land appropriations and seizures

2008 Loses the first round of presidential balloting to challenger Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC

2008 Signs a power-sharing agreement that names Tsvangirai as the country's prime minister

2013 Wins re-election with 61 per cent of the vote, in a process marred by allegations of fraud

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