Updated: March 7, 2021
Zimbabwe’s longtime president Robert Mugabe has died at the age 95, the presidency in Zimbabwe announced on Twitter on Friday morning.
“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, tweeted.
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He said “Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people”.
Mugabe, a schoolteacher-turned guerrilla fighter who helped topple white colonial rule in Zimbabwe only to lead the country to the brink of economic ruin, came to power at independence from Britain in 1980, after a guerrilla war ended white-minority rule in then-Rhodesia.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 in Zvimba, southwest of the capital (which was then called Salisbury, and is now Harare).
Educated by Jesuit priests, he became a teacher before joining the liberation struggle.
Mugabe, the intellectual — with his many academic degrees — was considered the political leader and the brains behind the guerrilla war, and was imprisoned for 11 years.
He was heralded as a model leader — but that image steadily eroded over time as his leadership became more authoritarian. Democracy, the rule of law and the economy suffered.
When Robert Mugabe took the oath of office in April 1980, there were high hopes for Africa’s newest nation. He was hailed as a pragmatic African leader.
Representing Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles echoed a feeling shared around the globe when he said, “Today is a moment of immense historic significance, a rare occasion in lives of nations, where a new and greater beginning is possible, which we must not allow to fail.”
Mugabe preached a message of harmony and promised to pursue a policy of inclusion for all Zimbabweans.
In 1980, he said, “The phase we are entering, the phase of independence should be regarded as a phase conferring upon all of us — the people of Zimbabwe — whether we are black or white — full sovereignty, full democratic rights.”
Fast-forward 20 years and the flowering of an opposition movement. Mugabe tasted defeat for the first time in 2000, in a referendum on constitutional reform. The situation soured.
That same year, he encouraged the often violent seizure of thousands of flourishing, white-owned industrial farms. Gone was Zimbabwe’s reputation as the breadbasket of southern Africa.
Mugabe blamed the nation’s woes on the British and Zimbabwe’s white farmers, who openly supported the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change, the MDC party.
“The MDC opposition, formed at the behest of Britain in 1999, is now on an evil crusade of dividing our people on political lines,” Mugabe said at the time, “as they continue to fan and sponsor heinous acts of political violence, targeting innocent citizens.”
But pro-Mugabe political thugs were accused of muzzling the opposition, using brutal tactics.
Criticized for rigging earlier votes, the president lost the first round of elections in 2008. But, before the second round, Mugabe’s militants — and loyalists within the security services — unleashed a wave of violence, leaving an estimated 200 people dead.
The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out of the runoff, and Mugabe cruised to victory. But he ruled over a diminished Zimbabwe. The U.S. and the European Union had already imposed sanctions on his inner circle. Mugabe tore into then-British prime minister, Tony Blair.