Mugabe: Liberation hero turned despot
Harare (AFP) –
Robert Mugabe used repression and fear to hold on to power in Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was finally ousted when his previously loyal generals turned against him.
After his humiliating fall from office in November 2017, his phenomenal physical stamina seeped away. He died of cancer on September 6 at the age of 95.
And in a final confrontational coda to his story, the Zimbabwean government and his family wrangled over his burial site -- a dispute that appeared to be settled on Thursday with the announcement that his remains would be entombed in his home village.
First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white-minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe will instead be remembered as a despot who crushed dissent and ruined the economy.
The former political prisoner turned guerrilla leader swept to power in the 1980 elections after a growing insurgency and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.
In office, he initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.
But his lustre faded quickly.
Mugabe had taken control of one wing in the guerrilla war for independence -- the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed forces -- after his release from prison in 1974.
His partner in the armed struggle -- the leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), Joshua Nkomo -- was one of the early casualties of Mugabe's crackdown on dissent.
Nkomo was dismissed from government after the discovery of an arms cache in his stronghold in 1982.
Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo's Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000.
Yet it was the violent seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mugabe's transformation into an international pariah -- though his status as a liberation hero still resonates in Africa.
Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into economic misery.
At the same time, Mugabe clung to power through increased repression and by rigging elections.
- 'Reptilian quality' -
"He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees," said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.
Britain's former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe's independence.
"Mugabe wasn't human at all," Carrington told biographer Heidi Holland. "There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.
"You could admire his skills and intellect... but he was an awfully slippery sort of person."
In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West.
He used blistering rhetoric to blame his country's downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe's economy.
"If people say you are dictator... you know they are saying this merely to tarnish and demean your status, then you don't pay much attention," he said in a 2013 documentary.
After decades in which the subject of succession was virtually taboo, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite when he reached his 90s and became visibly frail.
He had been rumoured for years to have prostate cancer, which was not confirmed until after his death.
Mugabe's second wife Grace -- his former secretary who is 41 years his junior and had been seen as a potential successor -- boasted that even in his 80s he would rise before dawn to work out.
But in his later years, he stumbled and fell more than once.
- The Catholic Marxist -
Born on February 21, 1924 into a Catholic family at Kutama Mission northwest of Harare, Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle.
After his carpenter father walked out on the family when he was 10, the young Mugabe concentrated on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, meeting many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders.
After teaching in Ghana, where he was influenced by founder president Kwame Nkrumah, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia where he was detained for his nationalist activities in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the years in prison left their mark.
His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.
He once said that he'd rule his country until he turned 100, and many expected him to die in office.
But as his health weakened, the military finally intervened in late 2017 to ensure that his wife Grace's presidential ambitions were ended in favour of their own preferred candidate.
Mugabe leaves two sons and a daughter by second wife Grace.
© 2019 AFP