, the African revolutionary hero who liberated his country from white rule but then turned the new, independent nation of Zimbabwe into his personal fiefdom and a virtual one-party state during his 37-year reign, has died, the country’s current president said on Friday. Mugabe was 95.
“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, posted on his official Twitter account.by a military coup in 2017. The cause of death was not immediately confirmed, but Mugabe had long battled health issues.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born into poverty in 1924 in what was then Southern Rhodesia, a British colony named after the notorious colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. Like neighboring South Africa, Rhodesia was allowed self-rule, but under a brutal system run by the white minority.
Mugabe was educated in Catholic missionary schools and became a teacher in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. He later lived in Ghana when that country became the first African nation granted independence from Britain in 1957. He returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960. Five years later the country’s white rulers broke away from their British overlords in order to keep power and renamed the country Rhodesia.
Mugabe was one of the founders of a revolutionary political party in Rhodesia called the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU-PF. His actions led to him being imprisoned in 1964 without trial. He served 11 years behind bars, but while in prison, he was chosen as president of ZANU-PF.
After his release, he directed guerrilla warfare efforts against Rhodesia’s white government from exile in Mozambique. Mugabe became known as a skilled negotiator during his time in exile, according to BBC News. He made a name for himself during the independence movement, and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF won an overwhelming majority in the first free elections in what had been officially renamed Zimbabwe in 1980. Mugabe then became the country’s first post-independence prime minister.
“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,” Mugabe said in 1980.
Zimbabwe seemed to have a promising future, but bitter divisions remained. Mugabe soon moved to consolidate his ZANU-PF party’s hold on the country, crushing his opponents in a brutal crackdown in which thousands of people were killed. He altered the constitution in 1987 to make himself president.
Although Mugabe initially invested heavily in social programs, including education and health, Zimbabwe’s fortunes turned dramatically over the next decade. Mugabe blamed the white farmers, who remained in the country after the civil war, for economic malaise, and a vote was ordered to alter the constitution so the government could confiscate white-owned farms. The referendum was defeated, but Mugabe ordered his followers to carry out the farm seizures anyway.
Between 2000 and 2001, more than 1,000 farms were seized, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” reported at the time. A group of Mugabe’s followers called the “war veterans” drove the white farm owners off their land, wrecked homes and barns, killed livestock and then left the land fallow. “The white farmer is the crudest of the whites in this country,” Mugabe told Kroft, “the most backwater in terms of enlightenment and education.”
The wife of one white farmer who was forced to drink diesel fuel before being shot blamed Mugabe for her husband’s murder. “Why?” Mugabe asked Kroft during the interview. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t give instructions to anyone.”
The farm seizures led to condemnation by the international community, and loans to Zimbabwe were banned. Once known as the bread basket of Africa, Zimbabwe’s farming industry collapsed and the country descended into desperate poverty.
A rival group, the Movement for Democratic Change, grew in power and won a majority in the first round of elections in 2008. But its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out of the runoff after violence that left an estimated 200 people dead, according to NPR.
But through the chaos Mugabe lost some of his grip on power. The U.S., EU and many of his fellow African leaders tried to pressure him into leaving. In a defiant speech before Parliament in 2008, Mugabe claimed the international criticism, which extended to his handling of a vicious cholera epidemic, was a “pack of lies,” and vowed he would not be intimidated into leaving.
“I will never, never, never surrender,” he said. “Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”
In 2009 he was forced to agree to a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, but he managed to keep most of the power for himself. The economy went into free-fall. Unemployment soared and diseases were rampant. The Zimbabwe dollar was being printed in denominations of billions amid astronomical inflation.
Mugabe insisted he had won a clear victory in a contested 2013 election, and ended the power-sharing agreement. But his grip on power only lasted a few more years. He was finally ousted when his longtime allies, the country’s military commanders, turned against him amid concerns he was setting up his wife, Grace, as his successor.
Mugabe had battled a number of health problems in recent years, and was receiving medical treatment in Singapore when he died. He had been there since April. Mugabe once insisted he would never retire or go into exile. “I fought for Zimbabwe, and when I die I will be buried in Zimbabwe, nowhere else,” he said in 2003.