Robert Mugabe Dead At 95

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Robert Mugabe

RIP. Robert Mugabe.
For all of the neg­a­tive things which will be said about Robert Mugabe, by those against whom he stood tall, as a bul­wark of black pride against white dom­i­na­tion. For all of his fail­ings and frail­ties as a human being, he will for­ev­er be a cham­pi­on of black intel­lec­tu­al­ism and strength against colo­nial dom­i­na­tion.

Robert Mugabe became prime min­is­ter of Zimbabwe in 1980 and served as the coun­try’s pres­i­dent from 1987 until his forced res­ig­na­tion in 2017.

Who Was Robert Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1963, he found­ed ZANU, a resis­tance move­ment against British colo­nial rule. Mugabe became prime min­is­ter of the new Republic of Zimbabwe after British rule end­ed in 1980, and he assumed the role of pres­i­dent sev­en years lat­er. Mugabe retained a strong grip on pow­er, through con­tro­ver­sial elec­tions, until he was forced to resign in November 2017, at age 93.

Early Years and Education

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), just months after Southern Rhodesia had become a British Crown colony. As a result, the peo­ple of his vil­lage were oppressed by new laws and faced lim­i­ta­tions to their edu­ca­tion and job oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Mugabe’s father was a car­pen­ter. He went to work at a Jesuit mis­sion in South Africa when Mugabe was just a boy, and mys­te­ri­ous­ly nev­er came home. Mugabe’s moth­er, a teacher, was left to bring up Mugabe and his three sib­lings on her own. As a child, Mugabe helped out by tend­ing the fam­i­ly’s cows and mak­ing mon­ey through odd jobs.

Although many peo­ple in Southern Rhodesia went only as far as gram­mar school, Mugabe was for­tu­nate enough to receive a good edu­ca­tion. He attend­ed school at the local Jesuit mis­sion under the super­vi­sion of school direc­tor Father O’Hea. A pow­er­ful influ­ence on the boy, O’Hea taught Mugabe that all peo­ple should be treat­ed equal­ly and edu­cat­ed to the ful­fill­ment of their abil­i­ties. Mugabe’s teach­ers, who called him “a clever lad,” were ear­ly to rec­og­nize his abil­i­ties as con­sid­er­able.

The val­ues that O’Hea impart­ed to his stu­dents res­onat­ed with Mugabe, prompt­ing him to pass them on by becom­ing a teacher him­self. Over the course of nine years, he stud­ied pri­vate­ly while teach­ing at a num­ber of mis­sion schools in Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe con­tin­ued his edu­ca­tion at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, grad­u­at­ing with a Bachelor of Arts degree in his­to­ry and English in 1951. Mugabe then returned to his home­town to teach there. By 1953, he had earned his Bachelor of Education degree through cor­re­spon­dence cours­es.

In 1955, Mugabe moved to Northern Rhodesia. There, he taught for four years at Chalimbana Training College while also work­ing toward his Bachelor of Science degree in eco­nom­ics through cor­re­spon­dence cours­es with the University of London. After mov­ing to Ghana, Mugabe com­plet­ed his eco­nom­ics degree in 1958. He also taught at St. Mary’s Teacher Training College, where he met his first wife, Sarah Heyfron, whom he would mar­ry in 1961. In Ghana, Mugabe declared him­self a Marxist, sup­port­ing the Ghanaian gov­ern­men­t’s goal of pro­vid­ing equal edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to the for­mer­ly des­ig­nat­ed low­er class­es.

Early Political Career

In 1960, Robert Mugabe returned to his home­town on leave, plan­ning to intro­duce his fiancée to his moth­er. Unexpectedly, upon his arrival, Mugabe encoun­tered a dras­ti­cal­ly changed Southern Rhodesia. Tens of thou­sands of black fam­i­lies had been dis­placed by the new colo­nial gov­ern­ment, and the white pop­u­la­tion had explod­ed. The gov­ern­ment denied black major­i­ty rule, result­ing in vio­lent protests. Mugabe too was out­raged by this denial of blacks’ rights. In July 1960, he agreed to address the crowd at the protest March of 7,000, staged at Salisbury’s Harare Town Hall. The pur­pose of the gath­er­ing was for mem­bers of the oppo­si­tion move­ment to protest the recent arrest of their lead­ers. Steeling him­self in the face of police threats, Mugabe told the pro­tes­tors about how Ghana had suc­cess­ful­ly achieved inde­pen­dence through Marxism.

Just weeks lat­er, Mugabe was elect­ed pub­lic sec­re­tary of the National Democratic Party. In accor­dance with Ghanaian mod­els, Mugabe quick­ly assem­bled a mil­i­tant youth league to spread the word about achiev­ing black inde­pen­dence in Rhodesia. The gov­ern­ment banned the par­ty at the end of 1961, but the remain­ing sup­port­ers came togeth­er to form a move­ment that was the first of its kind in Rhodesia. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) soon grew to a stag­ger­ing 450,000 mem­bers. 

The union’s leader, Joshua Nkomo, was invit­ed to meet with the United Nations, who demand­ed that Britain sus­pend their con­sti­tu­tion and read­dress the top­ic of major­i­ty rule. But, as time passed and noth­ing had changed, Mugabe and oth­ers were frus­trat­ed that Nkomo did­n’t insist on a def­i­nite date for changes to the con­sti­tu­tion. So great was his frus­tra­tion, that by April of 1961, Mugabe pub­licly dis­cussed start­ing a gueril­la war — even going so far as to declare defi­ant­ly to a police­man, “We are tak­ing over this coun­try and we will not put up with this non­sense.”

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe talks with his team dur­ing the sec­ond day of the FAO Summit in Rome, Italy, on November 17, 2009. 
Photo: Thierry Tronnel/​Corbis via Getty Images

Formation of ZANU

In 1963, Mugabe and oth­er for­mer sup­port­ers of Nkomo found­ed their own resis­tance move­ment, called the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), in Tanzania. Back in Southern Rhodesia lat­er that year, the police arrest­ed Mugabe and sent him to Hwahwa Prison. Mugabe would remain in jail for over a decade, being moved from Hwahwa Prison to Sikombela Detention Centre and lat­er to Salisbury Prison. In 1964, while in prison, Mugabe relied on secret com­mu­ni­ca­tions to launch guer­ril­la oper­a­tions toward free­ing Southern Rhodesia from British rule.

In 1974, Prime Minister Ian Smith, who claimed he would achieve true major­i­ty rule but still declared his alle­giance to the British colo­nial gov­ern­ment, allowed Mugabe to leave prison and go to a con­fer­ence in Lusaka, Zambia (for­mer­ly Northern Rhodesia). Mugabe instead escaped back across the bor­der to Southern Rhodesia, assem­bling a troop of Rhodesian guer­ril­la trainees along the way. The bat­tles raged on through­out the 1970s. By the end of that decade, Zimbabwe’s econ­o­my was in worse shape than ever. In 1979, after Smith had tried in vain to reach an agree­ment with Mugabe, the British agreed to mon­i­tor the changeover to black major­i­ty rule and the UN lift­ed sanc­tions.

By 1980, Southern Rhodesia was lib­er­at­ed from British rule and became the inde­pen­dent Republic of Zimbabwe. Running under the ZANU par­ty ban­ner, Mugabe was elect­ed prime min­is­ter of the new repub­lic, after run­ning against Nkomo. In 1981, a bat­tle broke out between ZANU and ZAPU due to their dif­fer­ing agen­das. In 1985, Mugabe was re-elect­ed as the fight­ing con­tin­ued. In 1987, when a group of mis­sion­ar­ies were trag­i­cal­ly mur­dered by Mugabe sup­port­ers, Mugabe and Nkomo at last agreed to merge their unions into the ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and focus on the nation’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery.


Within just a week of the uni­ty agree­ment, Mugabe was appoint­ed pres­i­dent of Zimbabwe. He chose Nkomo as one of his senior min­is­ters. Mugabe’s first major goal was to restruc­ture and repair the coun­try’s fail­ing econ­o­my. In 1989, he set out to imple­ment a five-year plan, which slack­ened price restric­tions for farm­ers, allow­ing them to des­ig­nate their own prices. By 1994, at the end of the five-year peri­od, the econ­o­my had seen some growth in the farm­ing, min­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries. Mugabe addi­tion­al­ly man­aged to build clin­ics and schools for the black pop­u­la­tion. Also over the course of that time, Mugabe’s wife, Sarah, passed away, free­ing him to mar­ry his mis­tress, Grace Marufu.

By 1996, Mugabe’s deci­sions had begun to cre­ate unrest among the cit­i­zens of Zimbabwe, who had once hailed him as a hero for lead­ing the coun­try to inde­pen­dence. Many resent­ed his choice to sup­port the seizure of white peo­ple’s land with­out com­pen­sa­tion to the own­ers, which Mugabe insist­ed was the only way to lev­el out the eco­nom­ic play­ing field for the dis­en­fran­chised black major­i­ty. Citizens were like­wise out­raged by Mugabe’s refusal to amend Zimbabwe’s one-par­ty con­sti­tu­tion. High infla­tion was anoth­er sore sub­ject, result­ing in a civ­il ser­vant strike for pay increas­es. The self-award­ed pay rais­es of gov­ern­ment offi­cials only com­pound­ed the pub­lic’s resent­ment toward Mugabe’s admin­is­tra­tion.

Objections to Mugabe’s con­tro­ver­sial polit­i­cal strate­gies con­tin­ued to impede his suc­cess. In 1998, when he appealed to oth­er coun­tries to donate mon­ey for land dis­tri­b­u­tion, the coun­tries said they would­n’t donate unless he first devised a pro­gram for help­ing Zimbabwe’s impov­er­ished rur­al econ­o­my. Mugabe refused, and the coun­tries refused to donate.

In 2000, Mugabe passed an amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion that made Britain pay repa­ra­tions for the land it had seized from blacks. Mugabe claimed that he would seize British land as resti­tu­tion if they failed to pay. The amend­ment put fur­ther strain on Zimbabwe’s for­eign rela­tions.

Still, Mugabe, a notably con­ser­v­a­tive dress­er who dur­ing his cam­paign had worn col­or­ful shirts with his own face on them, won the 2002 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Speculation that he had stuffed the bal­lot box led the European Union to place an arms embar­go and oth­er eco­nom­ic sanc­tions on Zimbabwe. At this time Zimbabwe’s econ­o­my was in near ruins. Famine, an AIDS epi­dem­ic, for­eign debt and wide­spread unem­ploy­ment plagued the coun­try. Yet Mugabe was deter­mined to retain his office and did so by any means nec­es­sary — includ­ing alleged vio­lence and cor­rup­tion — win­ning the vote in the 2005 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

Refusal to Cede Power

On March 29, 2008, when he lost the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the oppos­ing Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe was unwill­ing to let go of the reins and demand­ed a recount. A runoff elec­tion was to be held that June. In the mean­time, MDC sup­port­ers were being vio­lent­ly attacked and killed by mem­bers of Mugabe’s oppo­si­tion. When Mugabe pub­licly declared that as long as he was liv­ing, he would nev­er let Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai con­clud­ed that Mugabe’s use of force would skew the vote in Mugabe’s favor any­way, and with­drew.

Mugabe’s refusal to hand over pres­i­den­tial pow­er led to anoth­er vio­lent out­break that injured thou­sands and result­ed in the death of 85 of Tsvangirai’s sup­port­ers. That September, Mugabe and Tsvangirai agreed to a pow­er-shar­ing deal. Ever deter­mined to remain in con­trol, Mugabe still man­aged to retain most of the pow­er by con­trol­ling secu­ri­ty forces and choos­ing lead­ers for the most vital min­istry posi­tions.

At the end of 2010, Mugabe took addi­tion­al action to seize total con­trol of Zimbabwe by select­ing pro­vi­sion­al gov­er­nors with­out con­sult­ing Tsvangirai. A U.S. diplo­mat­ic cable indi­cat­ed that Mugabe might be bat­tling prostate can­cer the fol­low­ing year. The alle­ga­tion raised pub­lic con­cerns about a mil­i­tary coup in the event of Mugabe’s death while in office. Others voiced con­cerns about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of vio­lent inter­nal war with­in the ZANU-PF, if can­di­dates sought to com­pete to become Mugabe’s suc­ces­sor.

2013 Election

On December 10, 2011, at the National People’s Conference in Bulawayo, Mugabe offi­cial­ly announced his bid for the 2012 Zimbabwe pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The elec­tion was post­poned, how­ev­er, as both sides agreed to draft a new con­sti­tu­tion, and resched­uled for 2013. People of Zimbabwe came out in sup­port of the new doc­u­ment in March 2013, approv­ing it in a con­sti­tu­tion ref­er­en­dum, though many believed that the 2013 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion would be marred by cor­rup­tion and vio­lence.

According to a Reuters report, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from near­ly 60 civic orga­ni­za­tions with­in the coun­try com­plained of a crack­down by Mugabe and his sup­port­ers. Critical of Mugabe, mem­bers of these groups were sub­ject to intim­i­da­tion, arrest and oth­er forms of per­se­cu­tion. There was also the ques­tion as to who would be allowed to super­vise the vot­ing process. Mugabe said that he would not let Westerners mon­i­tor any of the coun­try’s elec­tion.

In March, Mugabe trav­eled to Rome for the inau­gur­al mass for Pope Francis, who was new­ly named to the papa­cy. Mugabe told reporters that the new pope should vis­it Africa and stat­ed, “We hope he will take us all his chil­dren on the same basis, basis of equal­i­ty, basis that we are all in the eyes of God equal,” accord­ing to a report by The Associated Press.

In late July 2013, amid dis­cus­sion regard­ing the cur­rent and high­ly antic­i­pat­ed Zimbabwean elec­tion, an 89-year-old Mugabe made head­lines when he was asked whether he planned to run again in the 2018 elec­tion (he would be 94 then) by a reporter from The New York Times, to which the pres­i­dent respond­ed, “Why do you want to know my secrets?” According to The Washington Post, Mugabe’s oppo­nent, Tsvangirai, accused elec­tion offi­cials of throw­ing out near­ly 70,000 bal­lots in his favor that were sub­mit­ted ear­ly.

In ear­ly August, Zimbabwe’s elec­tion com­mis­sion declared Mugabe the vic­tor in the pres­i­den­tial race. He earned 61 per­cent of the vote with Tsvangirai receiv­ing only 34 per­cent, accord­ing to BBC News. Tsvangirai was expect­ed to launch a legal chal­lenge against the elec­tion results. According to the Guardian news­pa­per, Tsvangirai said the elec­tion did “not the reflect the will of the peo­ple. I don’t think that even those in Africa that have com­mit­ted acts of bal­lot rig­ging have done it such a brazen man­ner.”

Arrest of American Citizen

In November 2017 an American woman liv­ing in Zimbabwe was charged with sub­vert­ing the gov­ern­ment and under­min­ing the author­i­ty of — or insult­ing — the pres­i­dent. 

According to pros­e­cu­tors, the defen­dant, Martha O’Donovan, a project coör­di­na­tor for the activist Magamba Network, had “sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sought to incite polit­i­cal unrest through the expan­sion, devel­op­ment and use of a sophis­ti­cat­ed net­work of social media plat­forms as well as run­ning some Twitter accounts.” She faced up to 20 years in prison for the charges.

The arrest raised con­cerns that Mugabe’s gov­ern­ment was attempt­ing to con­trol social media ahead of the 2018 nation­al elec­tions.

Military Takeover and Resignation

Meanwhile, a more dire sit­u­a­tion was emerg­ing in Zimbabwe with the onset of what appeared to be a mil­i­tary coup. On November 14, not long after Mugabe’s dis­missal of vice pres­i­dent Emmerson Mnangagwa, tanks were spot­ted in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, Harare. Early the fol­low­ing morn­ing, an army spokesman appeared on TV to announce that the mil­i­tary was in the process of appre­hend­ing crim­i­nals who were “caus­ing social and eco­nom­ic suf­fer­ing in the coun­try in order to bring them to jus­tice.”

The spokesman empha­sized that this was not a mil­i­tary takeover of the gov­ern­ment, say­ing, “We wish to assure the nation that his excel­len­cy the pres­i­dent… and his fam­i­ly are safe and sound and their secu­ri­ty is guar­an­teed.” At the time, Mugabe’s where­abouts were unknown, but it was lat­er con­firmed that he had been con­fined to his home.

The fol­low­ing day, Zimbabwe’s The Herald pub­lished pho­tographs of the elder­ly pres­i­dent at home, along with oth­er gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary offi­cials. The offi­cials were report­ed­ly dis­cussing the imple­men­ta­tion of a tran­si­tion­al gov­ern­ment, though no pub­lic state­ment had been made on the mat­ter.

On November 17, Mugabe resur­faced in pub­lic at a uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny, an appear­ance believed to mask the tur­moil behind the scenes. After ini­tial­ly refus­ing to coöper­ate with pro­posed plans to peace­ful­ly remove him from pow­er, the pres­i­dent report­ed­ly agreed to announce his retire­ment dur­ing a tele­vised speech sched­uled for November 19.

However, Mugabe made no men­tion of retire­ment dur­ing the speech, instead insist­ing he would pre­side over a December con­gress of the ZANU-PF gov­ern­ing par­ty. As a result, it was announced that the par­ty would launch impeach­ment pro­ceed­ings to vote him out of pow­er.

On November 22, short­ly after a joint ses­sion of the Zimbabwean Parliament con­vened for the impeach­ment vote, the speak­er read a let­ter from the embat­tled pres­i­dent. “I have resigned to allow smooth trans­fer of pow­er,” Mugabe wrote. “Kindly give pub­lic notice of my deci­sion as soon as pos­si­ble.”

The end of Mugabe’s 37-year tenure was met with applause from Parliament mem­bers, as well as cel­e­bra­tions on the streets of Zimbabwe. According to a spokesman for the ZANU-PF, for­mer vice pres­i­dent Mnangagwa would take over as pres­i­dent and serve the remain­der of Mugabe’s term until the 2018 elec­tions.

Just before the elec­tions on July 30, 2018, Mugabe said he could not sup­port his suc­ces­sor, Mnangagwa, after being forced out by the “par­ty I found­ed,” and sug­gest­ed that oppo­si­tion leader Nelson Chamisa of the MDC was the only viable pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. That drew a strong response from Mnangagwa, who said, “It is clear to all that Chamisa has forged a deal with Mugabe, we can no longer believe that his inten­tions are to trans­form Zimbabwe and rebuild our nation.”

Tensions over the elec­tions also spilled out into the pub­lic, with demon­stra­tions turn­ing vio­lent over what was announced to be the ZANU-PF’s par­lia­men­tary vic­to­ry and Mnangagwa’s tri­umph. MDC Chairman Morgan Komichi said his par­ty would chal­lenge the out­come in court.


Mugabe died on September 6, 2019, at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore where he was under obser­va­tion for sev­er­al months for an undis­closed ill­ness.
“It is with the utmost sad­ness that I announce the pass­ing on of Zimbabwe’s found­ing father and for­mer President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa wrote on Twitter. “Cde Mugabe was an icon of lib­er­a­tion, a pan-Africanist who ded­i­cat­ed his life to the eman­ci­pa­tion and empow­er­ment of his peo­ple. His con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ry of our nation and con­ti­nent will nev­er be for­got­ten. May his soul rest in eter­nal peace.”