HARARE: When he came to power, Robert Mugabe was feted as an African liberation hero in a nation that had endured nearly a century of white colonial rule.
Nearly four decades after the country’s independence from Britain in 1980, he was regarded by many as an autocrat, willing to unleash death squads, rig elections and trash the economy in the relentless pursuit of power.
The 93-year-old resigned as president on Tuesday, ending 37 years of rule. He had clung on for a week after an army takeover and expulsion from his ZANU-PF party, but quit after parliament began an impeachment process against him.
Educated and urbane, Mugabe took power after seven years of a liberation bush war and is the only leader Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, has known since independence from Britain in 1980.
“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife,” Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of Zimbabwe’s influential liberation war veterans, told Reuters after the army takeover.
Born on a Catholic mission near Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a primary school teacher before going to South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, then a breeding ground for African nationalism.
Returning to Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics but was jailed for a decade four years later for opposing white rule.
After his release, he rose to the top of the powerful Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, known as the “thinking man’s guerrilla” on account of his seven degrees, three of them earned behind bars.
Later, as he crushed his political enemies, he boasted of another qualification — “a degree in violence”.
After the long bush war ended, Mugabe was elected as the nation’s first black prime minister. Initially, he offered reconciliation to old adversaries as he presided over a booming economy. But it was not long before Mugabe began to suppress challengers such as liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.
Faced with a revolt in the mid-1980s in the western province of Matabeleland which he blamed on Nkomo, Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained army units, provoking an international outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians.
After two terms as prime minister, Mugabe changed the constitution and was elected president in 1990, shortly before the death of his first wife, Sally, seen by many as the only person capable of restraining him.
When, at the end of the century, he lost a constitutional referendum followed by a groundswell of black anger at the slow pace of land reform, his response was uncompromising.
As gangs of black people calling themselves war veterans invaded white-owned farms, Mugabe said it was a correction of colonial injustices.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017