The war hero and teacher who became a dictator

Robert Mugabe is the first prime minister and, later, first president of an independent Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.

A qualified teacher and able negotiator, he was regarded on his assumption of power as the one man capable of healing the wounds left by years of civil war.

But his brutal suppression of a revolt by the Ndebele people of the south provided an early taste of the methods that would make Zimbabwe a by-word for political repression and economic mismanagement.

At 93, Mugabe is the oldest serving head of state and one of Africa’s longest leaders. As the Army took control of the state broadcaster, they said Mugabe is “safe”.

In 1990 – two years before his first wife Sally died, aged 59 – Mugabe married his former secretary Grace Marufu, 40 years his junior, in a tribal ceremony.

Mugabe started his political career fighting against the white minority government of Ian Smith.

He was detained for 10 years until 1974 before leaving for Mozambique, where he helped dictate the Zimbabwe African National Union’s role in guerrilla warfare.

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Robert Mugabe shakes hands with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980

When, in 1978, Smith bowed to external pressure and agreed to representative elections, they were won by the rival UANC, the only black party to have renounced violence.

Britain and the US, however, refused to lift sanctions, and a conference of all parties was organised at Lancaster House in London .

Mr Mugabe, as leader of the ZANU, which drew support from the majority Shona people, attended the talks as effective prime minister-in-waiting.

The former teacher married his one time secretary Grace Marufu in 1990
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The former teacher married his one-time secretary Grace Marufu in 1990

In the ensuing elections, in March 1980, ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) won 57 of 80 seats in the new parliament, where a further 20 seats were reserved for whites.

Mr Mugabe himself survived two assassination attempts during the campaign.

The result left Mugabe as prime minister but also gave rise to an uneasy coalition with his ZAPU rivals, representing the Ndebele.

In 1983, he dismissed ZAPU’s Joshua Nkomo from his cabinet, triggering an armed rebellion in Ndebeleland.

This was put down with marked brutality by elements of the new Zimbabwe army whose training had been conducted along North Korean lines.

Afterwards, in 1987, Mugabe marked his assumption of unchallenged power by abolishing the office of prime minister and declaring himself executive president.

Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mr Mugabe in a presidential election, but backed out of a run-off in the face of violence
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Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in an election, but backed out of a run-off in the face of violence

He was subsequently re-elected in 1990, 1996 and 2002 in elections whose fairness was increasingly called into question.

Mugabe styles himself as the “Grand Old Man” of African politics, with defenders saying his government achieved notable improvements in both health and education for the black majority.

But he is reviled in the West as an authoritarian who mishandled the economy and resorted to violence to maintain power.

The country’s economy collapsed under his rule, and massive imports of foreign aid were needed simply to feed the people as hyperinflation hit the country from the late 1990s.


Major General Moyo insisted President Mugabe was safe

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‘We are only targeting criminals around Mugabe’

By 2009, Zimbabwe stopped printings its currency and in 2015 it announced plans to completely switch to using the US dollar.

Military intervention in the civil war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo proved a heavy financial burden.

But it was the forced distribution of land that proved decisive, turning what had been an exporter of food into a country where five million depended on food aid.

When Mr Mugabe became prime minister, some 70% of arable land was owned by around 4,000 descendants of white settlers.

The Zimbabwean currency was hit by hyperinflation as the economy deteriorated
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The Zimbabwean currency was hit by hyperinflation as the economy deteriorated

Favouring a “willing buyer, willing seller” plan for the gradual redistribution of land, little was achieved until Mr Mugabe began using force in 1999 and 2000.

Self-styled “war veterans” invaded white-owned farms, and the British public quickly became familiar with stories of beatings, rape and killings.

The farm invasions severely affected agricultural production, leaving much of the country’s population lacking enough food to meet basic needs.

In 2001, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe’s membership, and when this was extended 18 months later Mugabe pulled his country out.

The US, meanwhile, had imposed sanctions of its own, saying the situation in Zimbabwe endangered the entire southern African region.

In 2004, the African Union openly criticised Zimbabwe’s open violation of human rights, citing the arrest and torture of lawyers, journalists and MPs.

War veterans arrive to seize control of Parklands Farm, west of Harare, in 2000
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War veterans arrive to seize control of Parklands Farm, west of Harare, in 2000

Mr Mugabe has also been accused of using starvation as a conscious political weapon by denying food aid to those areas supporting the opposition.

He was initially defeated in the presidential vote in 2008, with Morgan Tsvangirai winning by 47.9% to 43.2%.

But ahead of a run-off between the two as neither had secured 50% of the vote, a violent campaign against supporters of Mr Tsvangirai saw scores killed and thousands displaced.

Mr Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off, and Mr Mugabe was re-inaugurated despite strong international condemnation of the election.

Mr Mugabe won another presidential election in 2013, but the ballots were widely not considered free or fair, with claims of vote rigging and fears over violence.

Zimbabwe, which has an unemployment rate of more than 90%, is due to hold elections next year with Mugabe pledging to stand for office again.

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