Prime News Ghana

End of an era: The man Robert Gabriel Mugabe

By Kwabena Owusu-Ampratwum
President Robert Mugabe is the world's oldest national leader [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]
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It is now apparent Zimababwe's Robert Mugabe is not returning to power after Wednesday's military take over of power in the South African nation.

The Army has maintained its not a coup but an intervention to restore sanity in the governing of the country. An army spokesman confirmed the safety of the country's 93-year-old leader - the world's oldest head of state. However, Mugabe's whereabouts were unknown following the army's takeover.

Already the ZANU-PF has named sacked Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa as its new leader. PrimeNewsGhana takes a look at the life of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 30 years.

Early life

Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, near Kutama, northeast of Salisbury (now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe), in what was then Rhodesia.

The former school teacher, with seven university degrees, first came to prominence after waging a bloody guerrilla war against the white colonial rulers who jailed him for 10 years over a "subversive speech" he made in 1964.

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 a 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 fulfilment 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. Membership of the Zimbabwe African People's Union grew to a staggering 450,000. Its voice refused to be silenced.

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."

In 1963, Mugabe and other former supporters of Nkomo founded their own resistance movement, called the Zimbabwe African National Union, or 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 and focus on the nation's economic recovery.

Opposition crackdown

In the early years of his rule, Mugabe was praised for expanding social services, including building schools and hospitals.

He was concurrently spearheading a brutal crackdown on his political opposition led by now-deceased nationalist Joshua Nkomo that claimed more than 20,000 lives, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

Tens of thousands of people were killed during the so-called "Gukurahundi", a suppression campaign waged by the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in the predominantly Ndebele regions of Zimbabwe. Most of the victims were supporters of Nkomo, Mugabe's fierce political opponent.

Nkomo was the founding father of the nationalist struggle for independence in Zimbabwe, and the "Gukurahundi" crackdown only ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU.

Mugabe assumed the presidency in 1987, with the prime minister role being abolished.

Since then, he has won a series of controversial elections that critics claim he rigged, including one in 2008 which he lost to now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, sparking political violence that human rights groups say claimed over 200 lives.

His supporters say he speaks for the poor; his critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.


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 colourful 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.

On March 29, 2008, when he lost the presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change, Mugabe was unwilling to let go of the reins. Mugabe 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 favour 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-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) Party 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, amidst 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."

The Grace Mugabe problem

Born in 1965 in South Africa, Grace Mugabe has been the first lady of Zimbabwe since she married President Robert Mugabe in 1996.

She is 41 years younger than her husband and was known for her expensive shopping habits and charity work before taking an active role in the country’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, in which she leads the women’s division.

Her extravagant lifestyle has been a source of discomfort in Zimbabwe where many face severe economic hardship.

Grace Mugabe until the house arrest of the first family of Zimbabwe was said to have been working to succeed Mugabe and her main rival to the presidency, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sacked by her husband in November 2017, leading to the military intervention. Sources say high ranking figures in the ZANU-PF opposed her leadership.

She recently sued Zimbabwean newspaper, The Standard, after it published Wikileaks cables, which claimed she took huge kickbacks from diamond mines in Zimbabwe. 

The University of Zimbabwe awarded her a doctoral degree in Sociology in 2014, two months after she started the course, sparking outrage among academics in the country.

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president of Zimbabwe, was born in 1946 and went on to become one of the founders of Zanu-PF in the sixties.

He fought in the country’s war of independence and was arrested in 1965, subsequently spending the next ten years in prison.

After he was freed, he was deported to Zambia, where he studied and practiced law, in addition to serving as Zanu-PF's secretary in Lusaka.

He became the special assistant to Mugabe in 1977, heading both the military and civil divisions of the party.

After independence, Mnangagwa became the first minister for national security and held various positions during his political career, ending up as vice president in 2013.

As a veteran of the war of independence and a powerful figure in Zanu-PF, he was seen as a possible successor to Mugabe.

Mnangagwa was removed from government by Mugabe in November 2017 for allegedly plotting against the incumbent leader and later fled to South Africa.

The vice president commanded the support of the army and veterans of the war of independence. The ZANU-PF in a tweet on Tuesday named him its new leader

Military tensions

Wednesday's military intervention came after a recent period of unrest within Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party. 

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwaan ally of the army chief and a veteran of the country's struggle for independence, was sacked on November 8 by Mugabe for showing "traits of disloyalty".

With Mnangagwa's exit, Mugabe ousted one of his last remaining associates from the liberation war, who have stood by him since independence from Britain in 1980.

Mnangagwa, who fled the country soon after, was seen as a likely successor to the ailing president, and his ousting appeared to pave the way for First Lady Grace Mugabe.

Army commander Constantino Chiwenga said on Monday, November 13, that the military would act if purges against former war liberation fighters did not cease.

War veterans, who fought alongside Mugabe during the 1970s liberation struggle and spearheaded the repossession of white-owned commercial farms in the 2000s, claim Mugabe has betrayed the revolution.

The ongoing purges of scores of Mnangagwa allies have widened the rift between the Mugabes and various groups of war veteran leaders.

Failures and achievements of Robert Mugabe

There have been growing calls by the opposition and critics demanding Mugabe to step down. Mugabe's rule has so far culminated in a massive economic crisis for Zimbabwe, once one of Africa's richest countries. His critics blame his policies.

Mugabe has empowered black Zimbabweans. Perhaps his biggest achievement, and according to some a failure, was a land reform policy that arguably marked the beginning of the downfall of the country.

He and other freedom fighters won independence mainly on a platform of reclaiming land back from the white minority.The turn of the century unleashed a wave of violent land acquisition by war veterans. Thousands of white farmers were forced out.

Many Zimbabweans agree that the black majority had to somehow take back the land. After all, about 75,000 hectares of productive land was owned by white farmers who make up only 1.5 percent of the population.

How the whole land indigenisation policy was conducted remains deeply dividing. Land, like in many other African countries, is a very emotive subject.

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe resigned as President of Zimbabwe on November 21, 2017

Credit: Aljazeera, Biography