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Zimbabwe's Strongman & Ex President, Robert Mugabe Dies at 95

Zimbabwe's Strongman & Ex President, Robert Mugabe Dies at 95


Robert Mugabe, the first prime minister and later president of independent Zimbabwe, died on Friday in Singapore, where he had been receiving medical care. He was 95.

The death, at Gleneagles Hospital, was announced by his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday, using the abbreviation for comrade. “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.”

In August, Mr. Mnangagwa said that Mr. Mugabe had spent several months in Singapore getting treatment for an undisclosed illness.

Mr. Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state before his ouster in 2017, was the only leader Zimbabweans had known since independence, in 1980. Like many who liberated their countries, Mr. Mugabe believed that Zimbabwe was his to govern until the end. In a speech before the African Union in 2016, he said he would remain at the helm "until God says, Come".

The African Liberator Who Died Seen As A Tyrant

Throughout, Mr. Mugabe remained inscrutable, some would say conflicted. Remote, calculating, ascetic and cerebral, a self-styled revolutionary inspired by what he once called “Marxist-Leninism-Mao-Tse-tung thought,” he affected a scholarly manner, bespectacled and haughty, a vestige of his early years as a schoolteacher. But his hunger for power was undiluted.

In an interview with state-run television on his 93rd birthday, in February 2017, Mr. Mugabe indicated that he would run again in presidential elections in 2018.

They want me to stand for elections; they want me to stand for elections everywhere in the party,” he said. “The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement, successor, who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am.”

He added, “The people, you know, would want to judge everyone else on the basis of President Mugabe as the criteria.”

Events proved him wrong. In November 2017, army officers, fearing that Mr. Mugabe would anoint his second wife, Grace Mugabe, as his political heir, moved against him. Within a dramatic few days he was placed under house arrest and forced by his political party, ZANU-PF, to step down.

The military insisted that the ouster did not amount to a coup, although it had all the trappings of one, with armored vehicles patrolling the streets. The officers took control of the state broadcaster to announce their action.

Yet remarkably in a continent where deposed leaders often meet grisly fates or flee into exile, Mr. Mugabe and his wife were allowed to remain in their sumptuous 24-bedroom home in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

In his final years in power, Mr. Mugabe presided over a shattered economy and a fractured political class that was jockeying for influence in anticipation of his death. Though often viewed in the West as a pariah, he was, in many corners of Africa, considered an elder statesman thanks to his liberation pedigree, his longevity and his eloquence in articulating a broad resentment of Western powers’ past and present policies toward the continent.

If Nelson Mandela of South Africa, his contemporary, won universal admiration for emphasizing reconciliation, Mr. Mugabe tapped into an equally powerful sentiment in Africa: that the West had not sufficiently atoned for its sins and had continued to bully the continent.

But once he won power in Zimbabwe’s first free elections, in 1980, after a seven-year war, he turned, with a blend of guile and brutality, to the elimination of adversaries, real and imagined.

He found them in many places: among the minority Ndebele ethnic group and the clergy; in the judiciary and the independent news media; in the political opposition and other corners of society pushing for democracy; and in the countryside, where white farmers were chased off their land from 2000 onward.

Always able to outwit and coerce political opponents, he was re-elected to a seventh term in office in 2013.

A New Wife Ascends

Electoral triumph was not the end of the story, however. In late 2014 Mr. Mugabe purged his governing party, replacing his vice president, Joice Majuru, with Mr. Mnangagwa, a hard-line loyalist, and elevating his second wife, Grace Mugabe, a former typist some four decades his junior, to high office in the party.

There were even suggestions that he sought to establish her as the head of a dynasty, or at least to assure her of a place in the eventual succession.

It was precisely that stratagem that brought his downfall. Grace Mugabe’s maneuvers and ambitions unsettled the very people in the military and security elite who had backed Mr. Mugabe in return for a share of the spoils. The army officers who pushed him from office had once helped solidify his hold on it.

If his political instincts at home had finally deserted him, his grasp of continental diplomacy had not. To the annoyance of his adversaries at home and in the West, his stature across Africa seemed only to rise in his 90s, even as he grew frail and was given to mental lapses. (In one instance he read the same speech to Parliament twice.)

In 2014 he assumed the rotating, one-year presidency of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. Then, in early 2015, the African Union, the continent’s main representative body, appointed him chairman for the year.

Mr. Mugabe continued to display an uncanny ability to divide African and Western opinion of him. In October 2017, the World Health Organization, led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, its first African director general, stunned Western donors and human rights groups by naming the despotic Mr. Mugabe as a “good-will ambassador.”

The appointment drew an outcry; Mr. Mugabe’s critics accused him of presiding in Zimbabwe over the ruin of what was once one of Africa’s most efficient public health services. Moreover, they pointed out that he traveled abroad frequently for his own medical treatment, often to Singapore. Within days, Mr. Tedros was forced to rescind the appointment.

Later, at a time when the election of President Trump had stirred consternation among America’s European and NATO allies, the usually anti-Western Mr. Mugabe surprised them when, speaking of Mr. Trump, he urged global leaders to “give him time.”

In 2014 he assumed the rotating, one-year presidency of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. Then, in early 2015, the African Union, the continent’s main representative body, appointed him chairman for the year.

Mr. Mugabe continued to display an uncanny ability to divide African and Western opinion of him. In October 2017, the World Health Organization, led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, its first African director general, stunned Western donors and human rights groups by naming the despotic Mr. Mugabe as a “good-will ambassador.”

The appointment drew an outcry; Mr. Mugabe’s critics accused him of presiding in Zimbabwe over the ruin of what was once one of Africa’s most efficient public health services. Moreover, they pointed out that he traveled abroad frequently for his own medical treatment, often to Singapore. Within days, Mr. Tedros was forced to rescind the appointment.

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