Liberator or oppressor? For many, Robert Mugabe was both.

Why We Wrote This

For many Western observers, the name Robert Mugabe brings to mind images of brutal control and economic chaos. But for many Zimbabweans, Mr. Mugabe’s legacy is far more complex.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/File
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe looks on before casting his vote in Highfields outside Harare on July 31, 2013. Mr. Mugabe, who died Sept. 6, was forced from office in 2017 after driving the country into virtual economic collapse.

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For many in Zimbabwe and abroad, Robert Mugabe was always far more than a president. Like Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro, he seemed a country personified – in both its brightest days and its most troubled. 

By the time of his death Friday, Mr. Mugabe’s failings were long established, from “land reforms” that sent images of weeping, bloodied white farmers around the globe to Zimbabwe’s eventual economic collapse. 

Yet, for many, he remains an icon among African leaders. His 37-year reign began with a surge of hope. In the first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence, the country’s rates of infant mortality and malnutrition plummeted, while literacy and life expectancy shot up. 

But soon many of his supporters turned into political rivals, as they began to suspect that his revolutionary ideals were at times a mask for a deep and unrelenting paranoia. And he eventually fell from power in a coup led by his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in November 2017. But the effects of Mr. Mugabe’s rule will likely be felt in Zimbabwe for a long time to come.

It was just after midnight on April 18, 1980, when a soccer stadium in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, became the scene of one of the most improbable moments in modern African history.

As foreign dignitaries looked on and millions followed along on television, a cadre of white soldiers dressed in the scarlet uniforms of the colonial government marched lockstep with the camouflage-clad guerrilla fighters they had spent more than a decade locked in a brutal civil war against. Then the two groups stopped, pivoted, and in unison saluted the flag of their newly independent black nation. 

“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you,” promised the prime minister of the minutes-old country, a bespectacled intellectual and former guerrilla leader named Robert Mugabe. “Oppression and racism are inequities that must never again find scope in our political and social system.” 

For observers around the world, it seemed the beginning of a new era, a remarkable rewrite of an earlier generation of African independence struggles, which had seen white settlers flee en masse the day a black government took the reins. And few doubted that the man at the podium was the right person for the job. 

“Unity, conciliation, respect for the rule of law. This was the admirable tone set by Robert Mugabe,” the Monitor’s Africa correspondent Gary Thatcher reported at the time.

For many in Zimbabwe and abroad, Mr. Mugabe, who died Friday in Singapore, was always far more than a president. Like Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro, he seemed a country personified – in both its brightest days and its most troubled. He spent 37 years as Zimbabwe’s commander in chief, from the country’s early years as the international poster child for the hopeful possibilities of African independence to its slow-motion economic collapse at the turn of the 21st century. 

Even after his fall from power in a coup led by his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in November 2017, Mr. Mugabe’s legacy hung low over a Zimbabwe marred by economic decay and political brutality. 

“The way he spoke of unity at independence, telling people to change their guns into ploughshares, spoke of a leader who was determined to make the country work and be a model democracy in the continent,” said Joice Mujuru, Zimbabwe’s vice president from 2004 until she was ousted by Mr. Mugabe a decade later, in a 2016 interview with the Monitor. But by the end of his life, she says, many had come to believe he had scuttled it all, leaving their country “the laughing stock of the world.” 

Gubb/AP/File
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe takes the oath of allegiance to Zimbabwe in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 18, 1980. For observers around the world, it seemed the beginning of a new era, a remarkable rewrite of an earlier generation of African independence struggles.

Yet if Mr. Mugabe’s failings were, by the time of his death, well established, for many, he remained an icon among African leaders, unafraid to take the West to task for its past and present sins on the continent. 

“Comrade Mugabe was a shining beacon of Africa’s liberation struggle,” wrote Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement Friday. “He spent a lifetime challenging Africa to find its place and voice among the Community of Nations, and stand tall. For all these and many other achievements, he will be fondly missed and remembered.” 

The hope of a young revolutionary

Mr. Mugabe was born Feb. 21, 1924, in the Zvimba district of what was then Southern Rhodesia, a lush British colony dotted with rolling green farms – home to the country’s large and prosperous white settler population. Like many families, the Mugabes believed the best way for their children to navigate the vastly unequal colonial world they were born into was education. He was schooled at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, the alma mater of African statesmen from Nelson Mandela to Julius Nyerere. He departed transformed. 

“When I left Fort Hare I had a new orientation and outlook,” he later said. “I no longer believed that change was possible from within the system.” 

But change was still a long way off for Southern Rhodesia, a fact that frustrated Mr. Mugabe, a young teacher, immensely. In 1960, he left teaching and joined the independence movement. Four years later, he was thrown in jail for “subversive speech.” 

When Mr. Mugabe emerged from prison a decade later, the contours of the world around him had changed dramatically. Once buffered by other white-ruled states, Rhodesia was fast becoming an international pariah. But Ian Smith, the segregationist prime minister, still had a white-knuckled grip on power. In 1976 he declared, “I do not believe in black majority rule – not in a thousand years.”

In fact, it would take just three. A grueling guerrilla war led by Mr. Mugabe soon pushed Mr. Smith to the bargaining table, and in September 1979, he agreed to new elections – with universal suffrage – the following year. 

The first years after independence were buoyant, and Zimbabwe’s new head of state was the West’s darling, recalled Simba Makoni, then a young deputy minister of agriculture and a rising star in Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party, in a 2016 interview with the Monitor. 

“[He] made us believe we had the greatest leader we could ever get,” said Mr. Makoni, who would go on to become Zimbabwe’s finance minister, and later, to challenge Mr. Mugabe for the presidency. 

A hard turn

In the first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence, the country’s rates of infant mortality and malnutrition plummeted, while literacy and life expectancy shot up. 

But the cracks were beginning to show.

As the world celebrated Zimbabwe’s progress, the country’s army was carrying out a brutal campaign against the president’s political rivals. Between 1983 and 1987, as many as 20,000 people, many unconnected to the opposition, were murdered across southern Zimbabwe by Mr. Mugabe’s notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. The operation was called Gukurahundi, or “the rain that washes away the chaff.”

“That was the first time the nation was divided into two,” Ms. Mujuru says. It was then, those close to Mr. Mugabe say, that they began to realize that his revolutionary ideals were at times a mask for a deep and unrelenting paranoia. 

“He carried some war-time grudges for the rest of his life,” Mr. Makoni says. “He thought he was surrounded by enemies, especially among fellow liberation war fighters.” 

Zimbabwe’s economic backslide, meanwhile, began as it did in much of Africa – with rigid austerity measures imposed by global lending institutions and their Western donors in the early 1990s. The country’s economy contracted sharply. Inflation spiked.

Mr. Mugabe countered in the early 2000s with what was to become his most controversial legacy – his fast-track land reform program, so called because those acquiring the land needed neither to ask nor pay for it. The country’s remaining commercial white farms were taken over, often violently, by groups loyal to Mr. Mugabe.

As images of weeping, bloodied white farmers circled the globe, Western countries rushed to impose sanctions against Mr. Mugabe’s regime, sending the economy further into a tailspin. 

But to the president, it hardly mattered. By that time Mr. Mugabe “believed that he was a political god” – untouchable and unassailable – said Jabulani Sibanda, a former leader of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association and a leading participant in the violent farm takeovers, in a 2016 interview. 

A complicated legacy

Like much of what Mr. Mugabe did in his lifetime, the legacy of his land reform programs is more complicated than it appears, with a number of studies in recent years remarking that, despite its violence, the program did achieve its goal of transferring arable land into the hands of the poor majority.

What is not in doubt, however, is Zimbabwe’s startling economic collapse near the end of Mr. Mugabe’s life. In late 2008, hyper-inflation in the country reached a darkly comical 79.6 billion percent as the country scrambled to print enough 100 trillion notes. Between 2000 and 2015, the country’s economy halved, and emigration escalated. 

Still, Mr. Mugabe continued to rig elections and unflinchingly eviscerate any international observers who dared question their legitimacy. But in the end, his political maneuvers went too far. In 2017, Mr. Mugabe fired his vice president and longtime confidant, Mr. Mnangagwa. In retaliation, Mr. Mnangagwa and the head of the country’s armed forces, Constantino Chiwenga, sent tanks rolling into Harare. 

Mr. Mugabe stepped down. Mr. Mnangagwa became president. But the “New Zimbabwe” looked remarkably like the old. The economy, or what little was left of it, continued its tumble. At times, Mr. Mnangagwa’s crackdown on his rivals and dissidents seemed even more extreme than his predecessor’s. 

“At the end, Mr. Mugabe was tired. He was ready to go,” said Progress Garakara, whose daughter Aleeya was born the day Mr. Mugabe resigned as president, in an interview with the Monitor last year. “But these [new] guys, you can see they are here to stay.”

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