Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s liberator and Icon, dies aged 95

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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses people at his party's 16th Annual Peoples Conference in Masvingo, Saturday, December, 17, 2016.

Robert Mugabe, the controversial former prime minister and president of Zimbabwe, has died aged 95.

Key points:

  • Robert Mugabe was prime minister and president of Zimbabwe for 37 years from 1980 to 2017
  • He brought to an end to white rule in Zimbabwe, but used torture and murder to keep his grip on power
  • Mr Mugabe was eventually ousted from power by his own army, and spent his last years out of the public eye

Confirming Mr Mugabe had died, Zimbabwe’s current President Emmerson Mnangagwa called him the nation’s “founding father”.

“Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people,” the tweet read.

“His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

A report on Zimbabwean news site ZimLive said Mr Mugabe died this morning in a hospital in Singapore.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2017

Mr Mugabe led his country to independence from Britain and dominated Zimbabwean politics for nearly four decades up to his ousting two years ago.

Known by his supporters as a warrior against white imperialism, Robert Mugabe will be remembered by many in the West as a dictator who presided over the decline of his nation.

Mugabe’s rise then Zimbabwe’s fall

Born on February 21, 1924, in a small mission in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia, he was the third of six children.

Mr Mugabe made his name leading the 1970s guerrilla war against Rhodesia’s white minority rule, earning a reputation among his countrymen and fellow African leaders as a revolutionary fighting for the freedom of his people.

In 1980, following a campaign plagued by violence and claims of vote rigging, he was sworn in as prime minister, bringing an end to white rule.

He later abolished the position of prime minister and assumed the new role — and additional powers — of president.

Robert Mugabe is sworn in as Zimbabwe’s first executive president by former president Canaan Banana.

Over the next two decades his socialist policies saw Zimbabwe’s once reasonably stable economy take a dive, sending much of the population into extreme poverty thanks to hyperinflation and food shortages.

But it was Mr Mugabe’s land reforms that will be his most controversial legacy, earning him a reputation in some quarters as a racist dictator.

When he took power, the majority of Zimbabwe’s best farmland was owned by whites, who made up less than 1 per cent of the country’s population.

Mr Mugabe set about introducing laws to change this, culminating in 2000 when he led a push to “redistribute” white land back to black farmers without compensation.

Robert Mugabe greets supporters during his 2000 election campaign.

He unleashed his personal militia of “war veterans” who invaded white farms and attacked his opponents.

Some white farmers fled the country, while many who stayed were tortured and murdered, along with any blacks who worked for them.

Mr Mugabe, who was regularly criticised for his lavish lifestyle, owned three farms which were forcibly seized from their white owners.

But Mugabe, an acclaimed orator, always defended his crusade against what he called white imperialism, even hitting back at being compared to Hitler.

“This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources,” he said.

“If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.”

The long road to resignation

The country hit rock bottom in 2008, when 500 billion per cent inflation drove people to support the challenge of Western-backed former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Facing defeat in a presidential run-off, Mr Mugabe resorted to violence, forcing Mr Tsvangirai to withdraw after scores of his supporters were killed by thugs from within Mr Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.

South Africa, Zimbabwe’s neighbour to the south, squeezed the pair into a fractious unity coalition but the compromise belied Mr Mugabe’s grip on power through his continued control of the army, police and secret service.

On the eve of the 2013 election, Mr Mugabe dismissed cries of autocracy and likened dealing with Mr Tsvangirai to sparring in the ring. “Although we boxed each other, it’s not as hostile as before,” he told reporters.

Even as he spoke, Mr Mugabe’s agents were busy finalising plans to engineer an election victory through manipulation of the voters’ roll, according to the Tsvangirai camp.

Mr Mugabe’s decline in his last years as president was partly linked to the political ambitions of his wife, Grace — a brash, divisive figure whose ruling party faction eventually lost out in a power struggle with supporters of Mr Mnangagwa, who was close to the military.

Mr Mugabe found fewer people to trust as he seemingly smoothed a path to succession for his wife, four decades his junior and known to her critics as “Gucci Grace” for her reputed fondness for luxury shopping.

Many believed Mr Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace wanted to succeed her husband.

Mr Mugabe was ultimately ousted by his own armed forces in November 2017.

He demonstrated his stubbornness to the last, refusing to accept his expulsion from his own party and clinging on for a week until parliament started to impeach him after the de facto coup.

His resignation triggered wild celebrations across the country of 13 million. For Mr Mugabe, it was an “unconstitutional and humiliating” act of betrayal by his party and people, and left him a broken man.

Confined for the remaining years of his life between Singapore where he was receiving medical treatment and his sprawling “Blue Roof” mansion in Harare, an ailing Mr Mugabe could only observe from afar the political stage where he once strode tall.

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