Robert Mugabe, in full Robert Gabriel Mugabe, (born February 21, 1924, Kutama, Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]), the first prime minister (1980–87) of the reconstituted state of Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. A black nationalist of Marxist persuasion, he eventually established one-party rule in his country, becoming executive president of Zimbabwe in 1987. He resigned on November 21, 2017, after succumbing to political and military pressure.
The son of a village carpenter, Mugabe was trained as a teacher in a Roman Catholic mission school. He was introduced to nationalist politics while he was a student at the University College of Fort Hare, South Africa, and between 1956 and 1960 he taught in Ghana. Mugabe returned to Rhodesia in 1960, and in 1963 he helped the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) as a breakaway from
Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). In 1964 he was arrested for “subversive speech” and spent the next 10 years in prison. During that period he acquired law degrees by correspondence courses. While still in prison he led a coup in 1974 deposing Sithole as ZANU’s leader. In late 1974 Mugabe was freed. During the civil war that pitted Rhodesia’s black majority population against Prime Minister Ian Smith’s white-ruled Rhodesian government (1975–79), Mugabe was a joint leader, with Nkomo, of the Patriotic Front (PF) of Zimbabwe. The party’s guerrillas operated against the Rhodesian government from bases in neighboring Zambia, Mozambique, and Angola. Fresh negotiations in London in 1979 ended the war and led to new British-supervised parliamentary elections in February 1980. Mugabe’s party, now using the name ZANU-PF, won a landslide victory over the other black parties, and he became prime minister.
As prime minister, Mugabe initially followed a pragmatic course designed to reassure Zimbabwe’s remaining white farmers and businessmen, whose skills were vital to the economy. He formed a coalition government between his party, ZANU-PF (which drew its support from the majority Shona people), and Nkomo’s ZAPU (which drew its support from the minority Ndebele people), and he abided by the new constitution’s guarantees of substantial parliamentary representation for whites. At the same time, Mugabe took steps to improve a lot of black Zimbabweans through increased wages, improved social services, and food subsidies. In 1982 Mugabe ousted Nkomo from the coalition cabinet, and ethnic strife between the Shona and the Ndebele subsequently troubled the country. Zimbabwe’s economy steadily declined despite Mugabe’s measures, and whites continued to emigrate in substantial numbers. Mugabe had always intended to convert Zimbabwe from a parliamentary democracy into a one-party socialist state. In 1984 ZANU-PF held a congress, made Mugabe its unchallenged leader, and set up a new party structure with a Central Committee and a Politburo that were designed to rule both the party and Zimbabwe. In 1987 Mugabe’s and Nkomo’s parties merged into one under the name of ZANU-PF, and as the first secretary of the new party, Mugabe retained absolute control over it. On December 31, 1987, he became Zimbabwe’s first executive president, effectively establishing one-party rule. In 1990 he was reelected president in a multiparty election that was marked by intimidation and violence.
Mugabe faced growing unrest in the late 1990s. A failing economy and his decision to send troops to assist President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in his fight against rebels led to strikes, and in November 1998 riots occurred following Mugabe’s announcement that he and members of his cabinet would receive pay increases. Factions within ZANU-PF continued to press for a true multiparty system. The first real opposition to Mugabe’s government came from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), formed in September 1999 and led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. In the parliamentary elections of 2000, the MDC won about half of the contested seats, but ZANU-PF won or controlled most of the remaining seats and thus maintained firm control of Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, war veterans, demanding immediate land reforms, threatened to occupy some of the country’s white-owned farms. Mugabe showed sympathy for their cause, doing nothing to dissuade them. In the months leading to the 2000 parliamentary elections, the veterans acted on their threats, which led to heightened tensions in the country. Although Mugabe was reelected in 2002, the elections were tainted by violence and criticized by observers. A law passed later that year allowed Mugabe to pursue an aggressive program of confiscating white-owned farms; more than half of the country’s white farmers were forced to relinquish their property. Unfortunately, the property was often claimed by politically connected individuals with little or no farming experience. The government’s lack of forethought in forcing out the white farmers and failing to replace them with experienced farmworkers contributed to a significant decline in agricultural productivity; this, as well as drought, led to severe food shortages in Zimbabwe.
As Mugabe’s popularity further declined, his regime became increasingly brutal and repressive. Media freedom was curtailed, the opposition was harassed and beaten, and a controversial program that caused the demolition of illegal housing structures was implemented, rendering hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans homeless. The economy continued to decline, and in 2007 the country had the highest rate of inflation in the world, as well as one of the highest rates of unemployment. Most Zimbabweans did not have adequate access to basic commodities, such as food or fuel, and Mugabe’s administration continued to be the subject of much international criticism. Despite this, Mugabe remained popular within ZANU-PF, and in December 2007 the party endorsed Mugabe as its presidential candidate in the 2008 elections.
In the months leading up to the elections, the country continued its downward economic spiral, with its inflation rate surpassing 100,000 percent. Support for Mugabe appeared to waver: former finance minister and ZANU-PF stalwart Simba Makoni announced that he was running against Mugabe for the presidency, and the MDC, with Tsvangirai as its presidential candidate, saw its popularity increase throughout the country, even in areas that were typically ZANU-PF strongholds. Presidential, parliamentary, and local elections were held on March 29, 2008. Unofficial preliminary results indicated a favorable outcome for Tsvangirai and the MDC, but, as days passed with only a slow, partial release of parliamentary results (and the complete absence of presidential results), many feared that Mugabe and ZANU-PF were manipulating the outcome of the elections in their favor. On April 2 the MDC released its own account of presidential election results, which indicated that Mugabe had lost to Tsvangirai by capturing slightly less than half the votes; the MDC’s claims were dismissed by ZANU-PF. Official results released later that day indicated that ZANU-PF had lost its majority in the House of Assembly, but Senate results announced several days later revealed a split between the MDC and ZANU-PF, with the latter receiving an only slightly larger share of the votes. There was no official announcement of the final results for the presidential contest until May 2, when it was announced that Mugabe had received 43.2 percent of the votes and Tsvangirai 47.9 percent. However, since no candidate had secured a majority of the votes, a runoff election would be necessary, which was later scheduled for June 27.
The weeks leading up to the runoff election were plagued with political violence, which the MDC asserted was sponsored by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF-led government; the government, in turn, claimed that the MDC was responsible. An increasingly tense climate was further heightened by several government actions, including the detention of Tsvangirai and several other MDC officials and supporters, as well as several diplomats from the United Kingdom and the United States who were in the midst of investigating reports of pre-election violence, the suspension of all humanitarian aid operations in the country, and statements from Mugabe implying that he would not cede power to the opposition if he lost the runoff election. Less than a week before the election, Tsvangirai announced that he would withdraw from the contest, citing the impossibility of a free and fair election in the country’s current climate of violence and intimidation. Nevertheless, the election was still held, and Mugabe was declared the winner despite assertions from independent observers that the election was neither free nor fair.
The fact that the election was even held—as well as the outcome—prompted widespread international condemnation, most notably from the governments of African countries that had previously supported Mugabe, and there were calls for the MDC and ZANU-PF to form a power-sharing government. To that end, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sponsored negotiations, led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, between Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Arthur Mutambara, the leader of an MDC splinter faction. After several weeks of negotiations, the three Zimbabwean leaders signed a comprehensive power-sharing agreement—referred to as the Global Political Agreement—on September 15, 2008. As part of the agreement, Mugabe would remain president but would cede some power to Tsvangirai, who would serve as prime minister; Mutambara would serve as a deputy prime minister.
Robert Mugabe, 2009
In the months that followed, Mugabe and Tsvangirai could not come to terms on how to implement the agreement, arguing over how to allocate the new government’s key ministries between ZANU-PF and the MDC. Stalled talks and repeated attempts by the SADC to get discussions back on the track continued against a backdrop of worsening economic and humanitarian conditions in Zimbabwe. In addition, dozens of MDC supporters, reporters, and human rights activists had disappeared; the MDC alleged that they had been abducted by ZANU-PF- and government-allied forces. International support of continued negotiations for the implementation of the power-sharing government began to wane, with some critics calling for Mugabe to step down from power; he adamantly refused to do so, stating, “I will never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.” He later announced his intention to form a government on his own if Tsvangirai and the MDC would not participate. In late January 2009 Tsvangirai—under pressure from the SADC—agreed to join Mugabe in a new government, despite lingering misgivings, and was sworn in as prime minister on February 11, 2009.
The unity government was a troubled one: the MDC and ZANU-PF struggled to agree on various appointments, Tsvangirai denounced ongoing human-rights violations, and in the following years the acrimony continued in many matters, including the drafting of a new constitution. After much wrangling, both parties supported the final draft, which was approved via referendum in March 2013 and signed into law by Mugabe in May 2013. Later that month the Constitutional Court declared that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls were to be held by the end of July. Mugabe then called for the elections to be held on July 31, 2013. In spite of concerns that there was not enough time to organize credible elections, the polls were held as planned. The voting process proceeded peacefully, but there were many complaints of voting irregularities, most of which appeared to put Mugabe and ZANU-PF at an advantage. Ultimately, Mugabe was declared the winner with about 61 percent of the vote (eliminating the need for a runoff election) to some 34 percent for Tsvangirai. Even before the final results were released, Tsvangirai and his party had dismissed the election as invalid, and, after the results were announced, the MDC filed a legal challenge with the Constitutional Court, seeking to nullify the results and hold a new election. A week later, however, the MDC withdrew its petition, believing that it would not be able to receive a fair hearing. The court ignored the withdrawal and ruled on the petition, upholding Mugabe’s victory. He was inaugurated on August 22, 2013.
Robert Mugabe (right) at a campaign rally, 2013
When Mugabe was inaugurated in 2013, he was already 89 years of age, and many wondered how much longer he could continue to rule and, crucially, who would eventually succeed him. He avoided any official discussion of the topic, which, along with his increasing frailty and declining health in the following years, led to an increasing amount of infighting within ZANU-PF, with factions developing as party members tried to amass support and position themselves to claim the presidency. For many years, Joice Mujuru was thought to be the main contender to succeed Mugabe. Mujuru was a celebrated veteran of the guerrilla war against Rhodesia’s white-minority government and was one of Zimbabwe’s two vice presidents. In 2014, however, Mugabe’s wife, Grace, launched a string of stinging verbal assaults on Mujuru’s character, culminating with Mujuru being dismissed from the vice presidency in December 2014 and expelled from the party months later. Emmerson Mnangagwa, another decorated liberation war hero with a prominent standing in ZANU-PF, replaced Mujuru as vice president and was poised as a leading contender to succeed Mugabe, but he, too, fell victim to blistering verbal attacks by Grace and, later, her husband. He was dismissed from the vice presidency on November 6, 2017, and reportedly fled the country; he was soon expelled from the party as well. Grace, who had only become active in politics in 2014, managed to ascend rapidly, securing an influential post as head of ZANU-PF’s Women’s League in late 2014, which automatically made her a member of ZANU-PF’s powerful politburo. She also earned the backing of G40, a group of young ZANU-PF leaders, and ZANU-PF’s Youth League. With Mnangagwa’s dismissal, she managed to position herself, with her husband’s support, as the sole candidate to succeed him as president. Mnangagwa’s ouster appeared to have crossed a line with the military, however, and on November 13 Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, chief of Zimbabwe’s army, threatened to intervene if ZANU-PF did not stop purging the respected liberation veterans from the party.
The intervention came in the early hours of November 15, 2017. The military seized power and placed Mugabe under house arrest. In a televised address, a military spokesperson stressed that the military action was not a coup but an operation to target the “criminals” who surrounded Mugabe and were responsible for the country’s economic and social troubles. After they were brought to justice, the situation would return to normal, the military pledged. The spokesperson also said that the safety of Mugabe and his family was guaranteed and that Mugabe was still the president and commander in chief. The military began searching for and arresting members of Mugabe’s cabinet as well as prominent G40 leaders and supporters of Grace. Any lingering signs of visible support for Mugabe among the general population began to evaporate, as thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations calling for him to step down. Support from party members also dissipated: at a meeting of ZANU-PF’s Central Committee on November 19, members voted to remove Mugabe as party leader and replace him with Mnangagwa. The committee also voted to remove Grace from her position as head of the Women’s League and expelled her and many of her G40 supporters from the party. Furthermore, ZANU-PF called for Mugabe’s resignation, threatening to impeach him if he did not step down voluntarily. On November 21, after Mugabe had not heeded calls to resign, ZANU-PF initiated impeachment proceedings in the parliament, including in its charges that the president had allowed his wife to unjustifiably gain power and that he was no longer able to fulfill his duties as president. The same day, Mugabe submitted a letter announcing his resignation, effective immediately. Mnangagwa, who had been chosen by ZANU-PF’s Central Committee to serve out the remainder of Mugabe’s term, returned to the country the following day. He was inaugurated as interim president of Zimbabwe on November 24, 2017.