Robert Mugabe Colonized His Own Country
He led Zimbabwe to independence—and looted it until the day he died.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the late president of Zimbabwe whose death at the age of 95 was announced today by his country’s government, was perhaps the most enduring symbol of Africa’s struggle for liberation from colonial rule. Freedom fighter, hero, dictator, educator, dandy, and Britain-hating Anglophile—he embodied all of these roles. Most importantly, he was able to articulate what so many Africans felt in the dying days of European empire: that the time for independence had come.
But he will also be remembered for the tragic direction he led Zimbabwe in when independence finally came. In 37 years at the helm, he sank his once-prosperous nation into economic despair, and headed a liberation party, ZANU-PF, that was notorious for its use of violence and intimidation, especially as a response to political challengers. When the opposition politician Morgan Tsvangirai came close to beating Mugabe in the 2008 election, his followers were beaten, disappeared, and killed. It was a routine the Zimbabwean president had rehearsed many times during his rule.
The neglect and contempt with which Mugabe treated his own people ultimately seemed patterned on his country’s prerevolutionary leaders. After spending his life resisting colonialism and becoming a symbol for that struggle across the continent, he ended his life as a sort of colonialist himself.
The third of six children, Mugabe was born in 1924 in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia, and raised by his Shona mother Bona. His father, Gabriel Matibili, who came from present-day Malawi, abandoned the family in the mid-1930s, after the deaths of Mugabe’s two elder brothers.
Years earlier, Jesuit priests from England and Ireland had founded a mission near the family homestead, and it was there that young Mugabe developed his love for education. A brother, a cousin, and school peers who knew him at this stage of his life remarked on his aloofness, his aversion to socializing. He was an inept athlete and a sore loser at tennis, but he had a passionate attachment to books, according to James Chikerema, a fellow politician who knew him back then.
At this tender age Mugabe was still a subject of empire. His mind was set on becoming a teacher, then a highly valued profession among Africans. He received six years of primary-school education and then a further two years of teacher training before becoming an instructor in the same college that had educated him, supporting his mother and siblings with his modest salary.
After her husband left, Bona retreated into her Catholic faith, dragging the young Mugabe to mass every day. According to Heidi Holland’s book Dinner with Mugabe, an Irish priest named Jerome O’Hea took the future Zimbabwean leader under his wing, noting his single-minded determination and “unusual gravitas.” George Kahari, who attended school at the mission with Mugabe, described a young man who rarely changed his mind once it was made up. “Once he’s taken a position, that’s it—you can’t influence him,” he said. “Robert developed a pathological hatred of his father, for example, and never revised it.”
The Africa of Mugabe’s youth was screaming out for change. Even as World War II unfolded and Africans were dying under colonial flags, the specter of independence loomed large. By the time the African war veterans returned home with stories of Europe’s destruction, of white men killing and turning their backs on one another, it was virtually impossible for the educated not to take up the mantle of nationalism.
While he was a student at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, Mugabe came into contact with Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, and other future leaders who would become torch-bearers of Africa’s march for independence in the 1960s. It was at Fort Hare that Mugabe read Marxist literature, exchanged ideas with South African communists, and came into contact with the youth wing of the African National Congress, the vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement.
According to Mugabe, however, the most important influence on his political thinking at the time was Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose passive resistance campaigns paved the way for the end of colonial rule in India. On his return to Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe gave speeches in the townships on the need for independence from white rule, marking himself in the eyes of Ian Smith’s racist government. There followed a stint in prison for sedition because of his political activism. Mugabe moved to Northern Rhodesia and then to Ghana, where he worked as a teacher and married his first wife, Sally Hayfron. Ghanaian independence and Kwame Nkrumah, the man who led the movement, had a heady influence on him, and he returned to the Southern Rhodesian capital, Salisbury (now Harare), with speeches on what independence meant. He joined the Zimbabwe African National Union with the explicit aim of carrying out an armed insurrection to force the white settlers to grant independence to Africans.
But during this period, every political party fighting for the African cause came under a blanket ban, and Mugabe found himself behind bars again from 1964 to 1974. As the country sank into a bloody civil war and everyone from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger struggled to find a solution to the “Rhodesia problem,” the future Zimbabwean leader was educating himself in prison. In addition to the degrees in history and law he had obtained at Fort Hare, Mugabe acquired three more qualifications by correspondence. (By the time he was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s prime minister, he had collected six degrees.)
Upon his release from prison, he crossed the border into Mozambique to join what had become a militant wing of the liberation struggle. After Rhodesian forces assassinated a number of the movement’s top leaders, he took over the political leadership of the struggle, embracing a socialist path as his guerrillas fought ever more bitter battles with Rhodesia’s remaining settlers. Eventually, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith was forced to the negotiating table, paving the way for a ceasefire in 1979 and Mugabe’s election as prime minister in 1980.
The first three years of Mugabe’s rule were the golden years of Zimbabwean independence. As prime minister, he sought reconciliation with the former Rhodesian white settlers with whom he and his followers had just fought a bitter 15-year guerilla war. He allowed the former white ruler, Ian Smith, to stay on as an ordinary farmer in the new country and made his rival for power, Joshua Nkomo, the former nationalist leader of the rival Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), a minister in his cabinet.
As a result, many large-scale white commercial farmers decided to stay put, and Zimbabwe remained an agricultural powerhouse, exporting surplus grain as far afield as Kenya. Mugabe’s government also introduced free primary education and halved secondary school fees, fast-tracking an eager postapartheid generation into higher education. Even today, Zimbabwe boasts among the highest literacy rates in Africa.
Mugabe also emerged as a Pan-Africanist leader, rallying other African states against the racist apartheid government in South Africa. He took in thousands of South African refugees and backed one of the country’s main liberation parties, the Pan Africanist Congress, whose military wing chanted the slogan “one settler, one bullet.” The Afrikaner government in Pretoria responded by making aerial bombing forays deep into Zimbabwean territory to assassinate anti-apartheid activists.
But it didn’t take long for Mugabe to succumb to the temptations of power. Two years into his rule, he fired Nkomo and accused him of creating a new army to topple the government. He dispatched the army’s Fifth Brigade to hunt out “dissidents” in Matabeleland, the heartland of Nkomo’s popular support, resulting in the deaths of some 20,000 civilians in an operation now infamously referred to as the Gukurahundi, from a Shona word for spring rains that wash away the chaff.
By the mid-1980s, Mugabe had crushed his main rivals and consolidated control of the state. He made no secret of his desire to see a one-party system and aligned himself closely to Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union. There was, however, no strong political opposition, just the remnants of a disgruntled white ruling class that had been leaving in droves to set up shop in apartheid South Africa. Then, in 1987, Mugabe delivered his coup de grâce, abolishing the post of prime minister and granting himself sweeping powers as the newly created executive president.
But as Mugabe’s powers grew, so did the scale of the problems facing Zimbabwe. The economy in the early 1990s was flagging amid recurrent droughts and a drop in mineral prices, and a structural adjustment program led by the International Monetary Fund was bleeding the value of Zimbabwe’s dollar. Meanwhile, veterans of the liberation struggle, who had long ago been promised land as part of the transition to independence, were growing impatient, opening the president up to new political challengers.
By 2000, Mugabe found himself cornered between the demands of the veterans and the rise of a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that was led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai and rapidly gaining support among urban workers. The Western media will of course remember how the president backed himself out of this corner, adopting controversial land reform laws that saw several generations of white farmers kicked off their properties in a haphazard and often violent operation.
The move precipitated the total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. Large-scale commercial farms that had been cultivating cash crops such as cotton and tobacco or exporting beef to neighboring countries were gone in the blink of an eye, leading to hyperinflation and the notorious printing of trillion-dollar notes. But the land reform laws did mean that poor black farmers, who had owned little during generations of white rule, became tobacco farmers overnight as the government divvied up the spoils.
Unfortunately, most of the spoils went to government ministers and other Mugabe loyalists. In especially egregious cases, ministers acquired as many as ten properties, despite a law that theoretically limited new farmers to one farm per person. But such was the excess of the patronage system built by Mugabe: When after the new millennium the country discovered a bonanza of mineral wealth in diamonds, platinum, and gold, it was the president’s cronies who again rushed to take advantage —at the expense of the ordinary people who lived atop the mines.
Internationally, Mugabe became a pariah. The European Union and the United States placed sanctions on financial dealings with Zimbabwe, and members of the president’s inner circle were slapped with travel bans over widely reported human-rights abuses and the tight control of the electoral process, which failed international transparency tests and continually returned the aging leader to power.
The West tightened the screws even further after the disputed election in March 2008, in which Mugabe failed to win a majority of the votes and polled far below his rival, the MDC’s Tsvangirai. A runoff was called for June, and in the intervening weeks, the MDC’s supporters were attacked, disappeared, and brutally murdered. As a result, the opposition boycotted the poll, paving the way for Mugabe to win. The president’s rhetoric became increasingly belligerent in the wake of the election, accusing the West of racism, firing memorable broadsides at former colonial power Britain, and repeating the mantra “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.”
Yet across Africa he was being hailed as a hero, the only leader willing to stand up to the West. He railed against the Iraq war, bitterly condemned the toppling of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and remained vehemently homophobic, calling gays “worse than dogs and pigs.”
It is no accident that his assumption of the post of chairman of the African Union in 2015 elicited praise from leaders from across the continent. For while the jury is still out on the long-term merits of his controversial land reforms, many in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and other nations full of black disadvantaged masses see the “Mugabe way” as an increasingly attractive method of redressing colonial imbalances. Indeed, parties like South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, are increasingly adopting his doctrine in their manifestos as they call for land redistribution and the nationalization of state assets.
But Mugabe’s popularity on the international stage did not shield him from internal challenges, as the 2008 election revealed. For that he looked to his powerful ZANU-PF party, which for more than three decades wielded the army, police, and intelligence apparatus to keep his foes at bay. It was this not-so-subtle merging of leader and nation that ultimately led to Mugabe’s ouster in 2017, when his party feared he had put his second wife, Grace, on a path to succeed him.
After 37 years at the helm, Mugabe will be remembered as both a liberator and a tyrant, a man who led his country to independence only to turn a blind eye to those who were looting it until the day he died.