Robert Mugabe: From liberator to tyrant

Robert Mugabe: From liberator to tyrant

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was a man who divided global public opinion like few others.

To some, he was an evil dictator who should have ended his days in jail for crimes against humanity.

To others, he was a revolutionary hero, who fought racial oppression and stood up to Western imperialism and neo-colonialism.


On his own terms, he was an undoubted success.


First, he delivered independence for Zimbabwe after decades of white-minority rule.


He then remained in power for 37 years - outlasting his greatest enemies and rivals such as Tony Blair, George W Bush, Joshua Nkomo, Morgan Tsvangirai and Nelson Mandela.


Robert Mugabe in 2008Image copyrightAFP
Image captionAfter 2000, he started wearing brightly coloured shirts and caps for election rallies


And he destroyed the economic power of Zimbabwe's white community, which was based on their hold over the country's most fertile land.


However, his compatriots - except for a small, well-connected elite - paid the price, with the destruction of what had once been one of Africa's most diversified economies.


In the end, this came back to haunt him.


The outpouring of joy on the streets of Harare which greeted his forced resignation in November 2017 echoed the jubilation in the same city 37 years earlier when it was announced he was the new leader of independent Zimbabwe.


Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigns in Harare, Zimbabwe November 21, 2017.Image copyrightPA
Image captionZimbabweans celebrating Robert Mugabe's resignation


Although he was allowed to see out his days in peace in his Harare mansion, it was not the end he wanted, having famously boasted: "Only God, who appointed me, will remove me."


Many Zimbabweans trace the reversal of his - and their - fortunes to his 1996 wedding to his secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, following the death of his widely respected first wife, Sally, in 1992.


"He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger," according to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper, who used to be close personal friends with Mr Mugabe.


Media captionMugabe: From war hero to resignation


That sentiment was common long before anyone dreamed she might one day harbour presidential ambitions, which were the trigger for his close allies in the military and the ruling Zanu-PF party to oust Mr Mugabe from power.


Mugabe the man


While he was sometimes portrayed as a madman, this was far from the truth. He was extremely intelligent and those who underestimated him usually discovered this to their cost.


Stephen Chan, a professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, noted Mr Mugabe had repeatedly embarrassed the West with his "adroit diplomacy".



Mugabe in his own words:


Robert Mugabe  smiles and holds fist in the air, in an image from 1980
Getty Images
If you were my enemy, you are now my friend. If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me.
Robert Mugabe During national address, 1980


"Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen" - undated


"Let the MDC and its leadership be warned that those who play with fire will not only be burnt, but consumed by that fire" - 2003 election rally


"We are not hungry... Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough" - interview with Sky TV in 2004, amid widespread food shortages


Robert Mugabe, pictured wearing a cap and clenched fists, during 2008 election rally
Getty Images
Only God, who appointed me, will remove me - not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me.
Robert Mugabe During election rally, 2008


"Don't drink at all, don't smoke, you must exercise and eat vegetables and fruit" - interview on his 88th birthday in 2012


"[Nelson] Mandela [South Africa's first black president] has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of [blacks]... That's being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint" - 2013 state TV interview



As a former political rival of Mr Mugabe, who went on to serve as his home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa witnessed the different sides of Zimbabwe's founding father.


"Under normal circumstances, he would be very charming but when he got angry, he was something else - if you crossed him, he could certainly be ruthless," he told the BBC before his death in May 2019.


Mr Dabengwa said the president would often let him win an argument over policy during the decade they worked together, or they would agree to compromise - not the behaviour of a dictator.


But something, he added, changed after 2000 and Mr Mugabe resorted to threats to ensure he got his way.


"He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him."


This is not a picture recognised by Chen Chimutengwende, who worked alongside Mr Mugabe in both the Zanu-PF party and government for 30 years.


"In all the time I have worked with him, I have never seen him be vindictive or ill-treat anyone," he said.