Thirty-seven years ago, Robert Mugabe was feted as a titan who had won Africa’s last great war against colonialism.
Today, in the twilight of his life, Mugabe finds himself loathed by millions of his citizens for a rule tarnished by despotism, cronyism, corruption and economic ruin.
Deserted by the forces that propped up his power for decades, Mugabe now faces the humiliation of impeachment proceedings launched by the ZANU-PF — the party he had forged into a tool of unquestioning loyalty.
Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, into a Catholic family at the Kutama Mission, northwest of Harare — a city then called Salisbury, capital of the white-ruled British colony of Rhodesia.
As a child, Mugabe was a loner and studious, carrying a book to read even while tending cattle in the bush.
His father, a carpenter, walked out on the family when he was 10, prompting the youngster to focus on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.
In these formative years, Mugabe was an intellectual who initially embraced Marxism. He enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.
After teaching in Ghana, where he was influenced by the country’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia — where he was detained in 1964 for his nationalist activities. He spent the next decade in prison camps or jail as the colony declared its independence from Britain.
During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the harsh years in prison also left a mark and honed his ruthlessness and guile.
His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.
Released in 1974, Mugabe took over as head of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which joined forces with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
The conflict for independence that erupted in 1964, coupled with international sanctions, forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table. The country finally won independence as Zimbabwe in 1980.
In elections that year, Mugabe swept to power as prime minister, initially winning international plaudits for his policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.
But the glory faded as Mugabe cracked down on dissent.
Nkomo, his former comrade-in-arms, was a first casualty. In 1982 he was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland stronghold.
Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo’s Ndebele people in a campaign that left an estimated 20,000 people dead.
Mugabe’s transformation into international pariah was made complete by his seizure of white-owned farms.
Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into misery.
The bread basket of southern Africa had become an economic basket case — in 2008, inflation reached 79.6 billion percent, a rate that was halted only after Zimbabwe stopped printing its own currency and used that of other countries.
‘A reptilian quality’
Britain’s former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence.
“Mugabe wasn’t human at all,” Carrington told biographer Heidi Holland.
“There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.
“You could admire his skills and intellect… but he was an awfully slippery sort of person.”
Biographer Martin Meredith added: “His real obsession was not with personal wealth but with power.”
“Year after year Mugabe sustained his rule through violence and repression — crushing political opponents, violating the courts, trampling on property rights, suppressing the independent press and rigging elections.”
One of the world’s most recognisable leaders with his thin stripe of moustache and thick-rimmed spectacles, Mugabe appeared immune to criticism.
“If people say you are a dictator… you know they are saying this merely to tarnish and demean your status, then you don’t pay much attention,” he said in a 2013 documentary.
At stage-managed events, he used blistering rhetoric to blame Western sanctions for his country’s downward spiral, even though these measures were targeted at Mugabe personally and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe’s economy.
Unbending in his policies and unyielding to his enemies, Mugabe seemed immutable to everything except time.
For decades, the subject of who would succeed Mugabe was virtually taboo.
As he reached his 90s, he became visibly frail — he had been rumoured for years to have prostate cancer, but according to the official account, his frequent trips to Singapore were for treatment related to his cataracts.
“It’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do once I get back to my country. I am real again,” he joked in 2016 after returning from a foreign trip, mocking rumours that he had died.
As the end of Mugabe’s rule appeared on the horizon, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite.
In the spotlight was Mugabe’s ambitious second wife Grace, his former secretary who is 41 years his junior, and the father of his two sons and a daughter.
Quietly lampooned by critics as “Gucci Grace” for her shopping habits, she fought for the spoils with vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, precipitating the army takeover that now leaves Mugabe on the brink of impeachment.
“He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees,” said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.