Robert Mugabe: death of a liberation “icon” who crushed his foes as Zimbabwe unravelled

HARARE, Sept 6 (Reuters) – Robert Mugabe, the bush war
guerrilla who led Zimbabwe to independence and crushed his foes
during nearly four decades of rule as his country descended into
poverty, hyperinflation and unrest, died on Friday. He was 95.

Declared a national hero within hours of his death by the
long-serving aide who succeeded him as president, Mugabe was one
of the most polarising figures in his continent’s history – a
giant of African liberation whose regime finally ended in
ignominy when he was overthrown by his own army.
He died in Singapore, where he had long received medical
Granting him the status of national hero in a televised
address, President Emmerson Mnangagwa praised Mugabe an icon and
a “remarkable statesman of our century.”
“On the backdrop and solid foundation of the first republic
which he moulded as its leader, we today recover and grow,” he
Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s one-time security chief who helped oust
him from power, had returned home earlier in the day after
cutting short a trip to a World Economic Forum summit in South
Tributes poured in from African leaders. South Africa’s
government mourned a “fearless pan-Africanist liberation
fighter”. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta hailed a “man of
courage who was never afraid to fight for what he believed in,
even when it was not popular”.
At home, even foes paid respects.
“He was a colossus on the Zimbabwean stage and his enduring
positive legacy will be his role in ending white minority rule &
expanding a quality education to all Zimbabweans,” tweeted David
Coltart, an opposition senator and rights lawyer.
Others said his legacy was overshadowed by the harm he did
to his people.
“We of course express our condolences to those who mourn,
but know that for many he was a barrier to a better future,”
said a spokeswoman for Boris Johnson, prime minister of former
colonial power Britain. “Under his rule the people of Zimbabwe
suffered greatly as he impoverished their country and sanctioned
the use of violence against them.”
On the streets, the response was mostly more generous.
“He was iconic, he was an African legend. His only mistake
was that he overstayed in power,” said Harare resident Onwell
Samukanya. Another, Sellina Mugadza, said: “Of course we know
that you cannot do good to everyone, but to me he was good.”

Mugabe was feted as a champion of racial reconciliation when
he first came to power in 1980 in one of the last African states
to throw off white colonial rule.
By the time he was toppled to wild celebrations across the
country of 13 million, he was viewed by many at home and abroad
as a power-obsessed autocrat who unleashed death squads, rigged
elections and ruined the economy to keep control.
Mugabe called his departure an “unconstitutional and
humiliating” betrayal. Confined to his sprawling Harare mansion,
he stayed bitter to the end.
Mugabe took power after seven years of a liberation war,
with a reputation as “the thinking man’s guerrilla”. He held
seven degrees, three earned behind bars as a political prisoner
of then-Rhodesia’s white minority rulers. Later, he would boast
of another qualification: “a degree in violence”.
Just three years after independence, he sent the army’s
North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade into the homeland of the
Ndebele people to crush loyalists of his rival, Joshua Nkomo.
Human rights groups estimate as many as 20,000 people died
in a two-year purge the opposition referred to as genocide.
Villages were destroyed wholesale, according to “Breaking
the Silence”, a 1997 report by the Catholic Commission for
Justice and Peace, with some victims forced to dig their own
Many years later, he acknowledged the episode was “very bad”
and blamed it on renegade soldiers. Researchers say the evidence
shows he knew what was happening all along.

In fiery speeches throughout his rule he painted his actions
as a just response to a racist colonial legacy, with his most
important priority the redistribution of land held by whites.
When he failed to change the constitution to allow seizure
without compensation, his followers stormed farms. His enemies
called it a lawless grab for power and wealth. Output cratered
and southern Africa’s breadbasket could barely feed itself.
GDP fell by 40% and inflation reached 500 billion percent;
he blamed a Western conspiracy.
As his health declined, his foes suspected a plan to pass
control to a much younger wife they called “Gucci Grace” for her
lavish lifestyle.
“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the
history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became
old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his
wife,” Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of Zimbabwe’s influential
liberation war veterans, told Reuters after Mugabe’s removal.
Born on Feb. 21, 1924, on a Roman Catholic mission near
Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a
primary school teacher before going to South Africa’s University
of Fort Hare, then a breeding ground for African nationalism.
Returning to then-Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics and
was jailed for a decade for opposing white rule. After his
release, he rose to lead the Zimbabwe African National
Liberation Army guerrilla movement.
“You have inherited a jewel in Africa. Don’t tarnish it,”
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere told him during the
independence celebrations in Harare.
Just under two years after his departure, Zimbabwe has yet
to recover its lustre.
Beset by triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts and
shortages of basic goods, the economy is mired in its worst
crisis in a decade, while political opponents say a clampdown on
dissent by Mnangagwa’s government has revived memories of the
Mugabe era.

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