Dead at 95, Mugabe was one of Africa's most polarizing figures

Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe watches a video presentation during the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Johannesburg, Aug. 17, 2008.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File photo

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.

He was one of the most polarizing figures in his continent's history, a giant of African liberation, whose rule finally ended in ignominy when he was overthrown by his own army. He died in Singapore, where he had long received medical treatment.

"It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe's founding father and former President, Cde (Comrade) RobertMugabe," a post on President Emmerson Mnangagwa's official Twitter account said.

Mnangagwa, Mugabe's long-serving security chief who helped oust him from power, cut short a trip to a World Economic Forum in South Africa. He called an emergency meeting of the ruling ZANU-PF party to discuss declaring Mugabe a national hero — a certain formality — and was due to address the nation.

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.

But 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, "He was a good leader. Of course, we know that you cannot do good to everyone, but to me he was good."

Reconciliation and death squads

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, 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.

When he was toppled, there were wild celebrations across the country of 13 million. For Mugabe, it was an "unconstitutional and humiliating" betrayal. Confined to his sprawling "Blue Roof" 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 that came to be known in the Shona language as Gukurahundi: "the early rain that washes away the chaff." The opposition called it genocide.

Villages were destroyed wholesale, according to "Breaking the Silence," a 1997 report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. Victims were raped, tortured and executed, some forced to dig their own graves or thrown down wells.

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.

Economic crisis

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 %; 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. When his infant son died of malaria in Ghana in 1966, Mugabe was denied parole to attend the funeral. 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.

His departure from power failed to lift Zimbabwe's economy, however, which remains in its worst economic crisis in a decade. Triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts and shortages of US dollars and basic goods have revived memories of the Mugabe era.