Mugabe was a dictator and in 1999 he initiated a "fast track land reform" program intended to transfer 5,000 white farms, covering 110,000 km² (42,470 mi²) of mostly prime farmland, to black ownership.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on September 6, 2019

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader who oversaw the genocide of 20,000 people, has died in a hospital in Singapore.

Robert Mugabe, ousted by a military coup in 2017 after 37 years in power, had been receiving treatment in Singapore since April. He was 95.

Mugabe won Zimbabwe’s first election after it secured independence from the UK, becoming prime minister in 1980. He abolished the office in 1987, becoming president instead.

His successor, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, expressed his “utmost sadness”, calling Mugabe “an icon of liberation”.

“Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” said Mnangagwa.

Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 in what was then Rhodesia. The country, once a British colony in Africa, was run by a white minority. Mugabe was put in jail for more than a decade without trial after criticising the government of Rhodesia in 1964. In 1973, while still in prison, he was chosen as president of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), of which he was a founding member. Inside jail he obtained degrees in economics, education and law.

Once released, he headed to Mozambique, directing guerrilla raids into Rhodesia. This prompted an agreement to create an independent Republic of Zimbabwe. Mugabe secured an overwhelming victory in the republic’s first election.

Mugabe then mercilessly wiped out rival Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), made up mainly from the minority Ndebele people. In early 1983, the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade began a crackdown on dissidents in Matabeleland North, a homeland of the Ndebele. Over the following two years, thousands of Ndebele were detained by Mugabe forces and either marched to re-education camps or killed. The International Association of Genocide Scholars estimates more than 20,000 people were killed and classifies the massacres as genocide.

Mugabe was a dictator and in 1999 he initiated a “fast track land reform” program. This was intended to transfer 5,000 white farms, covering 110,000 km² (42,470 mi²) of mostly prime farmland, to black ownership. The means used to implement the program were ad-hoc and involved forcible seizure in many cases. By mid-2006 only 500 of the original 5,000 white farms were still fully operational.

The white population of Zimbabwe reached a peak of about 296,000 in 1975. It was listed as 28,732 in the 2012 census with Mugabe’s policies driving them out or leading to their deaths.

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Pro-Mugabe militias used violence to influence political outcomes. In 2008, when Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election, his mercenary attacks on the opposition resulted in his rival withdrawing.

Mugabe resigned in November 2017, after the military seized control of the country and his own party threatened to impeach him.

“He was a hero who turned into a villain,” said Charles Rukuni, a political analyst and publisher of the Insider newsletter, based in Harare, the capital. “He ushered in independence and brought a lot of hope but destroyed everything he built.”

Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi, of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, told BBC News it was “very much saddened” by the former leader’s death.

“As a government, we are very much with the family members of the Mugabe family,” he said.

“He was a principled man, he could not change easily over his beliefs, he’s a man who believed himself, he’s a man who believed in what he did and he is a man who was very assertive in whatever he said.”

“This was a good man.”

The economy of Zimbabwe shrank significantly after 2000, resulting in a desperate situation for the country – widespread poverty and a 95% unemployment rate. Zimbabwe’s participation from 1998 to 2002 in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo drained the country of hundreds of millions of dollars. A combination of the abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar and a government of national unity in 2009 resulted in a period of positive economic growth for the first time in a decade.