Robert Mugabe, former Zimbabwean leader, dies at 95
Reign ended with 2017 military coup after 3 decades in power
Robert Mugabe, the longtime leader of Zimbabwe who was forced to resign in 2017 after a military takeover, has died at 95.
His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, confirmed Mugabe's death in a tweet Friday, mourning him as an "icon of liberation."
The former president died at the Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore on Friday, according to the city-state's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had been seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness in Singapore in recent months.
Zimbabwe declared Mugabe a national hero several hours after his death was announced, with Mnangagwa saying the country would be in national mourning until his burial.
The ex-guerrilla chief presided over a country whose early promise post-independence was eroded by economic turmoil and allegations of human rights violations.
Mugabe blamed Zimbabwe's economic problems on international sanctions and once said he wanted to rule for life. But growing discontent about the southern African country's fractured leadership and other problems prompted a military intervention, impeachment proceedings by the parliament and large street demonstrations for his removal.
The announcement of Mugabe's Nov. 21, 2017 resignation after he initially ignored escalating calls to quit triggered wild celebrations in the streets of the capital, Harare. Well into the night, cars honked and people danced and sang in a spectacle of free expression that would have been impossible during his years in power and reflected hopes for a better future.
Mugabe became prime minister in an election after white minority rule ended in 1980 when the country, then known as Rhodesia, was liberated from British rule. He became Zimbabwe's first executive president at the start of 1988 after engineering constitutional amendments that scrapped the figurehead presidency.
Mugabe's decline in his last years as president was partly linked to the political ambitions of his wife, Grace, a brash, divisive figure whose ruling party faction eventually lost out in a power struggle with supporters of Mnangagwa, who was close to the military.
His former allies in the ruling party accused him of grooming his wife to take over — ahead of long-serving loyalists such as Mnangagwa, who was fired in November 2017 before returning to take over with the help of the military.
Despite Zimbabwe's decline during Mugabe's rule, he remained defiant, railing against the West for what he called its neo-colonialist attitude and urging Africans to take control of their resources, a populist message that was often a hit even as many nations on the continent shed the strongman model and moved toward democracy.
- CBC went to Zimbabwe in 2017, near the end of Mugabe's rule. We found a ruined nation so broke it was selling its elephants.
Mugabe enjoyed acceptance among peers in Africa who chose not to judge him in the same way as the U.K., the United States and other Western detractors. Toward the end of his rule, he served as rotating chairman of the 54-nation African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community; his criticism of the International Criminal Court was welcomed by regional leaders who also thought it was being unfairly used to target Africans.
"They are the ones who say they gave Christianity to Africa," Mugabe said of the West during a visit to South Africa. "We say: 'We came, we saw and we were conquered."'
Spry in his impeccably tailored suits, Mugabe as leader maintained a schedule of events and international travel that defied his advancing age, though signs of weariness mounted toward the end. He fell after stepping off a plane in Zimbabwe, read the wrong speech at the opening of parliament and appeared to be dozing during a news conference in Japan. However, his longevity and frequently dashed rumours of ill health delighted supporters and infuriated opponents who had sardonically predicted he would live forever.
"Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realize I am still there?" Mugabe told an interviewer from state television who asked him in early 2016 about retirement plans.
After independence, Mugabe reached out to whites after a long war between black guerrillas and the white rulers of Rhodesia. He stressed education and built new schools. Tourism and mining flourished and Zimbabwe was a regional breadbasket.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe has died. My condolences are extended to his family and friends. He was a colossus on the Zimbabwean stage & his enduring positive legacy will be his role in ending white minority rule & expanding a quality education to all Zimbabweans. <a href="https://t.co/tCBjlW8DXC">pic.twitter.com/tCBjlW8DXC</a>—@DavidColtart
However, a brutal military campaign waged against an uprising in western Matabeleland province that ended in 1987 augured a bitter turn in Zimbabwe's fortunes. As the years went by, Mugabe was widely accused of hanging onto power through violence and vote fraud, notably in a 2008 election that led to a troubled coalition government after regional mediators intervened.
"I have many degrees in violence," Mugabe once boasted on a campaign trail, raising his fist. "You see this fist, it can smash your face."
Reacting to Mugabe's death, Namibia's President Hage Geingob said, "He was a committed freedom fighter, revolutionary, not compromising."
Mugabe was re-elected in 2013 in another election marred by alleged irregularities, though he dismissed his critics as sore losers.
Amid the political turmoil, the economy of Zimbabwe, traditionally rich in agriculture and minerals, was deteriorating. Factories were closing, unemployment was rising and the country abandoned its currency for the US dollar in 2009 because of hyperinflation.
The economic problems are often traced to the violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began around 2000. Land reform was supposed to take much of the country's most fertile land — owned by about 4,500 white descendants of mainly British and South African colonial-era settlers — and redistribute it to poor blacks. Instead, Mugabe gave prime farms to ruling party leaders, party loyalists, security chiefs, relatives and cronies.
Mugabe was born in Zvimba, 60 kilometres west of the capital of Harare. As a child, he tended his grandfather's cattle and goats, fished for bream in muddy water holes, played football and "boxed a lot," as he recalled later.
His father, Gabriel Mugabe Matibiri, a village carpenter, deserted the family when Mugabe was 10 and after the death of his older brother, Michael. His father remarried, and his mother, Bona, a deeply religious woman who lived to be 100, was left to raise Mugabe and his two siblings.
Another brother had died in infancy before Mugabe was born, but it was Michael's death — said to be from drinking from a gourd that had contained a pesticide — that had a profound effect on Mugabe, according to Heidi Holland, a South African journalist who wrote the book Dinner with Mugabe in 2008.
Trained as teacher
He grew very close to his mother, who, Holland says, had become depressed. He attended mass with her every day and helped her cope with the loss of a husband and two sons.
After training as a teacher at a Roman Catholic all-boys mission school in Kutuma, which was set up as a Catholic mission station at the beginning of the century, Mugabe studied at the University College of Fort Hare, South Africa. He then went on to teach in Ghana from 1956 to 1960 — and later made education a focus in his political life.
Mugabe lacked the easy charisma of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader and contemporary who became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after reconciling with its former white rulers. But he drew admirers in some quarters for taking a hard line with the West, and he could be disarming despite his sometimes harsh demeanour.
"The gift of politicians is never to stop speaking until the people say, 'Ah, we are tired,"' he said at a 2015 news conference. "You are now tired. I say thank you."
With files from Reuters and CBC News