Robert Mugabe: Icon and Kleptocrat

A poster of President Robert Mugabe hangs torn on a streetside wall in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. John Moore/Getty Images

Zimbabwe’s founding father, Robert Mugabe, ushered his country into independence, then established a tyrannical regime and presided over the destruction of the economy. He was ousted in a November palace coup.

November 29, 2017

A poster of President Robert Mugabe hangs torn on a streetside wall in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. John Moore/Getty Images
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Robert Mugabe

Heads of State and Government


The rule of Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest and independent Zimbabwe’s only chief of state, ended this month with a so-called military intervention that removed him from office. The soft coup, carried out by members of Mugabe’s political machine, ZANU-PF, aligned with the military, was precipitated by the president’s attempt to designate his wife, Grace, as his successor. The coup makers, however, do not claim that they are dismantling the longtime leader’s regime, and say they are treating Mugabe and his family with respect. While Mugabe is out, the tyranny he established in Zimbabwe is not.

At its independence, in 1980, Zimbabwe had among the best social and economic statistics in Africa. Mugabe founded his regime on a mishmash of pan-Africanism, Marxist-Leninism, and racism that reflected and encouraged a sense of grievance among blacks. His management of the economy, largely intended to destroy any possibility of political opposition, was disastrous, particularly after 2000. His regime frequently violated the human rights of Zimbabweans and looted the state’s assets.

Yet Mugabe’s iconic status as a leader of Africa’s liberation from white rule guaranteed that he remained free of African criticism abroad, and his mastery of tribal politics, patronage and clientage networks within the military, and use of repression ensured that he was untouchable at home.

From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe

Colonialism came relatively late to Zimbabwe. Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company established the colony of Rhodesia in the 1890s. It was intended to be a colony of white settlers, and Africans were driven off the best agricultural land, only to return as farm workers or tenants under white bosses. Africans were divided in the face of colonial penetration. Often mutually hostile, the two largest ethnic groups are the Shona, to which Mugabe belongs, and the Ndebele, who are closely tied to the Zulus in South Africa.

Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony in 1923. While whites never established apartheid and a small number of blacks participated in public life, Rhodesia was characterized by segregation and white supremacy. With high levels of international investment, the white economy was modern, based on commercial agriculture, especially tobacco for export, and mining. At independence, whites constituted only between 5 and 8 percent of the total population, and five thousand white-owned farms occupied 40 percent of Zimbabwe. Traditional African economies were based on small-scale agriculture and tribal, rather than individual, land ownership. After the arrival of whites, Africans began to labor on white-owned farms and in white-owned mines. From the start of their displacement, their resentment of white occupancy was deep and abiding.

In the 1960s, as the British were winding down their African empire, they called for “nonracial” majority rule in Rhodesia. In response, Rhodesian whites, under the leadership of Ian Smith, declared themselves independent, leading to international sanctions on the white-supremacist regime. Shona and Ndebele rebels launched a fifteen-year guerrilla war against the Smith regime, the Shona faction led in part by Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe was well-educated and known as a devout Roman Catholic. He attended university in South Africa, and there, if not earlier, he was introduced to the “isms” that shaped his participation in the liberation struggle: pan-Africanism and Marxist-Leninism. (He apparently saw no contradiction at the time between these and Roman Catholicism.) He became a vocal opponent of the Rhodesian regime, eventually serving ten years in a Rhodesian prison. Upon his release, he fled to Mozambique and helped organize, then lead, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The Shona-dominated movement was Maoist in orientation. Its rival, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), was largely made up of Ndebele, led by Joshua Nkomo, and oriented toward Moscow’s brand of Marxist-Leninism.

The two liberation movements did not defeat Smith on the battlefield. Instead, pressure from apartheid South Africa, sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council, and whites’ resentment of their increasingly pariah status induced Smith to enter into British-directed negotiations with the liberation movements at Lancaster House in London in 1979. Mugabe participated only reluctantly, preferring a military victory. In the end, the negotiations succeeded. Zimbabwe became independent, with a transition arranged to protect white interests. In the 1980 general elections, ZANU was the victor, and Mugabe became the prime minister.

Mugabe In Charge

Mugabe gradually and systematically set out to destroy all possible opposition to his authority, committing numerous human rights abuses in the process. He moved against ZAPU, Nkomo, and the Ndebele, eventually ordering the massacre of tens of thousands of Ndebeles by a North Korea–trained special security unit that answered directly to him. In the aftermath, Nkomo agreed to merge ZAPU into ZANU, giving birth to the ZANU-PF party. In the 1990s, broader opposition emerged to Mugabe’s rule, even among the Shona, leading him to conclude that whites were funding his opponents. Taking advantage of pervasive land hunger and the glacial rate of land reform, he ran roughshod over property rights and the rule of law to seize white-owned farms. In the early 2000s, he encouraged war veterans to drive white farmers out with violence and without compensation.

Up to the seizure of the white-owned farms, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe retained a veneer of democracy and the rule of law that largely convinced Western states to look the other way. The country enjoyed high rates of economic growth, and Mugabe preached racial reconciliation even as white emigration grew.

Mugabe’s assault on white farmers especially enraged the British public, who considered them “kith and kin.” The United States, United Kingdom, and EU members, among others, imposed sanctions on specific individuals and enterprises in response to rights abuses committed by Mugabe’s regime. In turn, Mugabe accused the United Kingdom and the United States of reneging on their alleged promise at Lancaster House to make good land available to Africans by buying out white farmers. Mugabe’s anti-white rhetoric became more strident. “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man,” he said.

The end of white commercial farms, combined with severe drought, falling international investment, and sanctions, led to a collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy from which it has never recovered. It is estimated that by 2005, the purchasing power of the average Zimbabwean had fallen to its 1953 level, and that up to a quarter of the population had left the country, many as economic refugees. There were episodes of inflation so severe that the country abandoned its national currency. In what was once a food-exporting country, food security disappeared and pockets of famine appeared. Mugabe retained the fig leaf of regular elections, though rigging, violence, and intimidation assured his continued grip on power. He tightened his relationship with the military by providing officers with previously white-owned farms, while reserving some of the best for himself.

Sizing Up Mugabe’s Legacy

Mugabe was an idealist driven by an overpowering ego whose rule degenerated into naked kleptocracy. He had little understanding of economics or interest in strategies for development. What mattered to him was freeing Africa from colonialism as he defined it, and he identified all whites as participants in exploitation. At the same time, personal ties could trump his blatant racism; on a recent list of the ten richest Zimbabweans, nine are white, all of whom have links to Mugabe. Still, he bitterly criticized South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress for accommodating a rich white minority at the expense of the black majority. Meanwhile, he left behind the asceticism of Roman Catholicism and Marxist-Leninism to unapologetically accumulate immense wealth.

Some Zimbabweans attributed his newfound avarice to the death of his popular first wife, Sally, in 1992, and the rise of his current wife, Grace. Sally Mugabe, argue some apologists for Robert Mugabe, kept her husband grounded in some reality. For “Gucci Grace,” shopping was the ultimate reality. This narrative, however, overstates the virtues of Sally and the vices of Grace; Mugabe was always firmly in control.

Mugabe is quickly entering the pantheon of heroic African leaders. For many leaders across the continent today, the anti-colonial struggle offers a shop-worn legitimacy narrative that too often provides cover for bad governance, theft, and mass violence. To them, Mugabe is a hero. But to Zimbabweans, most of whom were born after the colonial era, Mugabe represents pervasive hunger and high unemployment, and for those who have fled, exile.

The country remains intrinsically rich, with an excellent primary-education system that Mugabe left largely untouched. Zimbabwe could recover rapidly if those who now run the country so choose.

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