The death of Robert Mugabe, the dictator who ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip for decades, was covered extensively in the media. He was ninety-five years old, and died in a medical clinic in Singapore, having finally been deposed as president by his own military in 2017. The Times devoted more than two pages to the story of his rise to power in the 1960s and ’70s as a charismatic revolutionary in white-ruled Rhodesia, a former British colony. Initially hailed as a visionary leader who sought to accommodate Rhodesia’s white minority, he became one of Africa’s most feared despots.
Educated by Irish Catholic missionaries, Mugabe was a bookish leader of the forces that finally succeeded in removing Rhodesia’s racist white regime after a bloody seven-year war. A peace settlement, which protected the rights of the white colonial minority, was agreed to in 1979. Mugabe won an election to become the renamed nation’s first prime minister, and later appointed himself executive president. Among his early achievements was an education system that helped create a substantial black middle class. Although Mugabe paid lip service to democratic procedures, it soon became apparent that he was determined never to relinquish power. He had no qualms about slaughtering his fellow black Africans or culling from his own ranks those he perceived as threats.
Rhodesia was among Africa’s most prosperous nations, rich in resources and fertile farmland. Most of the productive agricultural land was, of course, owned by white colonialists. As Mugabe consolidated power, he left economic arrangements largely intact for the first decade of his rule, showing little interest in land reform. Things changed dramatically by the late 1980s and ’90s, when corruption and the mismanagement of the economy brought about increasing poverty and widespread discontent. In 1991, confident he would win, Mugabe called for a referendum to extend his presidency. He lost, but refused to relinquish power. At Mugabe’s direction, white landowners became scapegoats for Zimbabwe’s decline, and their farms were violently confiscated. Soon the agricultural economy collapsed, inflation soared, and the country was reduced to destitution.
As Zimbabwe descended into penury, Mugabe tightened his grip on power, using the military to subjugate or kill his political rivals. He described himself as a Marxist-Leninist and a Maoist. His most feared militia was trained by the North Koreans. Two million Zimbabweans eventually fled the country, including much of the black middle class.