Profile: Robert Mugabe

In power since 1980, Africa's oldest leader shows little intention of retiring.

Mugabe has been in power for 29 years, assuming presidency of Zimbabwe after civil war [AFP]

Ostracised by the West, which views him as a dictator, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's 86-year-old president, polarises opinion like few other leaders.

For many in Africa he is both a liberation hero and one of the few men prepared to stand up to the continent's old colonial masters.

Africa's oldest leader, he has been in power in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

He was re-elected with ease until signs of a now full-blown economic crisis began to emerge in 2002. Yet he has shown no intention of retiring.

During his last election campaign, Mugabe displayed all his trademark rhetoric, dismissing allegations of vote rigging as the words of "devilish liars".

"Our detractors have tried to derail our efforts, but the unity and resourcefulness of our people have always triumphed," he said at an election rally.

Liberation hero

The EU and US imposed sanctions on his inner circle after he allegedly rigged his 2002 victory and at an EU-Africa summit in Portugal in December 2007, to which Mugabe was controversially invited, he was criticised by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who accused him of "trampling on human rights".

Mugabe hit back, telling the Europeans they were in no position to deliver lectures as "there was no democracy in Zimbabwe for nearly a hundred years and we had to fight for one person, one vote".

Born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission in northwest Harare, he qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.

He took his first political paces when he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa's future leaders, but resumed teaching, moving to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Ghana before returning to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1960.

As a member of various banned nationalist parties, he was detained with other leaders in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.

He used that period to consolidate his position in the Zimbabwe African National Union and emerged from prison in November 1974 as Zanu leader, a party which drew most of its support from the Shona majority.

He then left for Mozambique, from where his banned party was launching guerrilla attacks. Economic sanctions and war forced Ian Smith, the Rhodesian leader, to negotiate.

After Zanu swept to power in the 1980 election, ending white minority rule, Mugabe announced a policy of reconciliation with the country's white population but most subsequently left.

Mugabe also crushed dissent among the minority Ndebele people with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, which killed an estimated 20,000 suspected "dissidents".

Economic crisis

In his early years Mugabe was widely credited with improving health and education for the black majority, but social services later declined and Aids has badly affected the country.

Mugabe's rule has so far culminated in a massive economic crisis for Zimbabwe, once one of Africa's richest countries. His critics blame his policies.

Some 4,000 farmers were forced to hand over their land in what he promoted as a programme to right the injustices of the colonial era.

But while landless blacks were meant to be the beneficiaries, some farms ended up in the hands of Mugabe supporters.

Inflation now hovers over 100,000 per cent, according to official statistics, while more than 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

Zimbabwe's life president

Although Mugabe is in the twilight of a long political career, analysts say Zanu-PF is too torn by factional fighting over a successor, leaving the veteran leader's challengers weaker and unable to pose a serious challenge.

Critics, who say prolonging his rule will compound Zimbabwe's problems and stifle economic recovery.

Mugabe remains fit and defiant for his age but since the formation of a unity government last year, he has eased up on the rhetoric against the West and local opponents.

However, his political marriage with Tsvangirai is troubled by tension over how to share executive power and the pace of democratic reforms.

In the recent past, Zimbabwe suspended moves to draw up a new constitution because of political bickering over funding, dealing a blow to hopes for free and fair elections after the adoption of the charter.

In a recorded interview on February 20, 2010, the eve of his birthday, Mugabe vowed the unity government would not collapse.

Analysts said that, in a fair election, Mugabe was likely to lose to Tsvangirai, but after Zanu-PF's defeat in March 2008, the leader was likely to rely more on his political shock troops - independence war veterans with a history of violence against rivals - to win.

"The question many are asking is 'will Mugabe become Zimbabwe's life president?', Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe said.

"Zimbabweans may as well be reconciled to that possible reality," he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies