Dictator to some, hero to others, Mugabe polarises
opinion like few other leaders [Reuters] 
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's 84-year-old president, has defied international criticism in the hope of remaining in office for another five years.

Ostracised by the West, which views him as a dictator, he 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.

Though Mugabe had previously indicated he would step down at the end of his current term, party loyalists endorsed his candidacy in December and since then he has shown little will to step down.

During the current election campaign, Mugabe has 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 last year, 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.

His critics argue Mugabe's policies have 
created an economic crisis [Reuters]
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.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies