Dictator to some, hero to others, Mugabe
polarises opinions [Reuters] 
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's 84-year-old president, has defied international criticism to stay in office for another five-year term.

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 last term, party loyalists endorsed his candidacy in December.

Afterwards he displayed little will to step down despite a deepening political crisis and finishing in second place in the first round of voting for the presidency.

His long-term rival Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), seemed poised to unseat him. But as the run-off approached there were attacks on MDC supporters and Tsvangirai pulled out to prevent further violence.

Mugabe's subsequent swearing in provoked international condemnation and as the political crisis deepened the two rivals entered into power-sharing talks that many had previously believed were impossible.

With Tsvangirai's MDC controlling the most seats in parliament it was widely expected that any deal would see Mugabe's powers significantly reduced. But after weeks of talks Zimbabwe's great survivor seems to have retained much of his powers, including over the army.

Liberation hero

Born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission in northwest Harare, Mugabe 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 jails.

Mugabe's policies are blamed for
Zimbabwe's economic woes[Reuters]
He used that period to consolidate his position in the Zimbabwe African National Union and emerged from prison in November 1974 as a leader of Zanu, 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 allegedly crushed dissent among the minority Ndebele people with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.

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".

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