Robert Mugabe, who is seeking an eighth five-year term as Zimbabwe’s leader in the July 31 election, is one of the most divisive, vocal and controversial leaders in southern Africa.
He was born on February 21, 1924, near Kutama, northeast of Salisbury (now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe), in what was then Rhodesia.
The former school teacher, with seven university degrees, first came to prominence after waging a bloody guerrilla war against the white colonial rulers who jailed him for 10 years over a “subversive speech” he made in 1964.
Soon after his release from jail in 1974, he caused a seismic shift in the then Rhodesian politics, riding a wave of popular outrage against the racist colonial rulers.
Then married to Ghanaian Sally Hayfron, who died of a kidney disease in 1992, he crossed the border to neighbouring Mozambique to launch a protracted guerrilla war for independence.
He returned to Rhodesia in 1979 and became prime minister in 1980 of the newly independent country renamed Zimbabwe.
In the early years of his rule, he was praised for expanding social services, including building schools and hospitals.
He was concurrently spearheading a brutal crackdown on his political opposition led by now deceased nationalist Joshua Nkomo that claimed more than 20,000 lives, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
Tens of thousands of people were killed during the so-called “Gukurahundi”, a suppression campaign waged by the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in the predominantly Ndebele regions of Zimbabwe. Most of the victims were supporters of Nkomo, Mugabe’s fierce political opponent.
Nkomo was the founding father of the nationalist struggle for independence in Zimbabwe, and the “Gukurahundi” crackdown only ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU.
Mugabe assumed the presidency in 1987, with the prime minister role being abolished.
Since then, he has won a series of controversial elections that critics claim he rigged, including one in 2008 which he lost to now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, sparking political violence that human rights groups say claimed over 200 lives.
The violence prompted the 15-member Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to form a fractious unity government that has been plagued by policy discord.
On a nationwide campaign trail that has attracted tens of thousands, Mugabe argues that he needs re-election in the July 31 vote for his socialist revolution to empower his people to take root.
His supporters say he speaks for the poor; his critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.
Last year, secrets-spilling website WikiLeaks released US embassy cables detailing briefings with top members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party claiming he is suffering from cancer, a claim his spin-doctors have persistently rejected, insisting instead that his myriad trips to Singapore, where he is rumoured to be undergoing chemotherapy, were in fact for an eye problem.
Just last month before he hit the campaign trail, he announced he needed further medical help for cataracts in Singapore.
Critics say he has failed to groom a successor and that the old Zimbabwean order is falling apart.
He stands accused of presiding over a corrupt system, vandalising the economy and squandering the country’s vast mineral wealth on his re-election drive. His former secretary-turned-wife, Grace Marufu, has grabbed international headlines for her lavish shopping sprees.
Mugabe has vowed at one rally after another to press ahead with his “revolutionary” social policies, including a drive to transfer ownership of white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks.
He constantly rails against foreign firms, threatening to seize their shareholding for redistribution to black Zimbabweans, and keeps reminding Zimbabweans of its colonial conquest.