Profile: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

The life, political career and controversies of the African country’s longest-serving leader.

President Robert Mugabe gestures as he addresses a rally in Harare
Mugabe was the world's oldest national leader before he resigned [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

After leading Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe has formally stepped down as the country’s president, according to the speaker of parliament.

Mugabe submitted his resignation on Tuesday, Jacob Mudenda, the speaker said, just hours after parliament started an impeachment process against the 93-year-old leader – previously, the world’s oldest sitting head of state.

Scenes of jubilation quickly unfolded on the streets of Harare, the capital, as residents cheered the news of Mugabe’s resignation.

Political tensions had been running high in Zimbabwe after fears of an attempted coup on November 15, which was denied by the military, against Mugabe’s government. 

Zimbabwe’s army seized the headquarters of the state broadcaster ZBC in Harare and blocked off access to government offices.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the last week to demand Mugabe step down.

Mugabe came to power when Zimbabwe won independence in 1980 and his 37-year rule has been criticised for repression of dissent, election rigging, and for causing the country’s economic collapse.

Early life

Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, near Kutama, northeast of Salisbury [now Harare], 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 national politics, riding a wave of popular outrage against the 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.

He married his current wife and Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe, in 1996. 

Opposition crackdown

In the early years of his rule, Mugabe was praised for expanding social services, including building schools and hospitals.

He was concurrently spearheading a brutal crackdown on his political opposition led by the late nationalist politician Joshua Nkomo.

The violence claimed more than 20,000 lives, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

Nkomo was the founding father of the nationalist struggle for independence in Zimbabwe.

The so-called Gukurahundi, a suppression campaign waged by the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in the predominantly Ndebele regions of Zimbabwe, claimed the lives of mostly supporters of Nkomo.

The Gukurahundi crackdown 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 Morgan Tsvangirai, sparking political violence that human rights groups say claimed over 200 lives.

His supporters say he spoke for the poor; his critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian.

Failures and achievements

There had been growing calls by the opposition and critics demanding Mugabe to step down. 

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

Mugabe’s supporters say he empowered black Zimbabweans. Perhaps his biggest achievement, and according to some a failure, was a land-reform policy that arguably marked the beginning of the unravelling of the economy.


He and other freedom fighters won independence mainly on a platform of reclaiming land back from the white minority.

The turn of the century unleashed a wave of violent land acquisition by war veterans. Thousands of white farmers were forced out.

Many Zimbabweans agree that the black majority had to somehow take back the land. After all, about 75,000 hectares of productive land was owned by white farmers who make up only 1.5 percent of the population.

The way the land indigenisation policy was conducted remains a deeply divisive issue. Land in Zimbabwe, as in many other African countries, is a very emotive subject.

Military tensions

This month’s military intervention came after a period of unrest within Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. 

Emmerson Mnangagwa, an ally of the army chief and a veteran of the country’s struggle for independence, was dismissed as vice president on November 8 by Mugabe for showing “traits of disloyalty”.

With that, Mugabe had ousted one of his last remaining associates from the liberation war, who have stood by him since independence from Britain in 1980.


Mnangagwa, who fled Zimbabwe soon afterwards, was seen as a possible successor to the ailing president, and his ousting appeared to pave the way for the first lady, Grace Mugabe, to succeed Mugabe.

However, army commander Constantino Chiwenga said on Monday, November 13, that the military would act if purges against former war liberation fighters did not cease.

Many war veterans, who fought alongside Mugabe during the 1970s liberation struggle and spearheaded the repossession of white-owned commercial farms in the 2000s, claim Mugabe betrayed the revolution.

The purges of scores of Mnangagwa allies apparently widened the rift between the Mugabes and various groups of war veteran leaders.

In the end, that rift proved to be the immediate source of the undoing of Mugabe’s political career.

Source: Al Jazeera