The life and times of Zimbabwe’s liberation icon, Robert Mugabe

Mugabe is largely regarded as a hero of Africa’s independence struggle.

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe died Friday, aged 95, in hospital in Singapore after battling ill health.

Mugabe, ousted from power in a military coup in November 2017 and replaced by his former deputy Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, was mourned by the latter who tweeted that: “It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe's founding father and former President, Comrade Robert Mugabe.”

 Mnangagwa described Mugabe as “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people.”

“His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten.”

The late Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace Mugabe. Net photo.

Nelson Chamisa, the President of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party in the country, said there is so much to say for a life of 95 years and national leadership spanning over 37 years “but in the true spirit of Ubuntu, we would like to give this moment to mourning but there will be time for greater reflection.”

 Chamisa tweeted: “Even though I and our party, the MDC, and the Zimbabwean people had great political differences with the late former President during his tenure in office, and disagreed for decades, we recognise his contribution made during his lifetime as a nation’s founding President.”

Mugabe (left) with compatriots George Silundika and Joshua Nkomo in Tanzania in the 1960s. Net photo.

Despite controversies in his last years in power, many Zimbabweans still adored the old leader as they remembered and admired his fight to keep Zimbabwe an independent and sovereign nation. 

 Born on Feb. 21, 1924, on a Roman Catholic mission near Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a primary school teacher before going to South Africa’s University of Fort Hare.

He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.

He obtained the first of his numerous degrees from the University of Fort Hare, a public university in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa, after which he worked as a school teacher in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Ghana.

After attending the late Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-African congress in Accra, in 1958 Mugabe taught for two years in Ghana.

It is during this time that he met his first wife, Sarah Francesca "Sally" Hayfron, who was the First Lady of Zimbabwe from 1987 until her death in 1992. She was popularly known as Amai (Mother) in Zimbabwe. Their only son, Michael Nhamodzenyika, died aged three while Mugabe was in jail.

Returning to then-Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics but was jailed for a decade – between 1964 and 1974 – for opposing white rule.

 When his infant son died of malaria in Ghana in 1966, Mugabe was denied parole to attend the funeral.

 In 1973, while in prison, he was chosen as president of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a militant African nationalist organisation that participated in the Rhodesian Bush War against white minority rule of Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), of which he was a founding member.

 It is reported that while in prison he spent time reading for external degrees from universities in London and South Africa.

On his release, in 1974, he escaped to Mozambique and joined the country’s freedom fighters – the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU, where guerrilla fighters elected him to lead their struggle against white minority rule back home. The ZANLA was formed in 1965 in Tanzania, although until the early 1970s ZANLA was based in camps around Lusaka, Zambia.

The freedom fighters’ struggle culminated into the Lancaster House Agreement, which was signed on December 21, 1979. The peace pact resulted into a ceasefire, ending the Rhodesian Bush War; and creation and recognition of the Republic of Zimbabwe.

He chaired ZANU, formed as a split from the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), from 1975 to 1980.

He led its successor political party, the ZANU – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), the ruling party of Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

In 1980, after seven years of a liberation bush war, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party won independent Zimbabwe’s first election. He took office as prime minister on April 18.

In 1990, ZANU-PF and Mugabe won parliamentary and presidential elections.

His second wife, Grace Ntombizodwa, married Mugabe in 1996. They had three children together; Bona, Mugabe's only daughter and the first child he had with Grace, Robert Mugabe Jr, and Chatunga Bellarmine Mugabe.

Mugabe, largely regarded as a hero of Africa’s independence struggle, served as his country’s Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 and then as President from 1987 to 2017.

But in 2000, Zimbabweans rejected a new constitution in a referendum. It was Mugabe’s first defeat at the ballot box. Two years later, in 2002, he won a disputed presidential vote.

Come 2013, Mugabe again won another disputed presidential election.

In November 2017, he was ousted from power in a military coup that ended his three-decade rule.


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