Robert Mugabe, the former autocratic leader of Zimbabwe who ruled with an iron fist for nearly four decades, has died at 95.
Mugabe remained one of the continent’s most divisive figures until the end. He was accused of orchestrating human rights abuses against impoverished black Zimbabweans, white farmers and thousands of LGBTQ people during his 37-year rule. Critics say he amassed vast wealth as the resource-rich southern African nation spiraled into poverty.
His death comes nearly two years after he was forced to resign as president in the wake of a sudden military takeover.
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa shared condolences on Twitter on Friday:
The former freedom fighter came to power when white-minority rule ended in 1980, and he said he intended to reign for life. He served as prime minister until 1987, then as president until he was ousted in November 2017.
Mugabe was born in the Zvimba district of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), on Feb. 21, 1924 ― four months after Britain colonized the territory. He gained the first of seven degrees in 1951 and embarked on a career as a schoolteacher.
In 1958, Mugabe met his future wife, Sarah “Sally” Hayfron, when they were both teaching in Ghana, where he saw firsthand the fruits of independence in the former British colony. He was inspired to become a Marxist.
When Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960, he found that the colonial government had displaced thousands of black families. That year, he advocated striving toward independence, espousing Marxist ideals. He was elected public secretary of the National Democratic Party, set up to push for the end to white-minority rule and achieve more rights for black people, including abolishing laws that bolstered racial discrimination and segregation.
Mugabe married Hayfron in 1961, the year he led the launch of a deadly guerrilla war, after the British banned the NDP. In 1963, he founded the Zimbabwe African National Union, another resistance movement, in the East African country of Tanzania ― which the British quickly outlawed because of its opposition to white rule.
The following year, police arrested Mugabe in Southern Rhodesia for making a “subversive speech” and imprisoned him for 10 years. When his only child with Hayfron, Nhamodzenyika, died of malaria at age 3 in 1966, authorities refused to allow Mugabe to attend the boy’s funeral.
Mugabe continued to operate the guerrilla campaign from behind bars. He was released from jail in 1974 and continued the fight for independence until Britain agreed in 1979 to monitor the changeover to black majority rule.
Southern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980, when the Mugabe-led Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front was elected to power and he became prime minister. Mugabe and Britain’s then-foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, were jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
Two years later, Mugabe sent his North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade to the province of Matabeleland to crush a rebellion started mainly by members of the minority Ndebele tribe. More than 20,000 people were killed in the ethnic cleansing, known as the “Gukurahundi” suppression, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
The suppression ended when ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union signed the Unity Accord, forming a united nationalist party, in 1987 ― the year that Mugabe assumed the presidency after the prime ministerial role was abolished.
In the late 1980s, Mugabe met Grace Marufu, who would become his mistress. They were married in 1996 in a lavish ceremony attended by thousands of guests, including Nelson Mandela, who was the President of South Africa at the time. Mugabe is survived by Grace and their three children.
The Mugabe family and those with close ties to the government were also accused of corruption and profiting from industries such as mining. In 2010, leaked U.S. cables alleged that Grace Mugabe had made a profit in the millions of dollars from diamond mining.
Mugabe also drew international criticism for his drive to seize white-owned commercial farms from 2000, with most land going to ruling ZANU-PF members. The U.S. and other Western countries imposed sanctions and withheld financial aid in protest over Mugabe’s policies.
Meanwhile, poverty in Zimbabwe worsened significantly as inflation soared ― a trend that continued in following years. In 2016, an extreme drought prompted Mugabe to declare a national state of emergency, as 5 million people (half the country’s rural population) faced severe food shortages. Yet the president marked his 93rd birthday with a party organizers reportedly hailed as “Africa’s biggest,” which reportedly cost almost $1 million.
Impunity also characterized Mugabe’s rule. In 2000 he won 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars in a lottery that a state-owned bank partly ran. In June 2015, many people were shocked that Mugabe’s stepson was fined just $800 and not jailed after being convicted of manslaughter for knocking down and killing a man with his car in Harare.
Anti-Mugabe protests swept across the country in 2016, as economic, political and social problems escalated. But the strongman remained defiant, blaming the economic crisis on international sanctions, and accusing Western countries, including the United States, of sponsoring the protests.
Mugabe agreed to step down on Nov. 21, 2017, less than a week after the military seized power and detained the 93-year-old amid calls for his resignation. ZANU-PF also removed Mugabe as its leader and expelled Grace earlier that day.
Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe had controversially fired as his vice president earlier that month, subsequently assumed power. The 76-year-old is now serving as Zimbabwe’s third president.
Mnangagwa has been complicit in some of the government’s most egregious abuses of power, dampening hopes of real political change in Zimbabwe. But Mugabe’s departure was still cause for massive celebrations across the country.
Thousands of elated civilians danced and sang in the streets of Harare, the capital city, as news of Mugabe’s resignation spread.
“This is a good day for Zimbabwe. This is a new era for our nation,” one man told BBC News. “It is not a secret that everyone in Zimbabwe has been waiting for this moment,” another woman said. “It’s a fresh start for Zimbabwe.”
Jesselyn Cook contributed reporting.