A Look Back At Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's Rise To Power

The decades-long ruler is one of Africa's most controversial faces.

Zimbabwe’s military appeared to have seized power this week, a stunning move that may signal the end to the rule of the country’s longtime president. 

In the early hours of Wednesday, soldiers took over the state broadcaster and announced President Robert Mugabe and wife, Grace, were “safe” while the military targeted “criminals” in the president’s entourage. The army has claimed that its takeover is only temporary and told regional leaders it has not carried out a coup. 

Since then, calls have grown louder for the 93-year-old president to resign. More than 100 civil society groups and several prominent opposition figures on Thursday pushed for Mugabe to leave office and allow for a peaceful transition of power. Mugabe is reportedly in talks with the military, South African negotiators and representatives of the Catholic Church.  

Throughout his four-decade rule, Mugabe was one of the continent’s most divisive figures. Once a celebrated freedom-fighter, Mugabe in later years was accused of orchestrating human rights abuses against impoverished black Zimbabweans, white farmers and thousands of LGBTQ people. Critics say he amassed vast wealth as the resource-rich southern African nation spiraled into poverty.

Take a look back at Mugabe’s origins provides some insight into the controversial leader’s rise to power:

Residents of Salisbury cheer during the proclamation of independence for the nation of Zimbabwe in April 1980.
Residents of Salisbury cheer during the proclamation of independence for the nation of Zimbabwe in April 1980.

The Fight For Independence

Mugabe was born in 1924 in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), just four months before the British colonized the country. After earning the first of his seven degrees in 1951, he embarked on a career as a schoolteacher.

Together with his first wife, Sarah “Sally” Hayfron, Mugabe fought in Ghana in the late 1950s, and experienced firsthand the fruits of independence in the former British colony and Ghanaian government’s goal of offering equal educational opportunities. He was inspired to become a Marxist.

By the time Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960, the colonial government had displaced thousands of black families. That year, Mugabe become more vocal in advocating for independence and Marxist ideals. He was elected public secretary of the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was set up to push for the end to white-minority rule and the abolishment of laws that bolstered racial discrimination and segregation.

In 1961, after the British banned the NDP, Mugabe was at the forefront of the launch of a deadly guerrilla war against the colonizers. Two years later, he founded the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), another resistance movement, in the East African country Tanzania. The party was quickly outlawed because of its opposition to white rule, and police arrested Mugabe in Southern Rhodesia the following year.

Mugabe spent the next 10 years behind bars, but continued to lead the guerrilla movement from his prison cell. When his only child with Hayfron, Nhamodzenyika, died of Malaria in 1966 at age 3, authorities refused to allow Mugabe to attend the funeral.

Mugabe addresses party members and supporters at his party headquarters to show support to Grace Mugabe becoming the party's
Mugabe addresses party members and supporters at his party headquarters to show support to Grace Mugabe becoming the party's next vice president after the dismissal of Emmerson Mnangagwa on Nov. 8.

A Peace Prize And A Violent Repression

In 1980, six years after Mugabe’s release from jail, Southern Rhodesia finally gained independence and became the Republic of Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s 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.

Mugabe’s claims to the peace prize ended shortly after. Just two years later, Mugabe sent a 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, which became known as the “Gukurahundi” suppression. 

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. He went on to win every subsequent election until his ouster.

Vote Rigging And Violent Protests

There have been repeated claims of vote-rigging in Zimbabwe’s elections, and several campaigns have resulted in deadly violence.

Supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) took the streets in the 2008 election, after Mugabe claimed victory in an vote that Tsvangirai dubbed a “violent, illegitimate sham of an election process.” An estimated 200 people died before the 15-member Southern Africa Development Community brokered the fractious government of national unity.

MDC again claimed massive voter fraud during the 2013 campaign. 

Mugabe and new wife Grace leave the Kutama Catholic Church on Aug. 17, 1996. The recent crisis arose as his hoped to extend p
Mugabe and new wife Grace leave the Kutama Catholic Church on Aug. 17, 1996. The recent crisis arose as his hoped to extend political power to his wife as a possible successor.

Nepotism, Corruption And A Collapsing Economy

The Mugabe family and those with close ties to the government have also been accused of corruption and profiting from industries such as mining. In 2010, leaked U.S. cables alleged that Grace Mugabe, his second wife, had made millions of dollars in profit from diamond mining. She sued a Zimbabwean newspaper for $15 million for reporting the news, first published on the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

In 2011, Mugabe’s government launched a plan to nationalize foreign-owned banks and mines, which culminated in a 2015 initiative to take a majority stake in foreign companies’ shareholdings.

Mugabe also drew international criticism for moving to seize white-owned commercial farms, and redistributing most of the land to members of ruling ZANU-PF party. In response to Mugabe’s policies, the U.S. and other Western countries imposed sanctions and withheld financial aid to the country. 

The farming and mining policies, coupled with drought and sanctions, saw inflation soar from 2000 to 2008, causing the currency to crash in 2008. Although the economy has stabilized, growth has slowed sharply since 2012, according to the World Bank

The Beginning Of The End

Anti-Mugabe protests swept the country last year as economic, political and social problems escalatedMugabe had tried to ban the demonstrations as reports of kidnapping and torture of opposition activists grew.

Meanwhile, the president’s age became increasingly apparent. Mugabe was caught sleeping through public events and delivered the wrong speeches to Parliament, and generally seemed unable to carry out even basic ceremonial duties.

Still, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party confirmed Mugabe as its candidate for the 2018 elections.

With his mental and physical health in question, a conflict over who would succeed the longtime leader heated up. 

Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was seen as a potential successor and head the support of the military, earlier this month. Simultaneously, Mugabe’s wife accelerated her attempts to position herself as a top contender for the presidency after her husband’s death. 

Zimbabwe’s military warned earlier this week that it would be forced to take action amid Mnangagwa’s ouster. It appears military leaders on Wednesday carried out their threat. 

Nick Robins-Early contributed to this report.