Robert Mugabe, liberation hero turned despot, dies in Singapore at 95

Robert Mugabe, ex-president of Zimbabwe, attends the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released)
Robert Mugabe, ex-president of Zimbabwe, attends the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released)

Robert Mugabe, the strongman who ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 37 years, has died at age 95, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who deposed him, announced in a tweet today. Mugabe had been receiving medical treatment at a hospital in Singapore, where he has been a frequent visitor for healthcare reasons in recent years.

“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” Zimbabwe’s current president said in the tweet.

“Cde Mugabe was 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. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” he added.

Mnangagwa revealed last month that Mugabe was in Singapore, where he had been receiving medical care for four months. He did not disclose the name of the hospital nor Mugabe’s ailment.

“Founding president and founding father of our nation (comrade) Robert Mugabe remains detained at a hospital in Singapore where he is receiving medical attention,” he said at the time. “Unlike in the past when the former president would require just about a month for this, his physicians this time around determined that he be kept under observation for much longer from April this year when he left for his latest routine check-up.”

Mnangagwa had also visited Singapore earlier to check on Zimbabwe’s former ruler.

– Tragic legacy –

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white-minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe will instead be remembered a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy.

The former political prisoner turned guerrilla leader swept to power in the 1980 elections after a growing insurgency and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.

In office, he initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.

But his luster faded quickly.

Mugabe had taken control of one wing in the guerrilla war for independence — the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed forces — after his release from prison in 1974.

His partner in the armed struggle — the leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), Joshua Nkomo — was one of the early casualties of Mugabe’s crackdown on dissent.

Nkomo was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982.

Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo’s Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents.

Yet it was the violent seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mugabe’s transformation into an international pariah — though his status as a liberation hero still resonates strongly in most of Africa.

Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilize his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into economic misery.

At the same time, Mugabe clung to power through increased repression of human rights and by rigging elections.

– ‘Reptilian quality’ –

“He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees,” said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.

Britain’s former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence.

“Mugabe wasn’t human at all,” Carrington told biographer Heidi Holland. “There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.

“You could admire his skills and intellect… but he was an awfully slippery sort of person.”

In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe — one of the world’s most recognizable leaders, with his thin stripe of mustache and thick-rimmed spectacles — embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West.

He used blistering rhetoric to blame his country’s downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe’s economy.

“If people say you are dictator… you know they are saying this merely to tarnish and demean your status, then you don’t pay much attention,” he said in a 2013 documentary.

After decades in which the subject of succession was virtually taboo, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite when he reached his 90s and became visibly frail.

He had been rumored for years to have prostate cancer, but according to the official account, his frequent trips to Singapore were related to his treatment for cataracts.

Zimbabwe’s public health services have practically collapsed and those who can afford it seek treatment in South Africa or further abroad. Mugabe during his time in power sought almost all his medical care in Singapore.

With its top-notch hospitals, the Little Red Dot has long been a favorite destination for medical care for strongmen much closer to home than Zimbabwe.

Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia the past 34 years, makes frequent visits to see Singaporean doctors, while former Myanmar junta leader Than Shwe was known to have received treatment for intestinal cancer here back in 2007.

More news from the Little Red Dot at Coconuts.co/Singapore.

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