When Robert Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first leader in 1980, Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, Leonid Brezhnev led the seemingly invincible Soviet Union, and Nelson Mandela was 18 years into a 27-year sentence on Robben Island in apartheid-era South Africa.
In the four decades since that time, Mugabe, who is now 93 years old, tightened his hold on Zimbabwe, stifled the opposition, and dismantled the economy of what was once one of Africa's best-performing countries. Mugabe is the only leader much of Zimbabwe's population, whose median age is 20, has known—and he seemed destined to remain in office until his death. But just as he appeared to be paving the way for a dynastic succession—following the lead of his African contemporaries in Togo, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—it became apparent his seemingly permanent grip on power was, in fact, weak. His move two weeks ago to replace Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa with Grace Mugabe, the widely reviled first lady, was met with a military takeover and, ultimately, the end of the Mugabe era. Parliament Speaker Jacob Francis Mudenda announced Tuesday that Mugabe had resigned as president, halting impeachment proceedings against him.
If Mugabe's 37 years in power seemed interminable, it was partly because of the longstanding geopolitical movements he outlasted. To put his tenure in perspective, consider this: He withstood the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as its not-so-cold manifestations in Africa, where each superpower supported a litany of armed groups and dictators; he also outlasted the USSR itself. White-minority rule in southern Africa, which was so entrenched as to seem permanent before Mugabe took power, is now the stuff of history books, even if Africa and its people are still dealing with the economic and social consequences of its legacy. He is the world's third-longest-serving non-royal leader; only Cameroon's Paul Biya, who has governed since 1975, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the leader of Equatorial Guinea who came to power in 1979, have ruled longer. Mugabe also outlasted many of his own political rivals, as well as figures seen as possible successors, and in the process turned his country into an economic basket case.