Mugabe's Time Runs Out

Zimbabwe’s president outlasted empires, global movements, and his political rivals—until Tuesday.

A woman sits next to a mural depicting Robert Mugabe.
Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters

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.

“He’s outlasted almost all his contemporaries. Zimbabwe has been in a really unique position, really, in that he's been head and shoulders above all other politicians in the country,” said Jane Morley, regional manager for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It’s hard to understate his wiliness, his understanding of how to keep hold of the levers of power. He’s 93, and has allegedly dementia, but can still outmaneuver almost everybody.”

That skill was in evidence Monday as Mugabe’s political future, which seemed nonexistent on Sunday, seemed briefly to get revived, with the various factions reportedly unable to decide whether to give the father of their nation a dignified exit in December.

Ultimately, though, Mugabe appeared to blink.

Although Mugabe seemed emblematic in the West of a kind of “big man” rule in African politics, the truth was that by the time his reign came to an end he was increasingly the exception rather than the rule. The continent has for years been moving away from the kind of politics where a single autocratic leader, often supported by the United States or, before its collapse, the Soviet Union, dominated a nation for decades. One reason for Mugabe’s longevity could be the fact that relative to other African countries, Zimbabwe shed white-minority rule only in 1980, decades after the wave of decolonization swept the rest of Africa. Racist rule is a recent memory in the country, and Mugabe, despite his obvious faults, represented the successful fight against it.

Morley told me that Mugabe started off well enough when in the 1980s, but once he got his hands on the nation’s most valuable export—diamonds—he, like leaders in other resource-rich nations, came to believe that he had a right to the means of production. “People maybe could have put up with it from Mugabe himself,” she said, “but Grace [Mugabe] and her appalling shopping habits was what finally sent people over the edge.”

As calls for Mugabe’s exit grew, Zimbabwe’s neighbors tried to find a solution to the political impasse. Jacob Zuma, the South African president, and João Lourenço, the Angolan leader, were headed to Harare on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc. Mugabe at first seemed reluctant to go, but ultimately the father of modern Zimbabwe knew it was time for his country to turn the page.