Robert Mugabe’s house arrest by Zimbabwe’s military effectively ends his unshaken 37-year grip on the country, whether or not the military technically restores him to office. Over the period of his rule, Mugabe established a legacy as a charismatic leader whose promise in the era after independence in 1980 was matched only by his lust for power and wealth, which turned what was once one of Africa’s most promising nations into a cautionary tale for the rest of the continent.
A Zimbabwean military officer said on television Wednesday that Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed,” adding the military’s actions were necessary to target “criminals around him [Mugabe] who are committing crimes ... that are causing social, and economic suffering in the country.”
Mugabe is 93 years old, but has dominated politics in his country since the 1960s, and led it to independence in 1980 after fighting a guerrilla war against the apartheid government of what was then called Rhodesia. About two decades ago, when the opposition to Mugabe’s rule began to grow, it was thought that he might cede power to a democratically elected government. But when it became clear that wouldn’t happen, the question and speculation, especially as he aged, concerned who he would appoint as his successor. Over the years, the likeliest candidates were other veterans of the freedom struggle—including Joice Mujuru, whose 1970s-era nom de guerre was Teurai Ropa, or Spill Blood, and who was rumored, according to The New York Times, “to have brought down a military helicopter with a machine gun.” When she fell out of favor it was Emmerson Mnangagwa, a Mugabe loyalist and henchman of decades’ standing, who could have been the heir apparent, and who until recently served as the country’s vice president. But there was also Mugabe’s wife, Grace, who at 52 seemed another contender for leadership—despite her husband’s denial that this was the case. (In a recent interview on state television, Mugabe asked: “Why successor? I am still here. Why do you want a successor? I did not say I was a candidate to retire.”) In any case, when Mugabe this month fired Mnangagwa, after Grace Mugabe accused his supporters of plotting a coup, her position seemed all but assured.