Robert Mugabe: When a Leader Overstays His Welcome

The apparent ouster of Zimbabwe’s president marks a power struggle between the independence fighters and a younger generation.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters

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.

Now it isn’t, nor is her husband’s. Each of the major figures involved in the current political machinations is tied to the war of independence in the 1970s—all that is but Grace Mugabe. And their rivalry pits Zimbabwe’s first lady, and the youth wing of the ruling party that she leads, against Mnangagwa and his allies who fought in the war of independence, and whose positions in the military have helped keep Mugabe in power. But while Mnangagwa fled to South Africa, citing threats to his life, he was bolstered by the military action orchestrated by General Constantino Chiwenga, his former comrade in arms. Chris Mutsvangwa, the head of the country’s powerful war veterans group, told Reuters: “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

Now, the gang that fought alongside that dictator appears to be back in charge.

Mugabe is the last one standing among the continent’s leaders who assumed power following the end of minority white rule in Africa. From Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana to Patrice Lumumba in Congo, Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, the generation that took power following the waves of decolonization that began in the 1950s has all but passed from the scene. The enthusiasm of their early days in power, and the visions of the leftist utopias they wished to carve from the ruins of empire, gave way to the realities of the politics of the Cold War, in which the newly independent states often found themselves playing the role of unwilling—and sometimes willing—pawns. There were exceptions to this rule, of course: The most prominent of these was Nelson Mandela, whose lack of rancor toward South Africa’s whites despite his decades of imprisonment characterized that country’s transition from apartheid. His death in 2013 at the age of 95 prompted an outpouring of grief in his country, his continent, and around the world.

The same will not be said for Mugabe. At one point in time, Mugabe was revered across Africa. He ended white-minority rule, urged Zimbabwe’s whites to remain in the country and rebuild it, and undertook the kinds of projects under which his country thrived. In the mid-1980s, things began to change: Mugabe began to suspect a white-led plot against him, consolidated his own political power, and, ultimately, empowered groups of war veterans to seize white-owned farms, which had been the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy. He triumphed repeatedly in presidential elections that were widely dismissed as flawed. The country’s economy collapsed and its president’s increasingly erratic actions showed a man who had lost touch with political reality. “Zimbabwe is mine,” Mugabe said in 2008 after he was re-elected in another sham vote. “I will never, never, never surrender.”

He might not have surrendered, but the military’s action showed what happens when a longtime leader who has left open no room for a political opposition declines to bow out gracefully when his time is up. There might not be much to add to Robert Mugabe’s biography, but the damage he wreaked upon his country will likely take years to fix.