This hero of the liberation struggle against white minority rule in what was then known as Rhodesia, Mugabe spent more than a decade in prison for his efforts. He was once lauded for his reconciliatory rhetoric, for his stewardship of a vibrant economy that was dubbed the breadbasket of southern Africa, and for promoting excellent education and health-care policies that were the envy of the continent.
The shine soon began to dull, though. For one thing, Mugabe was ruthless against his rivals. From 1983 to ’87, the Gukurahundi massacres against the Ndebele ethnic group left as many as 20,000 people dead, attacks that took place when Mnangagwa, who has the ominous nickname “The Crocodile,” was a security minister. And over the decades, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), the movement he founded, was itself subject to repeated purges when various factions threatened Mugabe’s rule.
Then there were his disastrous land reforms. In the late 1990s, trade unions gave birth to a new political force, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the new party soon mobilized to hand Mugabe a stinging defeat in a referendum on a new constitution. That year, under pressure from so-called war veterans—liberation fighters who had demanded land compensation in the aftermath of independence—Mugabe incited a wave of violent invasions of white-owned commercial farms.
The move alienated the West, though, and led to the collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-rich agricultural sector. Millions fled the country. Sanctions were imposed. The economy nose-dived and inflation reached ludicrous levels last seen in Weimar Germany, during the Great Depression, and in the breakup of Yugoslavia; at its peak, in November 2008, inflation in Zimbabwe was estimated at 79.6 billion percent. The following year, Zimbabwe stopped printing its own money, and began using currencies from other countries.
By all accounts, ZANU–PF should have lost power in several elections beginning in the 2000s. But the party, and its leader, clung to power. In 2008, the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in the first round of a presidential election, but was deemed not to have gained an outright majority, forcing a runoff. The level of violence and intimidation was so dire that Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round entirely. South Africa, the regional behemoth, managed to cobble together a government of national unity between ZANU–PF and the MDC, a coalition that governed the country until 2013. For a moment, Mugabe looked vulnerable, yet in elections that year—themselves tainted by allegations of irregularities—ZANU–PF trounced the opposition, and Mugabe stayed on.
Well into his 90s, Mugabe had rejected all attempts at succession planning. He had mastered Machiavellian maneuvers to balance warring factions within ZANU–PF, favoring one side and then the other, doling out patronage and overseeing the increased militarization of state institutions. He would not name a successor. Most observers were sure he would, eventually, die in office.