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Late Robert Mugabe Was Liked And Feared By Some Zimbabweans

FILE: Robert Mugabe co-leader of the Patriotic Front guerrilla forces, is seen at a press conference in London, Dec. 19, 1979, when it was announced that he and Joshua Nkomo had reached an agreement at Lancaster House on a new constitution and a ceasefire.

The late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was born at Kutama Mission in the Zvimba communal lands, Mashonaland West province, on February 21st, 1924. He was one of five children of Bona and Masuzho Gabriel Matibiri of Malawian origin.

His siblings were Michael, Raphael, Donato, Sabina and Bridgette. His father had three other children - Regina, Albert and David - after he married a second wife in the 1930s in Bulawayo where he had relocated to pursue his career as a carpenter.

His mother, a teacher, was left to fend for her family as a single parent.

One of his childhood friends, James Robert Dambaza Chikerema who attended school and herded cattle with him, once described Robert Mugabe as an aloof, withdrawn temperamental young man who wanted to win all the time and would separate his cattle from the others if he was upset and spend the whole day alone.

Chikerema was a founding member of the City Youth League which called for equal rights in the then Rhodesia and played a key role in the formation of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress.


The late former president started his formal education at a local Jesuit school where he excelled and was encouraged to further his education. He proceeded to tertiary education at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape, graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and English.

Upon his return home, he taught at several schools, including Hope Fountain Mission near Bulawayo in Matabeleland, where he was affectionately known as Ngwenya.

In 1955, Mugabe moved to the then Northern Rhodesia where he taught for four years at Chalimbana Training College. There he obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Economics, through correspondence.


Three years later, Mugabe moved to Ghana where he taught at St. Mary's Teacher Training College. That is where he met his first wife, Sally Heyfron, who died of cancer in 1992. They married in 1961 after Mugabe completed his Economics Degree. Their son, Michael Nhamodzenyika, died at the age of three in Ghana. Mugabe, who was then imprisoned, was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Fired up by the Marxist and Pan-Africanist politics in Ghana at the time, the late Mugabe visited home in 1960 where he became involved in nationwide protests in African townships demanding better living conditions, equal rights and majority rule.

He agreed to address a crowd at a township hall where his address was centered on how Ghana had successfully achieved independence through Marxism.


A few weeks later, he was elected as the publicity secretary of the National Democratic Party.

The Rhodesian government banned the party in 1961, but active members regrouped as the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) under the leadership of trade unionist Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo.

Joshua Nkomo had also led both the African National Congress of Southern Africa and National Democratic parties which had been banned by the government.

The late Mugabe and others soon became frustrated by what they considered as Nkomo’s slow leadership pace in the struggle against colonial inequalities in Rhodesia.


In 1963 he teamed up with other nationalists in Tanzania and formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) under the leadership of Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.

A year later, Mugabe was arrested and locked up for almost a decade at Hwahwa Prison, then Sikombela Detention Center and finally Salisbury Prison.

It was during that time that he did various correspondent courses and spearheaded the removal of Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole as ZANU leader in 1974 on accusations of being a “counter revolutionary”.


Asked for his comment on the Black Nationalist movement, Ian Douglas Smith, then Prime Minister of Rhodesia once declared.

“I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia. Not in a thousand years!”

But the late former president had other plans. He escaped and crossed the border to Mozambique in 1974, in the company of the late Edgar Tekere with the assistance of the late Chief Rekayi Tangwena, when Ian Smith temporarily released him from prison to attend a conference in Tanzania.

In the thick bushes of Mozambique, he was involved in setting up the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA), an armed wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union, which over the years conducted a guerilla war against the Smith government until independence talks in 1979.

Mugabe and Nkomo were involved in the Lancaster House negotiations in London. The British representative overseeing the political transition in Rhodesia had this to say during the talks.

“In opening this conference, I express the hope that we will be able to lay the foundations for a free, independent and democratic society in which all the people of Rhodesia, irrespective of their race or political beliefs, will be able to live in security and peace, with each other and their neighbors. “


Mugabe and Nkomo settled for the adoption of the Lancaster House Constitution, which resulted in the holding of elections in the country at the time named Zimbabwe Rhodesia and led by co-Prime Ministers Ian Smith and Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa.

Mugabe and his associates dumped the Patriotic Front coalition and contested the elections under the banner of ZANU-PF.

Joshua Nkomo wrote in his book, ‘The Story of My Life’ how Mugabe took everyone by surprise with his sudden departure from London after the signing ceremony and announced from Tanzania that they would be contesting the first elections in Zimbabwe as a separate party.

Mugabe won those elections to form the first majority government in 1980. His party won 57 seats followed by the Patriotic Front led by Joshua Nkomo with 20 seats and Muzorewa of the United African National Council won only three seats. Twenty seats were reserved for the white community represented by Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front.

Mugabe, the first black leader of independent Zimbabwe, was sworn into office on April 18, 1980, at Rufaro Stadium in the capital, Harare.

In late 1980, just months after independence, a firefight broke out between Mugabe’s ZANLA forces and members of Nkomo’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe African People’s Army – ZIPRA – at a township in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo.

The running battles ceased for a while before escalating into a larger conflict. These became known as the “Entumbane Battles” which nearly degenerated into a civil war.

A few years later, Mugabe sacked all ZAPU cabinet ministers following allegations that Nkomo was planning an armed coup d'état against his government.


From January 1983, a campaign of terror was waged against Joshua Nkomo and his followers, mainly the Ndebele people in Matabeleland and the Midlands in western Zimbabwe. He was accused of harboring gangs of dissidents allegedly drawn from former ZIPRA combatants.

Code-named “Gukurahundi” a Shona name for the thunderstorms that signal the rainy season and wash away the chaff from the fields, these killings remain the darkest period in post-independence Zimbabwe’s history.

In 1987, as an attempt to quell the fighting, Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo signed the Zimbabwe Unity Accord to merge their parties and focus on the nation's economic recovery.

Mugabe became an executive president while Joshua Nkomo deputized him together with the late Simon Muzenda.

However, some disgruntled ZAPU cadres, including Russian-trained former ZIPRA Intelligence Commander, Dumiso Dabengwa, decided to abandon the agreement after the death of Joshua Nkomo, saying Mugabe was only catering for the needs of his old Zanu PF colleagues.

Joshua Nkomo, who once fled to London to seek refuge from the 5th Brigade, was a bitter man.

“I have worked so hard for this country … Before independence … During the war; I worked so hard after independence, to make our independence stick.”


From 1980, Mugabe’s ruling party has won all the elections except the parliamentary defeat by former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change formed in 1999.

“We must give Mugabe a resounding defeat.”

Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the 2008 presidential election but failed to attain the constitutional threshold of 50% plus one.

In social circles, Mugabe had an affair with his then secretary, Grace Marufu, who was married to Airforce of Zimbabwe’s wing commander Stanley Goreraza.

Being a devout catholic, Mugabe’s infidelity was problematic on religious grounds until the late Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa, Zimbabwe's first black catholic archbishop, agreed to officiate at the wedding.

By 1991 the newly-weds had two children, Bona and Robert Junior. A few years later they had another son, Bellarmine Chatunga.


Mugabe, a staunch Maoist, experimented with several economic programs, including the Structural Adjustment Program funded by the International Monetary Fund and related institutions, in an effort to save the country’s declining economy owing to its involvement in the late 1990s civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This was worsened by his government’s November 1997 move to pay each ex-combatant a gratuity of $50,000 after neglecting them for 17 years. According to independent economists, Zimbabwe’s serious economic problems started after these non-budgeted payouts.

By the late 1990s, Zimbabwe’s economy was in sharp decline. Mugabe pulled the country out of the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies as he turned his back on the West, claiming that the Structural Adjustment program they backed, was ruining his nation.

Between 2002 and 2008, Zimbabwe plunged into an unprecedented economic recession as it recording historic hyperinflation and failed to service its debts.


Realizing that Zimbabwe was facing serious problems, the Southern African Development Community tasked South African president Thabo Mbeki to craft an internal settlement between Mugabe’s Zanu PF party and Movement for Democratic Change formations led by Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.

In 2009, the three parties set up a unity government, which saw remarkable growth in various sectors. The unity government ended in 2013 after Zanu PF won overwhelmingly in most parts of the country in a poll described by the opposition as widely rigged in favor of the ruling party.

Some people have commended the late president for the high literacy rate in Zimbabwe and establishment of the Presidential Scholarship Fund, a facility for intellectually-talented Zimbabweans with financial problems, to access tertiary education. Others praise him for parceling out land to some Zimbabweans.

In military circles, Mugabe is respected for providing security forces for international missions sanctioned by the United Nations. But he will be widely remembered for his tight grip on power and vowing that Zimbabwe will not be run again by colonialists.

“There will never be a regime change here. There will always be the people of Zimbabwe in control, neither Bush nor Blair can bring about regime change here. Never. We’ll never accept it.”

The late president was ousted in a military intervention in November 2017, a few days after he fired his vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was accused of undermining the authority of the president by claiming that he was poisoned while attending a Zanu PF rally in Matabeleland South province.

Mnangagwa is believed to have engineered the unseating of Mugabe through the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, which then used members of the public to stage protests calling for his ouster. Parliament also threatened to impeach him. General Constantino Chiwenga claimed that some Zanu PF activists, aligned to Mnangagwa, were being targeted by a faction of the party that wanted former First Lady Grace Mugabe to succeed Mugabe.

Army tanks rolled in Harare late November 14th, 2017, and the army announced Mugabe’s fate the following day in a televised speech presented by then Major General Sibusiso Moyo, who became Foreign Affairs Minister under Mnangagwa’s government.

“We wish to make this abundantly clear this is not a military takeover of government … What the Zimbabwe defense forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict … We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.”

The army claimed that it had a constitutional mandate to intervene whenever there was a political crisis in Zimbabwe. But the late president claimed that he was forced to relinquish power.

“I was sacked from the party I founded – Zanu-PF – with the likes of vaMuzenda and others. I was regarded now as an enemy. But if the coup was to protect me, how come that I am treated now as an opponent, opponent of those in government, new government.”

Mugabe said he resigned in order to avoid bloodshed.

“But in the process, it was the president – the very person they said they wanted to protect, whom they indeed removed. They will tell you that he resigned. True, I resigned and when in the note I read in parliament when I resigned, I said I had done so in order to avoid bloodshed, in order to avoid conflict between the army and the people. That was the essence, essence of what I said. The words might have been different, but that was the idea. That was the reason.”

Mugabe, who ruled the Southern African nation for 37 years, noted that he wanted Sydney Sekeremayi, then state security minister, to succeed him instead of his wife. Mnangagwa was seen for years as a likely successor to the president, and maintained strong backing in the army. Grace Mugabe had support in the party's youth wing and is believed to have masterminded the firing of another vice president, Joice Mujuru, in 2014.

The Zimbabwe High Court ruled that the military takeover that led to Mugabe's resignation was legal, a key decision since the military had insisted that its moves did not result in a coup. The international community appears to have embraced the court ruling and called the army’s action a military intervention instead of a coup.​ (Story edited by Gibbs Dube, research by Themba Hove)

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