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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Leaves Behind Mixed Legacy

Children play soccer next to a defaced portrait of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Sept, 6 2019.
Children play soccer next to a defaced portrait of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Sept, 6 2019.

Former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who died in a Singapore hospital Friday at age 95, leaves behind a complicated legacy. To some, he was a liberation hero who stood by his principles.

Others say he rigged elections, destroyed the economy of what was once Africa's breadbasket and terrorized his people for decades.

Mugabe's former deputy, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, stuck to the hero narrative in Twitter posts Friday announcing Mugabe's death.

"It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe's founding father and former President, Cde (Comrade) Robert Mugabe," Mnangagwa said.

A second post described Mugabe as "an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people."

The African Union's ambassador to the United States, Arikana Chihombori-Quao, described Mugabe as courageous, crediting him in particular for what Mugabe called land reform — and what his critics saw as confiscation of white-owned farms.

FILE - African Union Ambassador to the U.S. Arikana Chihombori-Quao

"Zimbabwe remains one of the few countries in the world that managed to take back the land and give it back to the people — a country that managed to undo the carnage of colonization," Chihombori-Quao told VOA's Zimbabwe service Friday.

But many others viewed the late president less charitably.

"While casting himself as the savior of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe inflicted lasting damage upon its people and its reputation," said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for southern Africa.

Rise and fall

Mugabe was born in Zimbabwe in 1924, when the territory was the British colony of Rhodesia. In his younger years, he led the guerrilla movement that resulted in Zimbabwe's independence, and assumed power when the new country was born in 1980.

FILE - Zimbabwean Premier Robert Mugabe gives a triumphant salute as he emerges from Parliament following its official opening, May 14, 1980.

Early on, he urged Zimbabweans to reconcile after the civil war that raged during the final colonial years. He also initially expanded the country's education and health systems, making them among the best-regarded in Africa.

But as time went on, Mugabe grew intolerant of dissent and faced increasing allegations of human rights abuses, repression and election rigging.

Between 1983 and 1987, Mugabe's ZANU-PF government carried out a brutal repression of the rival freedom movement ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo.

The period was marked by the mass killing of thousands of mainly Ndebele-speaking inhabitants of the Matabeleland region, Nkomo's stronghold.

Later, farm output plunged after the forcible transfer of white-owned commercial farms to blacks who lacked the experience and funding to make the farms productive. For many Zimbabweans, cash, jobs and fairly priced commercial goods remain impossible to get — and for that, many blame Mugabe.

Defending efforts

Speaking to VOA in 2018, Mugabe defended his years in power.

"I have, during that time, through all this time, cried for return, our return, to constitutionality, our return to legality, our return to freedom for our people, an environment in which our people can be free," Mugabe said.

Twenty-eight-year-old clerk Pedzisai Chakwenya said he had mixed feelings about the man who ruled Zimbabwe for most of his life.

"Robert Mugabe was right at first, but somewhere he went wrong," he said.

Dumisani Nkomo, who works for a Christian peace-building group in Matabeleland, has doubts that Mugabe's legacy can be reclaimed.

FILE - Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace look on after addressing a news conference at his private residence in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018.

"It's difficult to redeem. I think the bad eclipses the good. Obviously some would argue that as a pan-Africanist, he did advocate for Africa to be recognized as an equal partner to the IMF, in the United Nations, and so forth. So in terms of rhetoric, he was a pan-Africanist champion, but in terms of practice, it was a terrible experience with his own people," Nkomo said.

Final years

As he aged into his 90s, Mugabe grew frail. His second wife, Grace (Marufu) Mugabe — 41 years his junior and unpopular with the public for what many considered profligate spending — positioned herself to eventually take power.

The military prevented that by taking control of state institutions and forcing Mugabe to resign in November 2017. His successor, Mnangagwa, notably declined to prosecute Mugabe.

"He is the founding father of Zimbabwe, he is our founding father of free Zimbabwe," Mnangagwa said.

Mugabe's death occurred in Singapore's Gleneagles Hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness. Singapore's Foreign Ministry reportedly was working with Zimbabwean authorities to coordinate the body's return.