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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.

Zimbabwe President and Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe addresses party supporters at his last campaign rally in Harare, July, 28, 2013.

Robert Mugabe, the guerrilla leader who led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980, died Friday at age 95, two years after the army brought an ignominious end to almost four decades of his iron-fisted rule.

Following are reactions to his death from Zimbabwe and around the world.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa, on Twitter

“Cde (Comrade) Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

“South Africans join the people and government of Zimbabwe in mourning the passing of a liberation fighter and champion of Africa’s cause against colonialism.

“Under President Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe’s sustained and valiant struggle against colonialism inspired our own struggle against apartheid and built in us the hope that one day South Africa too would be free.

“During the decades of our own struggle, Zimbabwe’s liberation movement supported our own liberation movement to fight oppression on multiple fronts. After Zimbabwe achieved independence, the apartheid state brutalized and violated Zimbabwe as punishment for supporting our own struggle.

“Many Zimbabweans paid with their lives so that we could be free. We will never forget or dishonor this sacrifice and solidarity.”

Zimbabwean Opposition Senator and Rights Lawyer David
Coltart, on Twitter

“He was a colossus on the Zimbabwean stage & his enduring positive legacy will be his role in ending white minority rule & expanding a quality education to all Zimbabweans.”

Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, on Twitter

“My condolences to the Mugabe family and Africa for the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding president. This is a dark moment for the family because a giant among them has fallen. May the lord comfort them.

“Even though I and our party, the MDC, and the Zimbabwean people had great political differences with the late former president during his tenure in office, and disagreed for decades, we recognize his contribution made during his lifetime as a nation’s founding president.

“There’s so much to say for a life of 95 years and national leadership spanning over 37 years but in the true spirit of Ubuntu, we would like to give this moment to mourning but there will be time for greater reflection.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang

Geng said Mugabe was an outstanding liberation movement leader and statesman for Zimbabwe who had defended his country’s independence, opposed foreign interference and promoted good cooperation with China.

“We are deeply saddened by his passing and express sincere sympathies to the Zimbabwean people, government and to Mr. Mugabe’s family.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta

“In this moment of sorrow, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his relatives and the people of Zimbabwe who, for many years, he served with commitment and dedication.

“Words cannot convey the magnitude of the loss as former President Mugabe was an elder statesman, a freedom fighter and a Pan-Africanist who played a major role in shaping the interests of the continent ... a man of courage who was never afraid to fight for what he believed in even when it was not popular.”

Tanzanian President John Magufuli

“Africa has lost one of its bravest and Pan-Africanist leaders, who led by example in opposing colonialism.”

Zimbabwean Deputy Minister of Information Energy Mutodi, on Twitter

“Rest in Peace President Robert Mugabe. There is no doubt you were an African icon, a statesman of a rare character and a revolutionary.”

Mpho Balopi, Secretary General, Botswana Democratic Party

“Cde Mugabe was one of Africa’s most renowned freedom fighters and also one of the founding fathers of what is today known as SADC (the intergovernmental Southern African Development Community, whose headquarters are in Botswana).

“The history of our respective parties’ fraternal relations would be incomplete without mention of Uncle Bob, as he was affectionately known. It is beyond any doubt that he leaves an indelible mark on the politics of the region.”

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