Embattled Mugabe vows to cling on to power

A new chapter: Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe for 37 years. © Getty

How will history remember Robert Mugabe? Yesterday Africa’s oldest tyrant was sacked by his own party. He remains in power for now, but his era of shortages and despotism is surely over.

In January a huge crowd gathered to celebrate Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday. He appeared as unshakeable as ever.

But this weekend the crowds were back. And this time, they were celebrating the likely downfall of Zimbabwe’s dictator after a military coup. “Bob’s not your uncle,” read one placard.

The country’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, has sacked him as leader. But last night he defied the enormous pressure to resign and gave a televised address vowing to remain as leader for several weeks. But few expect him to last that long, and impeachment may soon begin.

So who was the man who turned Zimbabwe from Africa’s breadbasket to an economic basket-case?

Mugabe’s early life bears a notable similarity to that of Nelson Mandela.

Both came from humble backgrounds: Mugabe is the son of a carpenter from the countryside. Both led revolutionary movements against white-majority governments before long periods in prison. For a time, Mugabe was admired in the West, even receiving a knighthood in 1994.

But while Mandela died a hero, Mugabe has long been seen as one of the worst tyrants of modern times.

His politics mixed Marxism with African nationalism. One of his most infamous moves was to take land from white farmers and give it to the landless black majority. This policy did great harm to agriculture and to race relations in Zimbabwe; it led to massive white flight.

The unrest this caused brought international sanctions, damaging Zimbabwe’s economy. At one point in 2008 one US dollar was worth the staggering sum of 2,621,984,228 Zimbabwean dollars.

Mugabe has openly encouraged violence to ensure that he stayed in power. More than than 700 incidents of political violence were documented in Zimbabwe in 2016, including abductions and torture.

Heidi Holland, writer of several books on Mugabe, calls his story: “A microcosm of what bedevils African democracy and economic recovery at the beginning of the 21st century. It is a classic case of a genuine hero turning into a peevish autocrat.”

And yet for years Mugabe was loved by some of his subjects. Is he really that bad?

Zim bad way

Some see Mugabe as one of the worst dictators of modern times. Thanks to his awful policies and his disdain for freedom, he has wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy. He has established a political regime where democracy and human rights are ignored.

But, others reply, it is very easy to say that in the comfort of a Western country with a long history of law, order and prosperity. Some Zimbabweans supported him because, at first, he was clearly fighting on their behalf. He stood against the oppression that had blighted his people. For some, who do not take competent leadership for granted, that is enough.

You Decide

  1. How will Robert Mugabe be remembered?
  2. Is the future bright for Zimbabwe?


  1. Mugabe was the world’s oldest leader at 93. As a class, discuss whether there should be an upper age limit for national leaders.
  2. Mugabe is not alone in history as a revolutionary leader who became a tyrant. Research a similar figure and make a presentation about him or her to your class.

Some People Say...

“Only God who appointed me will remove me.”

Robert Mugabe

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mugabe remains as Zimbabwe’s president — for now. He has been sacked as leader of the Zanu-PF party, and although he has vowed to stay in power few believe his position is tenable. He is likely to be replaced as leader by Emmerson Mnangagwa. We know that Mugabe was widely despised by the international community for his disastrous management of Zimbabwe’s economy, his divisive racial policies and his record on human rights.
What do we not know?
What the future holds for Zimbabwe. Zanu-PF remain the only major political organisation in the country with any chance of holding power, so the future for democracy may well still be grim. Nor do we know why the coup happened now, for how long it was planned, and whether any other countries had a hand in Mugabe’s imminent downfall.

Word Watch

Formerly known as Rhodesia (named after British imperialist Cecil Rhodes), Zimbabwe is a country in southern Africa with a population of around 13 million people. Its capital city is Harare.
Stands for “Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front”.
The set of political and economic ideas based on the works of the German philosopher Karl Marx. Marx divided the world into workers and employers, and believed that the workers of the world should unite to overthrow the owners of capital and to seize the means of production.
White farmers
Mugabe once said: “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man.”
White flight
In 1975, the white population of Zimbabwe was 275,000. Today it is under 50,000. Many now live in South Africa.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.