Last week a military takeover shocked Zimbabwe. Long-term President Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest. Days later, under pressure from ruling Zimbabwean officials, Mugabe resigned. Who is Robert Mugabe?  How did he come to power in Zimbabwe? What has he done to earn such a terrible reputation?

Colonial Beginnings.

In 1888 Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC), bought a land concession from the Ndebele peoples. He used this concession to gain a royal charter, giving him company rule over the southern African land of Matabeleland and Zambesia.

Cecil Rhodes

Rhodes: A depiction of the famed colonial figure, Cecil Rhodes. Source:

In 1895 the BSAC adopted the named Rhodesia in honour of Rhodes. The territory was then split into northern and southern states. It was South Rhodesia which Britain fully annexed and formed into a self-governing colony after the Great War.

Zimbabwe Emerges.

By the mid-20th century, a feeling of revolutionary African nationalism was growing.

In 1964, Ian Smith, a farmer turned radical politician, led the Rhodesian Front to declare independence from Britain, despite lack of British support and the minority rule of white settlers (covering just 4% of the population).

White independent rule led the new Rhodesia headlong into war. Two Black Nationalist groups emerged from the mire. The ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo, populated with the Ndebele peoples, and ZANU, led by Robert Mugabe ethnic Shona. Both believed in two main ideologies: Socialism and black power. Mugabe’s ZAPU received Soviet support whilst the ZANU, who leant toward Maoism, garnered Chinese and North Korean back-up.

Enemies united: Ian Smith points Robert Mugabe towards the Premier chair at the opening of first the Parliament of independent Zimbabwe. Source:



The ensuing Bush War was violent and complex.  In 1979, Smith brought the bloodshed to an end with an agreement with both Mugabe and Nkomo at the Lancaster House Agreement.

In 1980 ZANU and Mugabe won a landslide victory at the elections and the new nation of Zimbabwe with Britain formally granting them independence. The new Zimbabwe had majority rule.

In 1982 dissent erupted from the Natabele people who saw Mugabe’s rule as a Shona takeover. Mugabe’s actions were swift and brutal.  The Gukurahundi campaign used North Korean soldiers as well the Zimbabwean army to massacre and torture Natabele citizens. By the end of the campaign, up to 80,000 were dead. The eventual peace of 1987 saw the Natabele ZAPU party engulfed by Mugabe’s ZANU, creating the new ruling ZANU-PF.

Natabele slaughter: The graves of those slaughtered during the Gukuharundi campaign are uncovered. Source: The Daily Man.


This dream of a new Zimbabwe began to swiftly crumble in the 90’s. Health became a growing concern with life expectancy falling to 40 for the average citizen and a quarter of the population becoming HIV positive. Students, nurses and health officials took to the streets, the people began to talk.

What made Mugabe a figure of greater hatred was his continued landslide election victories. ‘Rigged’ was the word that came to so many lips. It was this that possibly tipped him towards almost universal unpopularity after the 2013 elections.

Mugabe’s economic inabilities claimed his real infamy. In 1997 0.6% of Zimbabwe’s population held some 70% of the land. This white minority were the victims of Mugabe’s 2000 land reforms when seizures and redistribution turned violent. The government encouraged the beating and killing of farmers, with local militia stole land from the white Zimbabweans and burnt their homesteads.

Grab and burn: A white farmer’s house burns. Source: The Telegraph.

The sudden drought of skilled farmers fleeing the country led to serious economic disparity. The once breadbasket of Africa virtually starved overnight causing mass inflation. Whilst the economy sank, Mugabe purchased his fifth mansion in Hong Kong.


Why Mugabe was hated is obvious. It is his image that tells us why he kept power for so long. In the 1980’s Africa saw Mugabe as the perfect leader. He was famed and respected as a fighter of Rhodesian white supremacy, Zimbabwe’s Mandela and an anti-colonial hero, the defender of black Africa. This was a guise he was able to hide behind. Even as the western-world imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe and called time on his questionable economic ruling, many African’s still held him up as the war veteran who stood for the common African.

Perhaps now, with the long-time president gone, fair results, economic prosperity, unity and health care can finally reach the people.