The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Zimbabwe’s Mugabe clung to power for almost 40 years

Crowds poured into the streets of Zimbabwe on Tuesday, following Robert Mugabe's announcement that he would resign after almost four decades as the country's leader.

In a move bearing all the hallmarks of a coup, Zimbabwe’s military had taken control of the country and Mugabe about one week ago. There had long been concerns about the health of the 93-year-old president and what would come next for the African country he has ruled since 1980.

The military announcement last week triggered the end of an era of one of Africa’s most notorious rulers, who brutally crushed many of his opponents. Mugabe grew up in Southern Rhodesia, a self-governing British colony that later became Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe. After becoming a schoolteacher, he joined an opposition group to fight British rule. He was jailed and later forced into exile in Mozambique. After the British withdrew from his country, Mugabe grasped the opportunity and ran in national elections on the promise that he would distribute Zimbabwe’s resources more equitably.

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first president, is stepping down. The Washington Post’s Max Bearak reflects on Mugabe’s time in power. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

But what began as a promise of a better future soon turned into violence and repression. Here’s a summary of those four decades, as reported by The Washington Post.

February 1980: Mugabe escapes assassination attempt

From The Post’s coverage:

Guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe narrowly escaped injury when 80 pounds of remote-controlled explosives were detonated under a convoy of cars taking him to the Fort Victoria Airport in southern Rhodesia. It was the second apparent assassination attempt on the black leader who made a triumphal return home two weeks ago after almost five years in exile.

April 1980: Mugabe takes oath as prime minister after Zimbabwe gains independence

From The Post’s coverage at the time:

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe took the oath of office shortly after midnight in a ceremony at Salisbury’s main stadium while representatives of about 100 countries and about 35,000 cheering Zimbabweans watched. Mugabe, the guerrilla leader most feared by the white-minority community before his election last month, made an eloquent plea to the people of Zimbabwe to end the hatred of seven years of war.
“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten,” the new prime minister said in a speech he wrote. “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself.”

1980: The exodus of Zimbabwe’s white population speeds up

About 1,500 to 2,000 people a month leave the country after its declaration of independence.

Starting in 1982: Mugabe is accused of military atrocities against opponents

Zimbabwe’s military begins an operation in the Matabeleland region against a perceived uprising.

From The Post’s coverage at the time, two years into the conflict:

Villagers, clergymen and mission hospital workers told journalists on an Army-escorted trip through the region of summary executions, beatings and rapes they said were committed by soldiers in an offensive against anti-government dissidents.

July 1985: Mugabe stays in power despite allegations of human rights violations

Mugabe wins a landslide victory in national elections. His supporters say he was successful in ensuring the right to a free public education for all Zimbabweans, a key campaign issue five years earlier.

1987: Mugabe is declared president

The newly created position also makes him the head of state and the commander in chief, in addition to being the head of the government, vastly expanding his powers and those of his party, ZANU-PF.

1994: Mugabe becomes an honorary British knight

In a sign of how popular Mugabe is at the time, both domestically and internationally, he is granted honorary British knighthood. (It is withdrawn in 2008.)

February 2000: Setback for Mugabe’s plans to seize properties of white people

From The Post’s coverage at the time:

Land ownership was at the heart of Zimbabwe’s liberation war in the 1970s, but when the colonial government and Mugabe's guerrillas negotiated the transfer of power in 1979, the rebels — eager to assume power — agreed that land could only be acquired from white settlers through fair-market purchases.
While Zimbabwe’s black population is mostly rural and widely in support of land reform, they focused their anger on Mugabe’s failed fiscal policies and mismanagement, which many blame for steering the country into its worst economic crisis.
(In Feb. 2000, voters) rejected President Robert Mugabe’s proposed revisions to the constitution that would have given his government authority to seize lands from the descendants of British settlers without compensation.

Starting in 2000: Mugabe’s land-seizure campaign

Despite the resistance, Mugabe pursues the controversial seizure of properties owned by whites.

Hundreds of the president’s relatives and supporters, (including his own wife) as well as senior government officials and their families, have been given commercial farms seized from white owners, according to civic groups and government records. (...)
The evictions have come as southern Africa is grappling with its worst food shortage in decades, and critics say Mugabe’s land grab has combined with drought to worsen the situation by replacing Zimbabwe's most productive farmers with inexperienced ones.

March 2005: As an election nears, Mugabe uses famine as a political weapon

Ahead of a crucial parliamentary election in April 2005, Mugabe's administration decides to withhold food deliveries from supporters of his opponents, as resistance against his government reaches unprecedented levels. A Post reporter observes:

The officials first held a rally by their impressive mound of food, witnesses here said. The next day, as hundreds of people from surrounding villages gathered to collect the 110-pound bags they had ordered and paid for months before, ruling party officials announced that only their supporters were eligible.
Human rights reports say withholding food from opponents is nothing new for the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the party of President Robert Mugabe. But this year, the threat of starvation is creating a potentially potent backlash against ZANU-PF.

April 2005: Mugabe wins another election, as the opposition declares itself too weak to protest the ruler 

From The Post’s coverage:

Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, ruled out organizing demonstrations against what he called the “fraudulent” results (of the) parliamentary elections, saying his party could not mount a protest large enough to force President Robert Mugabe from power.

The same year, the U.S. government declares Zimbabwe an “outpost of tyranny.”

Late 2000s: Hyperinflation destabilizes the regime 

From The Post’s coverage at the time:

Zimbabwe is in the grips of its worst crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. Power, water, health and communications systems are collapsing, and there are acute shortages of staple foods and gasoline. Unemployment is around 80 percent, and political unrest is high.
Mugabe blames Western sanctions and rejects criticism that the meltdown is the result of mismanagement and the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms he ordered beginning in 2000.

2008: Mugabe loses presidential election but remains in power 

When Mugabe announces his plans to resign after a major electoral defeat, Zimbabwe’s military chief urges him to stay in office — indicating a tightening grip of the military on the government, according to The Post’s dispatch at the time. 

According to two firsthand accounts of the meeting, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.

September 2008: Power-sharing deal is signed in Zimbabwe

President Robert Mugabe ceded a large share of control over Zimbabwe’s government Monday, in a power-sharing agreement that loosened his absolute hold over the nation.

2009: Mugabe’s prestige project, free public education, falls apart

As recently as the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s public education system was considered the best in sub-Saharan Africa, producing a literacy rate that still hovers around 90 percent. But the system is now on the brink of collapse, and the new unity government says rescuing it is one of its most immediate challenges.

In the following years, Mugabe continues to lose control and is increasingly featured in international media for comments and decisions that are controversial, desperate and bizarre:

Robert Mugabe fell over, tried to hide it and ended up becoming a meme

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is asking Britain for human skulls

Zimbabwe is planning to print its own ‘U.S. dollars’

Mugabe says of Obama’s gay rights push, ‘We ask, was he born out of homosexuality?’

Mugabe empties his prisons because he can’t pay for them

Now you can be jailed in Zimbabwe for flying its flag

2013: Mugabe’s party wins back majority

In an election widely derided as rigged by critics and observers, Mugabe's party achieves a majority and ends the need for a power-sharing agreement.

2016: New anti-government protests

In 2016, protests erupt against the government and are mainly rooted in the weak economy.

Mugabe may have clung to power despite multiple challenges to his rule, including during protests last year. Now, time for Africa’s oldest leader has finally run out.

Read more: 

Zimbabwe military takes over country, says President Mugabe is ‘safe’