Robert Mugabe, the recently deposed president of Zimbabwe, has long been known as the dictator who “ruined” his country. During his 37 years in power, Mugabe’s policies led to hyperinflation and crumbling infrastructure, while his desire to retain power resulted in illegitimate elections and corruption.
In November 2017, an unexpected military coup seemingly removed the 93-year-old autocrat from power. But to understand how he was able hold on for so long, we need to understand his role as a leader of post-colonial Zimbabwe.
Before Zimbabwe was an independent country, it was a British colony known as “Rhodesia” or “Southern Rhodesia.” Beginning in the late 19th century, white Europeans moved there to set up their own government. They also seized land from Africans, and gave the land to white people.
But after World War II, the white minority in Southern Rhodesia began to worry that maybe they wouldn’t be in charge for very much longer. The British Empire was crumbling and other African nations were winning independence; and so, in 1965, Southern Rhodesia’s white Prime Minister, Ian Smith, tried to head this off by becoming “the first and only white colonial ruler to break away from the British Crown,” writes Samantha Power in The Atlantic.
Although Smith declared that Southern Rhodesia was now an independent nation, in reality, it was an unrecognized state where white people, who made up five percent of the population, forced their rule upon the black majority—in other words, it was just colonialism in a different form. Smith’s actions sparked the Second Chimurenga, or war for Zimbabwean independence, which lasted from the late 60s to 1979.
It was in this oppressive, turbulent climate that Robert Mugabe rose to power, says Teresa Barnes, a history professor at the University of Illinois. Mugabe was a former Catholic school teacher who led the Zimbabwe African National Union, one of the two main wings of the nationalist movement, in the late 1970s. When Zimbabwe won independence, Mugabe became the country’s first democratically-elected leader in 1980, retaining power until 2017.
“Mugabe came to power in 1980 with a huge amount of legitimacy,” Barnes says. That first election was fair, and “really did represent the will of the majority of the people at that particular time.”
At the beginning of his rule, Mugabe was a welcome relief from the war that had ripped through the country for over a decade. “In that kind of atmosphere, where people really wanted to work politically and work within the new system, Mugabe was able to gradually and then quite tightly consolidate power,” Barnes says.
In addition, she says that Mugabe was “a very canny politician,” who appealed “to key segments of the population” regarding the outcomes they had thought the liberation struggle would bring. “One of the first things he did was to appeal to the group of people who had fought in the liberation struggle,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, Mugabe shored up his popular support by promising to redistribute resources to soldiers who had fought for the war. He would continue to use the promise of land redistribution, which had been a major goal of the Second Chimurenga, as a way to maintain his popularity.
Over time, Mugabe’s actions made him less popular. For example, although he did end up redistributing land that had been given to white people back to black Zimbabweans in the 1990s, he made sure a lot of land went to his political cronies. But Mugabe was still able to retain his power by persecuting his opponents and holding unfair elections.
Since 1980, the country’s elections “have become less and less free,” Barnes says. “Over time they’ve become more like sham elections, and Mugabe has ‘won’ every one of those”—such as in 2008, when he lost the election but manipulated the situation in order to retain power.
In early November 2017, Mugabe fired his vice president in an apparent move to give power to Mugabe’s wife (though Barnes says that the situation is probably a little more complicated than the wife narrative that is being reported). Soon after, a military coup unexpectedly took power, placing Mugabe under house arrest.
Barnes says that no one has ever attempted a coup against Mugabe before, and “I didn’t personally anticipate that his removal from power would lead to this.” But, she continues “the man is 93 years old—something had to happen eventually.”