Robert Gabriel Mugabe is a Zimbabwean revolutionary and politician who led his country as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 and as President from 1987 to 2017. He chaired the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) group from 1975 to 1980 and led its successor political party, the ZANU – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), from 1980 to 2017. Ideologically an African nationalist, during the 1970s and 1980s he identified as a Marxist–Leninist, although after the 1990s self-identified only as a socialist. His policies have been described as Mugabeism.
Mugabe was born to a poor Shona family in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia. Following an education at Kutama College and the University of Fort Hare, he worked as a school teacher in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Ghana. Angered that Southern Rhodesia was a British colony governed by a white minority, Mugabe embraced Marxism and joined African nationalist protests calling for an independent black-led state. After making anti-government comments, he was convicted of sedition and imprisoned between 1964 and 1974. On release, he fled to Mozambique, established his leadership of ZANU, and oversaw ZANU’s role in the Rhodesian Bush War, fighting Ian Smith’s predominantly white government. He reluctantly took part in the peace negotiations brokered by the United Kingdom that resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. The agreement dismantled white minority rule and resulted in the 1980 general election, at which Mugabe led ZANU-PF to victory and became Prime Minister of the newly renamed Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s administration expanded healthcare and education and—despite his Marxist rhetoric and professed desire for a socialist society—adhered largely to conservative economic policies.
Mugabe’s initial calls for racial reconciliation failed to stem deteriorating race relations and growing white flight. Relations with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) also declined, with Mugabe crushing ZAPU-linked opposition in Matabeleland during the Gukurahundi between 1982 and 1985; at least 10,000 people, mostly Ndebele civilians, were killed by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. Internationally, he sent troops into the Second Congo War and chaired the Non-Aligned Movement (1986–89), the Organisation of African Unity (1997–98), and the African Union (2015–16). Pursuing decolonisation, Mugabe’s government emphasised the redistribution of land controlled by white farmers to landless blacks, initially on a “willing seller-willing buyer” basis. Frustrated at the slow rate of redistribution, from 2000 Mugabe encouraged the violent seizure of white-owned land. Food production was severely impacted, leading to famine, drastic economic decline, and international sanctions. Opposition to Mugabe grew, although he was re-elected in 2002, 2008, and 2013 through campaigns dominated by violence, electoral fraud, and nationalistic appeals to his rural Shona voter base. Following a 2017 coup, Mugabe resigned the presidency.
Having dominated Zimbabwe’s politics for nearly four decades, Mugabe has been a controversial and divisive figure. He has been praised as a revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped to free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, imperialism, and white minority rule. Conversely, he has been accused of being a dictator responsible for economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, racial discrimination, human rights abuses, suppression of political critics, and crimes against humanity.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 at the Kutama Mission village in Southern Rhodesia’s Zvimba District. His father, Gabriel Matibiri, was a carpenter while his mother Bona taught Christian catechism to the village children. They had been trained in their professions by the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic apostolic order which had established the mission. Bona and Gabriel had six children: Miteri (Michael), Raphael, Robert, Dhonandhe (Donald), Sabina, and Bridgette. They belonged to the Zezuru clan, one of the smallest branches of the Shona tribe. Mugabe’s paternal grandfather was Constantine Karigamombe, alias “Matibiri”, a strong powerful figure, who served King Lobengula in the 19th century. The Jesuits were strict disciplinarians and under their influence Mugabe developed an intense self-discipline, while also becoming a devout Catholic. Mugabe excelled at school, where he was a secretive and solitary child, preferring to read alone rather than playing sport or socialising with other children. He was taunted by many of the other children, who regarded him as a coward and a mother’s boy.