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Robert Gabriel Mugabe
1924 -


Personal Information

Born February 21, 1924, in Kutama, Zimbabwe; son of Gabriel and Bona Mugabe; married Sally Heyfron, February 21, 1961; two children.
Education: Attended Kutama Mission School; University of Fort Hare, South Africa, B.A., 1951; received L.L.B. from University of London.


Taught at various mission schools in Zimbabwe, 1951-55; taught at Chalimbana Training College, Zambia, 1955-58, and St. Mary's Training College, Takoradi, Ghana, 1958-60; National Democratic Party, publicity secretary, 1960-61; Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), publicity secretary, 1961-62; Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), founder and leader, 1963-76, president, 1976-80; arrested in 1963 and jailed 1964-74; Republic of Zimbabwe, prime minister, 1980-87, minister of defense, 1985; president, 1987--.

Life's Work

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, is a man who focused on his life's work early. While in his twenties he decided to help less courageous black countrymen achieve independence from British colonial rule. He fulfilled his personal goal in 1980, after 11 years in prison and a bloody seven-year guerrilla war. Today Mugabe presides over a land whose economy is plagued by problems, and he is regarded by some as one of the worst dictators in the world.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924, four months after Southern Rhodesia became a British crown colony. In a land ruled by a theoretically multiracial Legislative Assembly that was actually overwhelmingly white, life was not easy for the Shona people of Mugabe's native Kutama village. Their freedom was curtailed by pass laws, their job opportunities were regulated by industry's need for unskilled labor, and their education, in most cases, was limited to the grammar-school level.

Robert Mugabe was one of the few who escaped this fate. His education was supervised by the director of the nearby Jesuit mission, an unshakably moral and defiantly liberal man. An unabashed iconoclast, Father O'Hea held the philosophy that all people are equal and should be treated that way and that students should be educated as far as their capabilities can take them. He imbued the intelligent young Robert with both of these maxims and encouraged him to pass them on to others by becoming a teacher.

In 1945 Mugabe left O'Hea's guidance behind for a wider Southern Rhodesia, where new settlers were pouring into country at the rate of 10,000 each year. Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins, intent upon providing security for them, was firmly in favor of racial separation, a method of administration that had been buttressed by the Land Apportionment Act. Implemented in 1930, the act decreed that much of the nation's unincorporated land should be divided evenly between blacks and whites despite a huge demographic imbalance of only 50,000 whites and 650,000 blacks. At first the division was merely inconvenient, but the growing population and the increasing industrialization of the country forced more and more blacks to move. By the time Robert Mugabe came home to start his teaching career in 1946, about 300,000 black families had been displaced from their homes and packed into already overcrowded areas. It was a situation destined to fester into open warfare.

Southern Rhodesia was still seething in 1949, when Mugabe won a scholarship to Fort Hare University in South Africa. Because South Africa was also part of the British Commonwealth he found little change in the external society, though life was different inside the all-black university. For the first time since he had left the mission, he saw active protest against segregation and an eagerness to explore different political philosophies. One which he found attractive was Marxism.

Mugabe's interest in communism grew into admiration after 1957, when he was invited by Kwame Nkrumah to come and teach in Ghana. Recently independent, proudly Marxist, the government was intent on bringing universal education and opportunity to those formerly at the lowest levels of society. Mugabe noted that most Ghanaians gladly seized the chance to better themselves. Enjoying the cheerful public spirit, he plunged eagerly into teaching and working with the country's youth groups, and took a deep interest in all aspects of Ghanaian politics.

In 1960 he visited his homeland in order to introduce his mother to his Ghanaian fiancée, Sally Heyfron. The country was no longer the Southern Rhodesia he remembered. The white population had grown to 223,000, a formidable number of whom supported the federation that had been established between Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Malawi. But no such enthusiasm existed among the country's 450,000-strong black voting force. The federation's government did plan to institute majority rule, so politically aware blacks were adamantly opposed to it. Mugabe was astounded by their bold new vehemence and the protest groups they had formed to express it.

In July of 1960 black fury exploded into a March of 7,000 people who gathered at the town hall of Salisbury's Harare Township to protest the arrest of their leaders. Mugabe was persuaded to address the gathering. He told his seething audience about the egalitarian new Ghanaian society and its rise from colonialism, and found that he had generated public interest that outlasted the day of the protest. He ignored the threatening, almost unlimited police power of the Law and Order Act that was enacted after the march and began to give many speeches about the Ghanaian pride in its Marxist independence. He also decided to stay and help to achieve the same status for Southern Rhodesia.

Within weeks of the March of 7,000 he was elected publicity secretary of the National Democratic Party. Seeing his first task as introducing the uninitiated to the possibility of black independence, he organized a semi-militant youth league like those he had worked with in Ghana. Just as he had done in Accra, he attracted Rhodesian teenagers with political discussions and the cultural dancing and music that would give them pride in their heritage. His efforts soon paid off. Although the party itself was banned by the government on December 9, 1961, it left behind enough supporters to regroup immediately into the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). Southern Rhodesia's first effective black political movement, it functioned for nine months before it was banned the following September.

The tumultuous events in Southern Rhodesia had not escaped the notice of the British Foreign Office, which in 1959 ordered a comprehensive enquiry under Lord Monckton. The following year the Monckton Commission disclosed its conclusion that there was too much black opposition to the federation for it to continue to exist in its present form. If the federation were to survive, Monckton concluded, a new constitution providing majority rule would have to be enacted. Britain agreed, relinquishing control of Southern Rhodesia's domestic affairs and drawing up a new constitution allowing majority rule.

But the new constitution did not appease black Rhodesians. It lacked a definite target date for adopting majority rule and it proposed a two-tier electoral system whose upper level was accessible only to voters with a secondary education. Since this effectively excluded most of the black population, blacks received only half the voting power of the better-educated whites, who were also eligible to vote on the lower roll. As a result, the country's far-smaller white population could elect 50 of the Legislative Assembly's 65 members. The vociferous opposition of 450,000 blacks spurred ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo to visit the United Nations, which in turn called upon Britain to suspend the new constitution and initiate discussions about true majority rule.

Nkomo's negotiations with the British stalled. Nkomo was perceived by many, including Mugabe, as accepting Britain's vague promises of eventual majority rule rather than insisting on a definite timetable. Along with other ZAPU supporters, Mugabe was so furious about these equivocations that he openly began to advocate a guerrilla war. In April of 1961, noted Mugabe's biographers David Smith and Colin Simpson, Mugabe even snapped at a policeman at Salisbury Airport who stopped a Party supporter suspected of carrying a weapon: "We are taking over this country, and we will not put up with this nonsense."

Mugabe's defiant attitude made him the target of constant police surveillance, especially after he split from Nkomo's party in 1963. In August of that year he and several other ex-Nkomo supporters formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Rhodesian police, aware of these activities, waited for their opportunity to arrest him. Their chance came in December, when Mugabe returned to his homeland. He was jailed for 11 years. In prison Mugabe was not as isolated as the police hoped. Secret communications networks between him and his supporters brought him the news that the former Nyasaland was now Malawi, that the former Northern Rhodesia was now Zambia, and that the independence of both countries had caused the collapse of the Federation. He also knew that an attack on a white Rhodesian farmstead in 1964 had signaled the start of guerrilla operations to liberate Southern Rhodesia.

Mugabe had been in prison for about two years when ex-Royal Air Force Pilot Ian Smith became Rhodesia's prime minister. An experienced politician, Smith assured white Southern Rhodesians that majority rule would not come to pass during his tenure. He went to London for the constitutional talks, but his stance did not impress the new Labor government. Nevertheless he stuck obstinately to his agenda, going so far as to issue a unilateral declaration of independence on November 11, 1965, though still professing allegiance to the British crown. In response, the United Nations imposed sanctions that quickly damaged the Rhodesian economy. Chrome, copper, asbestos, tobacco and sugar previously bound for export never left the country, while shipments of badly needed oil were kept out.

However, sanctions were just one of Smith's problems. Far worse was the 1975 independence of Mozambique, a staunch former ally in its days as a Portuguese colony. Mozambique was now a Marxist state, with long, sparsely patrolled borders that were ideal bases of operations for Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), and the Chinese allies eager to help them with training and arms. Neighboring South Africa, Smith's last remaining ally, was now also teetering insecurely. Encouraged by South African leaders, Smith allowed Mugabe out of prison to attend a 1974 conference in Lusaka. Mugabe seized this opportunity and escaped across the border into Mozambique, stopping on the way to recruit young Rhodesians for guerrilla training.

By the end of the 1970s a savage and stealthy war and a devastated economy had convinced Smith that majority rule was inevitable. Unsuccessfully he tried to reach a mutually suitable transition schedule with Mugabe, but there was no progress until 1979, when Britain convened a conference at Lancaster House in London. Topics discussed at the conference were the British-monitored transition to black majority rule, assurance of white minority representation for a specific period after independence, and a new constitution. With all these matters settled, on December 16 the United Nations lifted the sanctions.

On April 18, 1980, British rule ended in Southern Rhodesia and the nation was renamed the Republic of Zimbabwe. Elected over candidates from ten competing parties, including Nkomo, the Zimbabwe African National Union took power, with Robert Gabriel Mugabe as prime minister. Despite his Marxist leanings, he tried his best not to frighten the technologically advanced whites by immediately scrapping the capitalist economy. Instead, he tried to persuade them to stay and share their skills by announcing that the change to socialism would proceed in gradual phases. But white Rhodesians were not convinced that they could find security in a country run by a recently murderous enemy. In 1980 alone, 17,240 of them emigrated.

Mugabe ignored their departure and turned his attention to badly needed reforms. By New Year's Day 1981, the country boasted free primary school education for all students as well as guaranteed admission to secondary school for all who qualified. Free medical care was provided for those with low income levels, and a new housing law granted freehold ownership to home-renters of 30 years' standing. In other innovations, Mugabe had city boundaries reshaped to ensure multiracial political representation and replaced whites with educated blacks in key positions relating to educational institutions.

But problems remained. Fighting broke out in February 1981 between Mugabe's forces and Joshua Nkomo's Zambia-based faction. Most troublesome was Nkomo himself, who was fired from the government in 1982 after his intention to launch an anti-government coup was revealed. This action touched off a flurry of robberies and caused the murder of several tourists. It also brought retaliation from Mugabe's forces in the form of rapes and murders in Nkomo's stronghold area of Matabeleland.

An atmosphere of resentment smoldered on through the national elections of 1985, when Mugabe triumphed a second time over Nkomo. Friction between ZANU and Nkomo's ZAPU supporters continued until November of 1987, when 15 Matabeleland missionaries were murdered with axes by Mugabe supporters. This tragedy caused Nkomo and Mugabe to settle their differences. On December 22, 1987, ZANU and ZAPU merged in a unity agreement designed to begin healing the country, which was now split along tribal lines. One week later Mugabe was installed as the country's new president, while Nkomo was named one of three supervising senior ministers.

The friction eased, allowing President Mugabe to concentrate on bettering an economy starved for foreign currency as a result of prolonged drought, a worldwide recession, and the lingering effects of sanctions against the Smith government. Despite his efforts, imported spare parts for the mining and manufacturing industries became very scarce, and levies on tobacco and alcohol had to be instituted to offset the soaring unemployment rate.

By 1989 the economy required major restructuring. The International Monetary Fund and the World B ank helped to create a five-year adjustment program that restructured the government, relaxed price controls, and gave farmers the right to set their own prices. Still, shortages of staples like brake fluid and cooking oil, the drought-induced rises in the cost of maize, wheat, and dairy products, and a new policy of charging for education and medical care overshadowed most of the adjustment programs' benefits and darkened the national mood. By 1994, however, the structural adjustment had produced some improvements, with slight growth beginning in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. Mugabe's vision of security under majority rule in Zimbabwe had begun to move forward.

In 1996 Mugabe took the controversial stance of supporting the seizure of white-owned land without compensation in order to reverse the economic imbalances that disadvantaged the majority blacks. He also refused to revise the constitution that is tailored to a one party state, or release his hold on the media.

In September 1998, Mugabe's government held an international conference to raise money for land distribution. But potential donor countries refused to give Mugabe any money until he came up with a plan for reducing rural poverty. Since no plan was proposed, no money came in.

Then in April 2000, Zimbabwe passed a constitutional amendment that held Britain, as an ex-colonial power, responsible for paying for land stolen from Africans during colonial rule. Mugabe threatened to seize land without compensation if Britain did not pay. Some critics, however, pointed out to no effect that when the British arrived in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, they were only helping themselves to land that was not being used by anyone else.

In the March 2002 presidential election, Mugabe officially won re-election by 430,00 votes. But there were widespread allegations that Mugabe had stuffed the ballot box with enough votes to give him his margin of victory. The allegations had sufficient credibility to cause the U.S., the European Union and many other developed countries to imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, including an arms embargo. In 2003, a hearing was held by the High Court of Zimbabwe into the matter, though no decision was immediately made and Mugabe and his party retained power.

By October 2002, Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture, which had formerly sustained the economy, had ground to a halt. With widespread hunger (half the population was said to be experiencing famine), food donations were pouring into the country. There were reports that Mugabe's government had been distributing donated food on the basis of the recipient's political affiliation. Other reports stated that the government also would only buy farmers' products if they supported Mugabe, also contributing to the food problem.

But food shortages were only the tip of the iceberg for Mugabe. Since early 2000, the economy had gone in steep decline. The GDP had fallen 24 percent, inflation had reached 135 percent, the value of the country's currency had fallen 96 percent, and the arrears on the foreign debt of $3.4 billion had reached 30 percent. Earnings from tourism had fallen 80 percent, gold production was down by half, and 300,000 of the county's 1.3 million workers were unemployed. And 35 percent of all adults had AIDS. Many people left the country, whose population declined by nearly 2.5 million between 1992 and 2002.

Though Zimbabwe's economic, social, and cultural situations were growing more desperate, Mugabe tightened his grip on the country. In September 2003, a government commission essentially banned Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper from future publication. The paper regularly criticized Mugabe. Though Mugabe was in control, he did face some uncertainty before the 2005 parliamentary elections. In addition to factional infighting in his political party and controversy over who would be Mugabe's successor when he decides to leave office, several important people in Mugabe's government, including Zimbabwe's ambassador to Mozambique, were charged with selling state secrets to foreign agents.

During his campaign, Mugabe said he believed the mining industry would take Zimbabwe out its economic doldrums. In 2005, the first big diamond mine in Zimbabwe was expected to open. The government also invested funds to encourage more platinum mining. Mugabe also spoke out against the violence expected to accompany the elections. Despite being named one of the world's ten worst dictators by Amnesty International in 2004, Mugabe was expected to win the election and stay in power until at least 2008, when he said he would retire.

His retirement did not come soon enough, however, as Mugabes party did indeed retain power in the April 2005 parliamentary elections. By that time, unfortunately, the country had further descended into a shocking state of chaos and economic ruin. The collapse had begun in 2000, with the enactment of the threatened forcible appropriation of thousands of white-owned farms. The ensuing destruction of the agricultural base (output fell by %80) resulted in an approximate decline of 50% in the GNP, an annual inflation rate of %400, and a dizzying drop in tourist revenues. The problems were further worsened by Operation Murambatsvina (variously translated as Clean Up Filth, Drive Out Trash, and Restore Order), which was started in May of 2005. Described by the government as a civic beautification program, the initiative displaced an estimated 700,000 people and affected nearly 2 million more, thousands of whom were rendered homeless, within months. Mugabe denied any such situation and refused UN assistance for its alleged victims. Nonetheless, by November of 2005, the average life expectancy had halved in a decade, 4 million people faced famine, and the unemployment rate hovered around 70%. The once-prosperous Zimbabwe had declined into a beleaguered country fit, perhaps, only for its president.


Robert Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission in Zvimba, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) four months after it became a British Crown colony. Mugabe was the son of a peasant farmer and carpenter. He began his education at a nearby Jesuit mission and soon proved an able student under the guidance of Father O'Hea. For nine years he taught in various schools while also continuing to study privately for his matriculation certificate before going on to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, where he received a bachelor of arts in English and history in 1951. He returned to teach in Southern Rhodesia, obtaining his bachelor of education by correspondence in 1953. Two years later he moved to Chalimbana Training College in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where he taught for nearly four years while also studying for a bachelor of science in economics by correspondence from the University of London. In 1958 he completed that degree in Ghana, where he taught at St. Mary's Teacher Training College and also met his future wife, Sarah "Sally" Heyfron. In Ghana he found a society that was recently independent and proudly Marxist, with a government intent on bringing universal education and opportunity to even those formerly on the lowest levels of society. The Ghanaians cheerful public spirit and their wholehearted way of seizing the chance to better themselves made a profound impression on Mugabe.

In 1960 Mugabe returned to Zimbabwe on home leave and became caught up in the African nationalist struggle against Great Britain and the settler regime. He resigned his job in Ghana, remained in Zimbabwe, and joined the National Democratic party (NDP) as secretary for publicity. Mugabe proved a capable organizer, and he quickly built the youth wing of the party into a powerful force. His determination to achieve racial and social justice in Zimbabwe soon made him a respected and important voice in the party. He was one of the principal opponents of the 1961 constitutional compromise offering black Africans token representation in a still white-dominated government. This document offered no specific target date for adopting majority rule and it proposed a two tier electoral system whose upper level was available only to voters who had completed secondary school, thereby eliminating a majority of the black African population, giving blacks only half the voting power of whites. Such was the vociferous opposition of the 450,000 blacks that the United Nations called upon Britain to suspend the new constitution and begin discussions about true majority rule.

That same year the government banned NDP, but Mugabe retained his position in the successor party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). When ZAPU was banned in 1962, Mugabe was restricted for three months, but he eluded imprisonment and fled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which had become the party's operational headquarters in exile. He organized regular broadcasts to Zimbabwe from Radio Tanzania.

Dissension over tactics split the ZAPU leadership, and Mugabe and other ZAPU dissidents returned home to form a new nationalist party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), in August 1963. This party opposed another group led by Joshua Nkomo, who was preoccupied with gaining external support against the Rhodesian government. The ZANU called for a firmer policy of confrontation with the settlers. Ndabaningi Sithole became president and Mugabe the secretary-general. In response, ZAPU established the People's Caretaker Council (PCC) to act for the banned ZAPU.

Clashes between the two parties weakened the movement, and white conservative settlers gained power through the election of the Rhodesian Front's Ian Smith in 1964. Smith quickly banned the two parties and a year later declared unilateral independence from Britain. The United Nations imposed sanctions that severely damaged the economy and left Smith to struggle without support of his long-time ally Mozambique. The former Portuguese colony had become a Marxist state, and as such, no longer a staunch friend to Rhodesia.

Meanwhile, Mugabe, Nkomo, and other nationalist leaders spent the next ten years in prison, during which time various lieutenants directed the still weak armed struggle. Mugabe used his imprisonment to further his studies, obtaining a bachelor of law and a bachelor of administration from the University of London. He also tutored fellow inmates, and at the time of his escape he was studying for a master of law degree. In 1974 Smith allowed Mugabe out of prison to attend a conference in Lusaka. Mugabe seized this opportunity to escape across the border to Mozambique, gathering young troops of guerrillas along the way.

The guerrilla war intensified during this period as ZANU's military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), gained experience in the field and training abroad (especially in China). On April 28, 1968, ZANLA guerrillas clashed with Rhodesian forces - since commemorated as Chimurenga Day, the start of the armed struggle. The war expanded dramatically in 1972 when the Mozambique border became available as a base for guerrilla forces.

In response to the escalating guerrilla war, the Rhodesian government began extending its military call-up, while also searching for an acceptable compromise with moderate African leaders. Following long talks with representatives from Zambia, South Africa, and elsewhere, a detente scenario was drafted in Lusaka in October 1974. Smith released detained nationalist leaders for preliminary talks. Several of these leaders signed a declaration of unity in Lusaka, and Smith declared a ceasefire. Mugabe and ZANU refused to sign and ignored the ceasefire, which consequently failed to take place.

Mugabe and Nkomo left Zimbabwe in order to direct their respective military forces. ZANU leaders had become disenchanted with Sithole's willingness to compromise with Smith and in 1975 appointed Mugabe the leader of ZANU. That same year a ZANU leader, Herbert Chitepo, was assassinated in the Zambian capital of Lusaka and the Zambian government arrested most of the Zambian-based ZANU leaders. As a result, Mugabe moved to Mozambique, which became ZANU's main headquarters and staging ground for guerrilla attacks. B.J. Vorster of South Africa and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia tried to get Smith to negotiate with the nationalists, but talks broke off within a few hours. The war resumed on three fronts: Tete, Manica, and Gaza. In 1976 ZANU and ZAPU formed the Patriot Front to establish a united front to better prosecute the war. The new army was called the Zimbabwe People's Army (ZIPA), which included cadres from ZANLA and ZAPU's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

Military and political pressures gradually pushed Smith towards an internal settlement. In 1977 Smith rejected peace proposals put forward by the United States and Britain, and instead opened negotiations with three moderate African leaders: Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Chief Chirau, and Sithole. In 1978 these leaders agreed to form a transitional government which would proceed to majority rule, and a year later a white referendum approved the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesia constitution. Muzorewa won the subsequent national election.

Both the international community and the Patriotic Front rejected this compromise, and guerrilla activity continued despite amnesty proposals. Britain, the United States, and the Front-Line States (the African countries bordering Zimbabwe) stepped up pressure on Smith and Muzorewa to hold another constitutional conference which included the Patriotic Front. In 1979 at the Commonwealth summit in Lusaka, Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to convene a constitutional conference. The resulting Lancaster House conference established a new constitution, and a ceasefire took effect. In 1980 Mugabe won British-supervised elections in an independent Zimbabwe and became the first black prime minister and minister of defense in Zimbabwe. After the election Mugabe presided over Zimbabwe's difficult transition from a racialist settler regime to a multi-racial socialist government. He brought his moral force, personal discipline, and commitment to social justice to this difficult task, although not always receiving full cooperation from Nkomo's Matebele people.

Mugabe ignored the departure of the white population, concetrating his efforts on improving the lot of the black African peoples. By Jan 1, 1981, Zimbabwe boasted free primary education for all students, guaranteed admission to secondary school for all who qualified, free medical care for those with low incomes and a new housing law granting freehold ownership to home renters of 30 year's standing.

Many problems remained between Mugabe's forces and those of Nkomo's. Resentment smoldered when Mugabe was once again reelected over Nkomo, spilling over into fighting and murder until finally the two leaders agreed to settle their differences. In December 1987 the two rival factions merged with Mugabe as President and Nkomo as a senior minister. With the friction eased, attention could be turned to bettering the economy.

By 1989 a five year plan was created to restructure the government, relaxing price controls and giving farmers the right to set their own prices. By 1994 the structural adjustment had produced some improvements with slight growth showing in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. In 1996 Mugabe took the controversial stance of supporting the seizure of white-owned land without compensation in order to reverse the economic imbalances that disadvantaged the majority blacks. He also refused to revise the constitution that is tailored to a one party state, or release his hold on the media.

In 1991 Mugabe's wife Sally died. He then married his long-time mistress (and mother of his two children) Grace Marufu. While the wedding was lavish and almost regal (Marufu invited 20,000 guests to attend the ceremony), it sparked anger among the Zimbabwean people, causing them a disillusionment with the president who led them to independence. Other signs of unrest were that 60,000 civil servants went on strike over a 6 percent pay raise when inflation was at 22 percent. Moreover, the government revoked their traditional Christmas bonus, while awarding themselves a 130 percent pay increase. Although the Mugabe government negotiated a settlement to the strike, it signaled a breakdown of the relationship between Mugabe and his people.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008