Sources in Zimbabwe indicate that former president Robert Mugabe will be allowed to stay in country and granted immunity from prosecution.  Mugabe is the only president an independent Zimbabwe has ever known. Mugabe, at age 93, has told negotiators that he had no plans to live in exile and wanted to die in Zimbabwe. Being an ex-dictator is always fraught with peril.

Mugabe has been a controversial and divisive figure. Hailed as a revolutionary hero of the African liberation who freed Zimbabwe from British colonialism and white minority rule, he has been stern a dictator responsible for economic mismanagement and violent suppression of his opponents. He has plenty of enemies.

Mugabe was born to a poor Shona family in Rhodesia. Working as a school teacher, he chaffed at white minority rule and embraced Marxism.  After being jailed between 1964 and 1974 for making anti-government comments, he fled to Mozambique and established the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) to fight Ian Smith’s white government.

Even before the arrival of whites, the Shona and Ndebele peoples had struggled for dominance. Mzilikazi was a lieutenant of Shaka Zulu who rebelled and left the kingdom. His name means “the path of blood.” Fighting his way north with his Ndebele speaking warriors, Mzilikazi took what became known as Matabeleland away from the Shona in 1840.

Divided by language and culture, colonial rule in Rhodesia did not bring the two groups together. As U.S. President Carter’s foreign policies encouraged communist expansion across the globe, Rhodesia was attacked from all sides. Each tribal group fought a separate guerrilla war against the Rhodesian Security Forces.

Mugabe’s ZANU fighters were mainly Shona and were supported by the People’s Republic of China and North Korea. They operated from bases in Mozambique and were ineffective militarily.

The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) political organization formed an armed group based around the Ndebele ethnicity, led by Joshua Nkomo. These fighters were trained and supported by the Soviet Union and East Germany. Working from sanctuaries in Zambia and Angola, by the time of independence they had a modern military with of Soviet-made Mig jet fighters, armored infantry, tanks and artillery units.

Both organizations fought the Rhodesian Bush War. Mugabe took part in the peace negotiations brokered by the United Kingdom. White minority rule was ended and Mugabe won the 1980 general election.

Mugabe called for reconciliation but the deteriorating situation left him facing white flight of farmers and professionals as well as violent disagreements with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

In October 1980, Mugabe signed an agreement with the North Korean President, Kim Il Sung, to train and equip a brigade for the Zimbabwe National Army.  The members of the Fifth Brigade were drawn from 3,500 Shona fighters.  The North Koreans provided 106 trainers and turned the brigade into politically reliable shock troops for the regime.

As soon as the training of the Fifth Brigade was complete, they deployed (with their North Korean advisors) to Matabeleland. They executed a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians from early 1983 to late 1984. Known as the Gukurahundi, the name comes from a Shona term meaning early rain which washes away the chaff. Or as we in the West say, holocaust.

Thousands of Ndebele were detained by government forces and either interned in re-education camps or executed. Although there are different estimates, the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars is that more than 20,000 people were killed.

In February 2000, the Mugabe government facilitated the attack and occupation of white-owned farms by armed gangs. Referred to as “war veterans”  the majority were unemployed youth too young to have fought in the Rhodesian War. Mugabe justified the seizures by the fact that this land had been seized by white settlers from the indigenous African population in the 1890s.

He issued a decree which empowered the government to seize farms without providing compensation. When Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the land invasions were illegal, they were forced to resign.  The first act of the new Supreme Court was to reverse the previous declaration that the land seizures were illegal. By 2006, 60 white farmers had been killed and many more had fled the country.

Many of the seized farms remained empty and the others suffered dramatic losses of productivity. In October 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the country’s population lacked enough food to meet basic needs. By 2009, 75% of Zimbabwe’s population were relied on food aid for survival.

What’s going on in Zimbabwe & why should we care?

Read Next: What’s going on in Zimbabwe & why should we care?

After crushing all opposition, Mugabe consolidated his power and settled in as the longest ruling despot in the world. Entering his 90’s, Mugabe attempted to put his wife, Grace, in power. His own ruling party turned against him and the military took control with troops in the streets of the capital.

Former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa has been announced as next president. It is a tribute to Mugabe’s practicality that he was able to reach an agreement to allow him to stay in the country. At the age of 93, he will be allowed to spend his few remaining years as the revered founding figure of his country.

If he supports the new regime, he will likely die from natural causes. The situation in Zimbabwe likely will not improve. The actors have changed but the roles remain the same. There is no impetus for the ruling party do anything different than they have for the past 40 years.


Featured image courtesy of AP