Who Is Robert Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe, the 83-year-old president of Zimbabwe, may not have the military titles of Idi Amin -- or his great girth -- but in many other ways the two dictators are extremely similar.

Like Amin, Mugabe has run Zimbabwe as if it is his own kingdom, with little regard for his citizens. Where Amin expelled Asians and took their businesses, Mugabe has grabbed land from white farmers. Both Uganda and Zimbabwe have suffered economically from these shortsighted moves.

Mugabe was hailed as a great liberation hero, the man who brought independence to the former British colony of Rhodesia, and the father of modern-day Zimbabwe.

So what went wrong? Or was he always a tyrant?

Mugabe was educated in the Catholic faith by Jesuits and grew up on a mission station. He is alleged to have been very strongly influenced by this, and it may also be the root of his homophobia, as well as his love of cricket.

He trained as a teacher and married his first wife, Sally, a Ghanaian, in the early '60s. By 1963, Mugabe had been detained by the Rhodesian government for political activity. While he was detained, his 3-year-old son died. Mugabe was not allowed to leave the detention camp to attend the funeral, and much of his bitterness against whites might date from this incident.

Upon his release, Mugabe made his way to the neighboring country of Mozambique. This was one of the bases of the guerrillas that crossed into Rhodesia to fight for independence from Ian Smith and the white minority Rhodesian government.

Mugabe did not take an active combative role, but was involved in politics and strategy.

There was much internal wrangling between the external guerrilla forces, and Mugabe is alleged to have blown one of his main rivals up in a car bomb, while another died in a suspicious vehicle accident. The ghosts of those he has wronged are believed to haunt him, and rumors abound about a sleepless Mugabe conversing with specters from his past.

The path was paved for the first democratic elections in the country at the Lancaster House conference in London, which took place in 1978. By 1980 a cease-fire was declared, and all Rhodesian forces and guerrilla fighters put down their arms to enable the polls to go ahead.

Mugabe's fighters did not comply, and many of his fighters stayed at large, warning the electorate that if it did not vote for Mugabe, the guerrilla war would continue. Mugabe's Zanu (PF) party won by a large majority.

Having become the first leader of Zimbabwe, Mugabe encouraged the white population, particularly the farmers, to stay in the country.

He started land reform on a willing buyer-willing seller basis. Zimbabwe had, at that time, the most educated black population in Africa. Few Zimbabweans wanted to farm, and Mugabe was happy to allow the whites to continue to produce food for what was still known as the breadbasket of Africa.

In the early 1980s, Mugabe accused the Ndebele people from the north of the country of attempting an armed rebellion. Using a North Korean trained unit of the army, he murdered somewhere between 15,000 and 22,000 people, whom he perceived to be political rivals.

Mugabe won elections in 1990 and 1996. There was virtually no opposition, and any dissenters were immediately crushed. There is evidence of electoral fraud taking place at both these polls.

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