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.

Between the two elections, Mugabe's wife, Sally, died, leaving him free to marry his secretary, Grace, 40 years his junior and already mother to two of his children. Grace is known for her huge shopping habit and profligate spending.

Meanwhile guerrillas that had fought in the independence war began to demand financial settlements. A fund put aside for this purpose had been looted by senior government officials, just part of the corrupt behavior now endemic in the country.

Mugabe gave in to the war veterans' demands. The huge payouts triggered the downward spiral of the Zimbabwean economy.

In 2000, Mugabe held a referendum that, had he won, would have given him sweeping powers, including the ability to confiscate land. He lost unexpectedly; this was the first time he had really faced defeat.

Almost immediately he sent his supporters onto the white-owned farmland, although at the time this was dressed up as a spontaneous land grab rather than a government-orchestrated maneuver.

After the referendum, a rival political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trades union leader, was launched.

The MDC is the first real opposition with popular support that Mugabe has had to face in his 27 years in power. The opposition can prove massive electoral fraud in every poll it has contested, and there has been enormous violence toward the MDC and its leaders.

Recently the international community has been outraged by pictures showing Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders severely beaten after being arrested by police during a prayer rally.

Indeed, Mugabe has said, "We have degrees in violence," and more recently has advised the West to "go hang" instead of interfering in Zimbabwe's internal affairs. He and his supporters are now subject to a U.S. and EU travel ban and targeted sanctions.

Cracks have started to appear in Mugabe's ruling party as two main rivals have jostled for the succession.

With inflation at 1,700 percent, the economy in a meltdown and the life expectancy in Zimbabwe being the lowest in the world, his ruling party senses his grip on power may be loosening. But, like Idi Amin before him, it is unlikely that Mugabe will go willingly.