How Robert Mugabe became President of Zimbabwe explained
Steve Oke Chapchap Market No Comments
Constitutional and economic reform: 1987–1995
In late 1987, Zimbabwe’s parliament amended the constitution. On 30 December it declared Mugabe to be executive President, a new position that combined the roles of head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This position gave him the power to dissolve parliament, declare martial law, and run for an unlimited number of terms. According to his biographer Martin Meredith, Mugabe now had “a virtual stranglehold on government machinery and unlimited opportunities to exercise patronage”. The constitutional amendments also abolished the twenty parliamentary seats reserved for white representatives, and left parliament less relevant and independent.
In the build-up to the 1990 election, parliamentary reforms increased the number of seats to 120; of these, twenty were to be appointed by the President and ten by the Council of Chiefs. This measure made it more difficult for any opposition to Mugabe to gain a parliamentary majority. The main opposition party in that election were the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), launched in April 1989 by Tekere; although a longstanding friend of Mugabe, Tekere accused him of betraying the revolution and establishing a dictatorship. ZANU-PF propaganda made threats against those considering voting ZUM in the election; one television advert featured images of a car crash with the statement “This is one way to die. Another is to vote ZUM. Don’t commit suicide, vote ZANU-PF and live.” In the election, Mugabe was re-elected President with nearly 80% of the vote, while ZANU-PF secured 116 of the 119 available parliamentary seats.
Mugabe had long hoped to convert Zimbabwe into a one-party state, but in 1990 he officially “postponed” these plans as both Mozambique and many Eastern Bloc states transitioned from one-party states to multi-party republics. Following the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, in 1991 ZANU-PF removed references to “Marxism-Leninism” and “scientific socialism” in its material, although Mugabe maintained that “socialism remains our sworn ideology”. That year, Mugabe pledged himself to free market economics and accepted a structural adjustment programme provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This economic reform package called for Zimbabwe to privatise state assets and reduce import tariffs; Mugabe’s government implemented some but not all of its recommendations. The reforms encouraged employers to cut their wages, generating growing opposition from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
By 1990, 52,000 black families had been settled on 6.5 million acres. This was insufficient to deal with the country’s overcrowding problem, which was being exacerbated by the growth in the black population. That year, Zimbabwe’s parliament passed an amendment allowing the government to expropriate land at a fixed price while denying land-owners the right of appeal to the courts. The government hoped that by doing so it could settle 110,000 black families on 13 million acres, which would require the expropriation of approximately half of all white-owned land. Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union argued that the proposed measures would wreck the country’s economy, urging the government to instead settle landless blacks on the half-a-million acres of land that was either unproductive or state-owned.
Concerns about the proposed measure—particularly its denial of the right to appeal—were voiced by the UK, US, and Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. The US, UK, IMF, and World Bank threatened that if Zimbabwe implemented the law, it would forfeit foreign aid packages. Responding to the criticisms, the government removed the ban on court appeals from the bill, which was then passed as law. Over the following few years, hundreds of thousands of acres of largely white-owned land were expropriated. In April 1994, a newspaper investigation found that not all of this was redistributed to landless blacks; much of the expropriated land was being leased to ministers and senior officials such as Witness Mangwede, who was leased a 3000-acre farm in Hwedza. Responding to this scandal, in 1994 the UK government—which had supplied £44 million for land redistribution—halted its payments.
In January 1992, Mugabe’s wife died. In April 1995, Horizon magazine revealed that Mugabe had secretly been having an affair with his secretary Grace Marufu since 1987 and that she had borne him a son and a daughter. His secret revealed, Mugabe decided to hold a much-publicised wedding. 12,000 people were invited to the August 1996 ceremony, which took place in Kutama and was orchestrated by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, Patrick Chakaipa. The ceremony was controversial among the Catholic community because of the adulterous nature of Mugabe and Marufu’s relationship. To house his family, Mugabe then built a new mansion at Borrowdale. In the 1995 parliamentary election—which saw a low turnout of 31.7%—ZANU-PF gained 147 out of 150 seats. Following the election, Mugabe expanded his cabinet from 29 to 42 ministers while the government adopted a 133% pay rise for MPs.
Economic decline: 1995–2000
— Mugabe biographer Martin Meredith
Over the course of the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s economy steadily deteriorated. By 2000, living standards had declined from 1980; life expectancy was reduced, average wages were lower, and unemployment had trebled. By 1998, unemployment was almost at 50%. As of 2009, three to four million Zimbabweans—the greater part of the nation’s skilled workforce—had left the country. In 1997 there were growing demands for pensions from those who had fought for the guerrilla armies in the revolutionary war, and in August 1997 Mugabe put together a pension package that would cost the county ZD 4.2 billion. To finance this pension scheme, Mugabe’s government proposed new taxes, but a general strike was called in protest in December 1997; amid protest from ZANU-PF itself, Mugabe’s government abandoned the taxes. In January 1998, riots about lack of access to food broke out in Harare; the army was deployed to restore order, with at least ten killed and hundreds injured.
Mugabe increasingly blamed the country’s economic problems on Western nations and the white Zimbabwean minority, who still controlled most of its commercial agriculture, mines, and manufacturing industry. He called on supporters “to strike fear in the hearts of the white man, our real enemy”, and accused his black opponents of being dupes of the whites. Amid growing internal opposition to his government, he remained determined to stay in power. He revived the regular use of revolutionary rhetoric and sought to reassert his credentials as an important revolutionary leader.
Mugabe also developed a growing preoccupation with homosexuality, lambasting it as an “un-African” import from Europe. He described gay people as being “guilty of sub-human behaviour”, and of being “worse than dogs and pigs”. This attitude may have stemmed in part from his strong conservative values but also from an awareness that militant homophobia would distract attention from the country’s problems. In August 1995, he was due to open a human rights-themed Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare but refused to do so until a stall run by the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe group was evicted.
In 1996, Mugabe was appointed chair of the defence arm of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Without consulting parliament, in August 1998 he ordered Zimbabwean troops into the Congo to side with President Laurent Kabila in the Second Congo War. He initially committed 3000 troops to the operation; this gradually rose to 11,000. He also persuaded Angola and Namibia to commit troops to the conflict. Involvement in the war cost Zimbabwe an approximate US$1 million a day, contributing to its economic problems. Opinion polls demonstrated that it was unpopular among Zimbabwe’s population. However, several Zimbabwean businesses profited, having been given mining and timber concessions and preferential trade terms in minerals from Kabila’s government.
In January 1999, 23 military officers were arrested for plotting a coup against Mugabe. The government sought to hide this, but it was reported by journalists from The Standard. The military subsequently illegally arrested the journalists and tortured them. This brought international condemnation, with the EU and seven donor nations issuing protest notes. Lawyers and human rights activists protested outside parliament until being dispersed by riot police, and the country’s Supreme Court judges issued a letter condemning the military’s actions. In response, Mugabe publicly defended the use of extra-legal arrest and torture.
In 1997, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister of the UK; his New Labour government expressed reticence toward restarting the land resettlement payments promised by the Lancaster House Agreement, with minister Clare Short rejecting the idea that the UK had any moral obligation to fund land redistribution. This attitude fuelled anti-imperialist sentiment across Africa. In October 1999, Mugabe visited Britain; in London, the human rights activist Peter Tatchell attempted to place him under citizen’s arrest. Mugabe believed that the British government had deliberately engineered the incident to embarrass him. It further damaged Anglo-Zimbabwean relations, with Mugabe expressing scorn for what he called “Blair and company”. In May 2000, the UK froze all development aid to Zimbabwe. In December 1999, the IMF terminated financial support for Zimbabwe, citing economic mismanagement and widespread corruption as impediments to reform.
To meet growing demand for constitutional reform, in April 1999 Mugabe’s government appointed a 400-member Constitutional Commission to draft a new constitution which could be put to a referendum. The National Constitutional Assembly—a pro-reform pressure group established in 1997—expressed concern that this commission was not independent of the government, noting that Mugabe had the power to amend or reject the draft. The NCA called for the draft constitution to be rejected, and in a February 2000 referendum it was, with 53% against to 44% in favour; turnout was under 25%. It was ZANU-PF’s first major electoral defeat in twenty years. Mugabe was furious, and blamed the white minority for orchestrating his defeat, referring to them as “enemies of Zimbabwe”.
Land seizures and growing condemnation: 2000–2008
The June 2000 parliamentary elections were Zimbabwe’s most important since 1980. Sixteen parties took part, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)—led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai—was particularly successful. During the election campaign, MDC activists were regularly harassed and in some cases killed. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum documented 27 murders, 27 rapes, 2466 assaults, and 617 abductions, with 10,000 people displaced by violence; the majority, but not all, of these actions were carried out by ZANU-PF supporters. Observers from the European Union (EU) ruled that the election was neither free nor fair. The vote produced 48% and 62 parliamentary seats for ZANU-PF and 47% and 57 parliamentary seats for the MDC. For the first time, ZANU-PF were denied the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to push through constitutional change. ZANU-PF had relied heavily on their support base in rural Shona-speaking areas, and retained only one urban constituency.
In February 2000, the land invasions began as armed gangs attacked and occupied white-owned farms. The government referred to the attackers as “war veterans” but the majority were unemployed youth too young to have fought in the Rhodesian War. Mugabe claimed that the attacks were a spontaneous uprising against white land owners, although the government had paid Z$20 million to Chenjerai Hunzvi‘s War Veterans Association to lead the land invasion campaign and ZANU-PF officials, police, and military figures were all involved in facilitating it. Some of Mugabe’s colleagues described the invasions as retribution for the white community’s alleged involvement in securing the success of the ‘no’ vote in the recent referendum. 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 portrayed the invasions as a struggle against colonialism and alleged that the UK was trying to overthrow his government. In May 2000, he issued a decree under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act which empowered the government to seize farms without providing compensation, insisting that it was the British government that should make these payments.
In March 2000, Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the land invasions were illegal; they nevertheless continued, and Mugabe began vilifying Zimbabwe’s judiciary. After the Supreme Court also backed this decision, the government called on its judges to resign, successfully pressuring chief justice Anthony Gubbay to do so. ZANU-PF member Godfrey Chidyausiku was appointed to replace him, while the number of Supreme Court judges was expanded from five to eight; the three additional seats went to pro-Mugabe figures. The first act of the new Supreme Court was to reverse the previous declaration that the land seizures were illegal. In November 2001, Mugabe issued a presidential decree permitting the expropriation of virtually all white-owned farms in Zimbabwe without compensation. The farm seizures were often violent; by 2006 a reported sixty white farmers had been killed, with many of their employees experiencing intimidation and torture. A large number of the seized farms remained empty, while many of those redistributed to black peasant-farmers were unable to engage in production for the market because of their lack of access to fertiliser.
— Mugabe on the land seizures
The farm invasions severely impacted agricultural development. Zimbabwe had produced over two million tons of maize in 2000; by 2008 this had declined to approximately 450,000. By October 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the country’s population were food insecure, lacking enough food to meet basic needs. By 2009, 75% of Zimbabwe’s population were relying on food aid, the highest proportion of any country at that time. Zimbabwe faced continuing economic decline. In 2000, the country’s GDP was US$7.4 billion; by 2005 this had declined to US$3.4 billion. Inflation resulted in economic crisis. By 2007, Zimbabwe had the highest inflation rate in the world, at 7600%. By 2008, inflation exceeded 100,000% and a loaf of bread cost a third of the average daily wage. Increasing numbers of Zimbabweans relied on remittances from relatives abroad.
Other sectors of society were negatively affected too. By 2005, an estimated 80% of Zimbabwe’s population were unemployed, and by 2008 only 20% of children were in schooling. The breakdown of water supplies and sewage systems resulted in a cholera outbreak in late 2008, with over 98,000 cholera cases in Zimbabwe between August 2008 and mid-July 2009. The ruined economy also impacted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country; by 2008 the HIV/AIDS rate for individuals aged between 15 and 49 was 15.3%. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe to be 34 for women and 36 for men, down from 63 and 54 respectively in 1997. The country’s lucrative tourist industry was decimated, and there was a rise in poaching, including of endangered species. Mugabe directly exacerbated this problem; he ordered the killing of 100 elephants to provide meat for an April 2007 feast.
In October 2000, the MDC’s MPs attempted to impeach Mugabe, but were thwarted by the Speaker of the House, Mugabe-loyalist Emmerson Mnangagwa. ZANU-PF increasingly equated itself with Zimbabwean patriotism, with MDC supporters being portrayed as traitors and enemies of Zimbabwe. The party presented itself as being on the progressive side of history, with the MDC representing a counter-revolutionary force that seeks to undermine the achievements of the ZANU-PF revolution and of decolonisation itself. Mugabe claimed that the build-up to the 2002 presidential election represented “the third Chimurenga” and that it would set Zimbabwe free from its colonial heritage. In the build-up to the election, the government changed the electoral rules and regulations to improve Mugabe’s chances of victory. New security legislation was introduced making it illegal to criticise the President. The defence force commander, General Zvinavashe, stated that the military would not recognise any election result other than a Mugabe victory. The EU withdrew its observers from the country, stating that the vote was neither free nor fair. The election resulted in Mugabe securing 56% of the vote to Tsvangerai’s 42%. In the aftermath of the election Mugabe declared that the state-owned Grain Marketing Board had the sole right to import and distribute grain, with the state distributors giving food to ZANU-PF supporters while withholding it from those suspected of backing the MDC. In 2005, Mugabe instituted Operation Murambatsvina (“Operation Drive Out the Rubbish”), a project of forced slum clearance; a UN report estimated that 700,000 were left homeless. Since the inhabitants of the shantytowns overwhelmingly voted MDC, many alleged that the bulldozing was politically motivated.
Mugabe’s actions brought strong criticism. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches accused him of plunging the country into “a de facto state of warfare” to stay in power. Several Southern African states remonstrated with him at a summit in Harare in September 2001. In 2002, the British Commonwealth expelled Zimbabwe from among its ranks; Mugabe blamed this on anti-black racism, a view echoed by South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki favoured a policy of “quiet diplomacy” in dealing with Mugabe, and prevented the African Union (AU) from introducing sanctions against him. The Africa-Europe Summit, scheduled to take place in Lisbon in April 2003, was deferred repeatedly because African leaders refused to attend while Mugabe was banned; it eventually took place in 2007 with Mugabe in attendance. In 2004, the EU imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe. It extended these sanctions in 2008, with the US government introducing further sanctions this same year. The US and UK introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for an arms embargo of Zimbabwe alongside an asset freeze and travel ban of Mugabe and other government figures; it was vetoed by Russia and China. In 2009, the SADC demanded that Western states lift their targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his government. ZANU-PF presented the sanctions as a form of Western neo-colonialism and blamed the West for Zimbabwe’s economic problems.
British prime minister Tony Blair had an antagonistic relationship with Mugabe and allegedly planned regime change in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s as pressure intensified for Mugabe to step down. British General Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, revealed in 2007 that he and Blair had discussed the invasion of Zimbabwe. However, Guthrie advised against military action: “Hold hard, you’ll make it worse.” In 2013, South African President Thabo Mbeki said that Blair had also pressured South Africa to join in a “regime change scheme, even to the point of using military force” in Zimbabwe. Mbeki refused because he felt that “Mugabe is part of the solution to this problem.” However, a spokesman for Blair said that “he never asked anyone to plan or take part in any such military intervention.”
Power-sharing with the MDC: 2008–2013
In March 2008, the parliamentary and presidential elections were held. In the former, ZANU-PF secured 97 seats to the MDC’s 99 and the rival MDC – Ncube‘s 9. In May, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced the presidential vote results, confirming that Tsvangirai secured 47.9%, to Mugabe’s 43.2%. As neither candidate secured 50%, a run-off vote was scheduled. Mugabe saw his defeat as an unacceptable personal humiliation. He deemed it a victory for his Western, and in particular British, detractors, whom he believed were working with Tsvangirai to end his political career. ZANU-PF claimed that the MDC had rigged the election.
After the election, Mugabe’s government deployed its ‘war veterans’ in a violent campaign against Tsvangirai supporters. Between March and June 2008, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed. There were reports of women affiliated with the MDC being subjected to gang rape by Mugabe supporters. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were internally displaced by the violence. These actions brought international condemnation of Mugabe’s government. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about the violence, which was also unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council, which declared that a free and fair election was “impossible”. 40 senior African leaders—among them Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jerry Rawlings—signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence.
In response to the violence, Tsangirai pulled out of the run-off. In the second round, Mugabe was pronounced victor with 85.5% of the vote, and immediately re-inaugurated as President. The SADC oversaw the establishment of a power-sharing agreement; brokered by Mbeke, it was signed in September 2008. Under the agreement, Mugabe remained President while Tsvangerai became Prime Minister and the MDC’s Arthur Mutambara became Vice Prime Minister. The cabinet was equally divided among MDC and ZANU-PF members. ZANU-PF nevertheless displayed unwillingness to share power, and were anxious to prevent any sweeping political changes. Under the power-sharing agreement, a number of limited reforms were passed. In early 2009, Mugabe’s government declared that—to combat rampant inflation—it would recognise U.S. dollars as legal tender and would pay government employees in this currency. This helped to stabilise prices. ZANU-PF blocked many of the proposed reforms and a new constitution was passed in March 2013.
Later years: 2013–2017
Declaring that he would “fight like a wounded animal” for re-election, Mugabe approached the 2013 elections believing that it would be his last. He hoped that a decisive electoral victory would secure his legacy, signal his triumph over his Western critics, and irreparably damage Tsvangirai’s credibility. The opposition parties believed that this election was their best chance for ousting Mugabe. They portrayed him as a feeble old man who was being told what to do by the military, although at least one academic observer argued that this was untrue.
In contrast to 2008, there was no organised dissent against Mugabe within ZANU-PF. The party elite decided to avoid the violence that had marred 2008’s election so as not to undermine its credibility, particularly in the eyes of the SADC, thus allowing Zimbabwe’s government to consolidate its rule without interference. Mugabe called upon supporters to avoid violence, and attended far fewer rallies than in past elections, in part because of his advanced age and in part to ensure that those rallies he did attend were larger. The ZANU-PF offered gifts, including food and clothing, to many members of the electorate to encourage them to vote for the party.
ZANU-PF won a landslide victory, with 61% of the presidential vote and over two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The elections were not considered free and fair; there were widespread stories of vote rigging and many voters may have been fearful of the violence that had surrounded the 2008 election. During the campaign, many MDC supporters had remained quiet about their views out of fear of reprisals. The MDC was also negatively impacted by its time in coalition government, with perceptions that it had been just as corrupt as ZANU-PF. ZANU-PF had also capitalised on its appeals to African race, land, and liberation, while the MDC was often associated with white farmers, Western nations, and perceived Western values such as LGBT rights.
In February 2014, Mugabe underwent a cataract operation in Singapore; on return he celebrated his ninetieth birthday at a Marondera football stadium. In December 2014, Mugabe fired his Vice-President, Joice Mujuru, accusing her of plotting his overthrow. In January 2015, Mugabe was elected as the Chairperson of the African Union (AU). In November 2015, he announced his intention to run for re-election as Zimbabwe’s President in 2018, at the age of 94, and was accepted as the ZANU-PF candidate. In February 2016, Mugabe said he had no plans for retirement and would remain in power “until God says ‘come'”. In February 2017, right after his 93rd birthday, Mugabe stated he would not retire nor pick a successor, even though he said he would let his party choose a successor if it saw fit. In May 2017, Mugabe took a weeklong trip to Cancún, Mexico, ostensibly to attend a three-day conference on disaster risk reduction, eliciting criticism of wasteful spending from opposition figures. He made three medical trips to Singapore in 2017, and Grace Mugabe called on him to name a successor.
In October 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador; this attracted criticism from both the Zimbabwean opposition and various foreign governments given the poor state of the Zimbabwean health system. Responding to the outcry, WHO revoked Mugabe’s appointment a day later. In response, foreign minister Walter Mzembi said the United Nations system should be reformed.
Coup d’état and resignation
On 6 November 2017, Mugabe sacked his first vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This fuelled speculation that he intended to name Grace his successor. Grace was very unpopular with the ZANU-PF old guard. On 15 November 2017, the Zimbabwe National Army placed Mugabe under house arrest as part of what it described as an action against “criminals” in Mugabe’s circle.
On 19 November, he was sacked as leader of ZANU-PF, and Mnangagwa was appointed in his place. The party also gave Mugabe an ultimatum: resign by noon the following day, or it would introduce an impeachment resolution against him. In a nationally televised speech that night, Mugabe refused to say that he would resign. In response, ZANU-PF deputies introduced an impeachment resolution on 21 November 2017, which was seconded by the MDC-T. The constitution stipulated that removing a president from office required a two-thirds majority of both the House of Assembly and Senate in a joint sitting. However, with both major parties supporting the motion, Mugabe’s impeachment and removal appeared all but certain.
As per the constitution, both chambers met in joint session to debate the resolution. The debate took place at a conference centre, since Parliament House was not large enough for a joint sitting. Hours after the debate began, the Speaker of the House of Assembly read a letter from Mugabe announcing that he had resigned, effective immediately. Mugabe and his wife negotiated a deal before his resignation, under which he and his kin are exempted from prosecution, his business interests will remain untouched, and he is set to receive a payment of at least $10 million. In July 2018, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled that Mugabe had resigned voluntarily, despite some of the ex-president’s subsequent comments.
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