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Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s liberator and, for many, its oppressor

When he came to power, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was feted as an African liberation hero in a nation that had endured nearly a century of white colonial rule.

Mugabe has not been seen since the military seized power in the early hours of yesterday, targeting “criminals” around the veteran president.

South African President Jacob Zuma said Mugabe had told him he was confined to his home but was otherwise fine.

Educated and urbane, Mugabe took power after seven years of a liberation bush war. But nearly four decades after independence in 1980, many see him as power-obsessed and willing to unleash death squads, rig elections and trash the economy in the relentless pursuit of control.

The 93-year-old is the only leader Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, has known since independence from Britain. While the West regards him as an autocrat, some in Africa see him as an anti-colonial champion.

Mugabe has said he wants to seek another five years in office and last week he dismissed his putative successor, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, in a boost for Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, also seen as a contender but whose whereabouts are unclear.

Mugabe travels frequently to Singapore for medical treatment as age has taken its toll.

The leader of Zimbabwe’s influential liberation war veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa, told Reuters: “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

Born on a Catholic mission near Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a primary school teacher before going to South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, then a breeding ground for African nationalism.

Returning to Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics but was jailed for a decade four years later for opposing white rule.

After his release, he rose to the top of the powerful Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, known as the “thinking man’s guerrilla” on account of his seven degrees, three of them earned behind bars.

Later, as he crushed his political enemies, he boasted of another qualification – “a degree in violence”.

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