After the long bush war ended, Mugabe was elected as the nation’s first black prime minister. Initially, he offered reconciliation to old adversaries as he presided over a booming economy.
But it was not long before Mugabe began to suppress challengers such as liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.
Faced with a revolt in the mid-1980s in the western province of Matabeleland which he blamed on Nkomo, Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained army units, provoking an international outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians.
Human rights groups say 20 000 people died, most from Nkomo’s Ndebele tribe. The discovery of mass graves prompted accusations of genocide against Mugabe.
After two terms as prime minister, Mugabe changed the constitution and was elected president in 1990, shortly before the death of his first wife, Sally, seen by many as the only person capable of restraining him.
When, at the end of the century, he lost a constitutional referendum followed by a groundswell of black anger at the slow pace of land reform, his response was uncompromising.
As gangs of blacks calling themselves war veterans invaded white-owned farms Mugabe said it was a correction of colonial injustices.
“Perhaps we made a mistake by not finishing the war in the trenches,” he said in 2000. “If the settlers had been defeated through the barrel of a gun, perhaps we would not be having the same problems.”
The farm seizures helped ruin one of Africa’s most dynamic economies, with a collapse in agricultural foreign exchange earnings unleashing hyperinflation.
The economy shrank by more than a third from 2000 to 2008, sending unemployment above 80 percent. Several million Zimbabweans fled, mostly to South Africa.
An unapologetic Mugabe portrayed himself as a radical African nationalist competing against racist and imperialist forces in Washington and London.
Britain once likened him to Adolf Hitler but Mugabe did not mind, saying the Nazi leader had wanted justice, sovereignty and independence for his people: “If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler ten-fold.”
The country hit rock bottom in 2008, when 500 billion percent inflation drove people to support the challenge of Western-backed former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
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