Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced the 95-year-old’s death with the “utmost sadness” on Friday, and called Mugabe an “icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people.”
Mugabe was born near the town of Kutama on Feb. 21, 1924, when the country was known as Rhodesia.
He was a schoolteacher who later built a strong profile by mounting a guerrilla campaign against the country’s British colonialist rulers, as noted by al-Jazeera.
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In 1963, Mugabe co-founded the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) alongside Ndabaningi Sithole after leaving Rhodesia, CNN noted.
He returned to the country a year later and was imprisoned for 10 years after delivering what was characterized as a “subversive speech.”
While in prison, he studied toward degrees in fields such as law, economics, education and administration and was released in 1974.
He earned three of his total seven degrees when he was imprisoned.
Once free, he started leading the ZANU-PF guerrilla movement for independence from the neighbouring country of Mozambique, CNN recounted.
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He was elected president of the movement in 1977, as well as commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army.
Mugabe came back to Rhodesia once again in 1979 and became prime minister of the newly-renamed Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980.
As prime minister, he initially took a reconciliatory approach to former enemies, even allowing ex-white minority leader Ian Smith — who had denied Mugabe parole to attend his infant son’s funeral in 1966 — to stay on his farm and take a government pension.
Mugabe was also praised early in his rule for expanding services, building schools, roads, dams and hospitals, and overseeing a growing economy.
He would come to rule with a stronger hand, however, blaming a revolt in the province of Matabeleland on Joshua Nkomo, a figure who had founded the Zimbabwean struggle for independence.
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The Gukurahundi, a campaign of massacres carried out by North Korea-trained units, is believed to have killed as many as 20,000 people, according to human rights organizations.
Many victims were believed to have belonged to the Ndebele tribe, where Nkomo’s supporters had come from.
Mass graves were found and an international outcry over human rights followed.
Mugabe became president of Zimbabwe in 1987.
He embarked on a land-reform program in the 1990s that saw white farmers lose as much as 78 per cent of their land to black farmers, according to the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.
Mugabe threatened in 1993 to expel white owners who stood against the government’s attempts to make them give up their holdings to black people, CNN noted.
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Tensions between Zimbabwe’s white and black populations would heighten in the 2000s, as war veterans began forcing white farmers off land by violent means, as reported by al-Jazeera.
The Economist reported that Mugabe’s land reforms led to long-term economic pain.
Farms were not being tended by experienced farmers and export revenues started to fall.
Zimbabwe had also become involved in the civil war in Congo — the country’s central bank started printing more money in an effort to cope with high prices resulting from agricultural failures.
Inflation heightened in the country, eventually reaching 231,000,000 per cent in 2008.
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Mugabe’s rule would come under scrutiny for rigging elections and for suppressing dissent.
He faced a challenge by union leader Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008 but ultimately forced his rival to withdraw amid violence and arrests.
Mugabe’s downfall would come in 2017, when he fired then-vice president Mnangagwa, a move that would have allowed his wife Grace to become his successor.
However, Zimbabwe’s military stepped in, arresting him and forcing him to resign after 37 years. Mnangagwa became president thereafter.
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In November 2018, it was reported that Mugabe, then living in Singapore, could no longer walk and was hospitalized.
Mugabe and Mnangagwa showed signs of reconciling around the time of his hospitalization.
- With files from Reuters and The Associated Press