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Robert Mugabe Dies At 95


Robert Mugabe has died. The former leader of Zimbabwe was 95 years old. When Mugabe came to power in 1980, he was a hero of Zimbabwe's struggle for independence from Britain. But his heroism in those days was soon overshadowed by his authoritarian leadership of the country. Eventually, his name became associated with massive human rights abuses.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton looks back at his legacy.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: It's a dramatic moment, an emotional moment. The Union Jack is now down. The new flag of Zimbabwe is being bent to the halyard and will shortly be raised.


ROBERT MUGABE: I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Zimbabwe and observe the laws of Zimbabwe, so help me God.


OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: As Robert Mugabe took the oath of office in April 1980, there were high hopes for Africa's newest nation. He was hailed as a pragmatic African leader. Representing Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles echoed a feeling shared around the globe when he said...


PRINCE CHARLES: Today is a moment of immense historic significance, a rare occasion in the lives nations, where a new and greater beginning is possible, which we must not allow to fail.

QUIST-ARCTON: Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 in Zvimba, southwest of the capital - then Salisbury. Educated by Jesuit priests, he became a teacher before joining the liberation struggle. Mugabe, the intellectual - with his many academic degrees - was considered the political leader and the brains behind the guerrilla war. He was imprisoned for 11 years. At independence, Mugabe preached a message of harmony and promised to pursue a policy of inclusion for all Zimbabweans when he came to power.


MUGABE: The phase we are entering, the phase of independence should be regarded as a phase conferring upon all of us - the people of Zimbabwe, whether we are black or white, full sovereignty, full democratic rights.


QUIST-ARCTON: Fast-forward 20 years, and the flowering of an opposition movement. Mugabe tasted defeat for the first time in 2000 in a referendum on constitutional reform. The situation soured. That same year, he encouraged the often violent seizure of thousands of flourishing, white-owned industrial farms. Gone was Zimbabwe's reputation as the breadbasket of southern Africa.

Mugabe blamed the nation's woes on the British and Zimbabwe's white farmers, who openly supported the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change - the MDC - led by Morgan Tsvangirai.


MUGABE: The MDC opposition, formed at the behest of Britain in 1999, is now on an evil crusade of dividing our people on political lines, as they continue to fan and sponsor heinous acts of political violence, targeting innocent citizens.

QUIST-ARCTON: But pro-Mugabe political thugs were accused of muzzling the opposition using brutal tactics. During the runup to the runoff presidential vote in 2008, Mugabe's militants and loyalists within the security services unleashed a campaign of violence, leaving an estimated 200 people dead. Then-opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the vote.

Mugabe cruised to victory but ruled over a diminished Zimbabwe that became an international pariah. The U.S. and the European Union had imposed sanctions on his inner circle. And Mugabe tore into then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.


MUGABE: We belong to this continent, Africa. We don't mind having and bearing sanctions banning us from Europe. We are not Europeans. We have not asked for any inch of Europe. So, Blair, keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.

QUIST-ARCTON: Under Mugabe's watch, Zimbabwe suffered runaway inflation, mass unemployment and chronic food, water, electricity and fuel shortages. Hospitals stopped functioning. Ultimately, Mugabe was forced into an uneasy power-sharing deal with the opposition's Tsvangirai. In an interview with South African TV anchor Dali Tambo in 2013, Mugabe remained defiant.


MUGABE: If people say you are a dictator, they say so - you know they are saying this merely to tarnish you and diminish and demean your status. My people still need me. And when people still need you to lead them, it's not time, sir - doesn't matter how old you are - to say goodbye.

QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabwean journalist and commentator Cris Chinaka said Mugabe could have been great.

CRIS CHINAKA: The legacy of Mugabe's life will be one of a leader with so much but missed so many opportunities, one who opened up so much but never used the knowledge for his own people - a national leader who ruined his own country.

QUIST-ARCTON: By the time Mugabe was driven from power by his allies in 2017, backed by the army, few Zimbabweans chose to defend him. His ouster and dramatic exit left Mugabe a bitter man.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBSETS' "FORGIVE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.