Hero Or Dictator? Mugabe After 34 Years At Zimbabwe's Helm

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Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, is 90 years old. In power since 1980, Mugabe is considered a despot in the West. NPR's Rachel Martin discusses his legacy with reporter Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.


Today, Zimbabwe is marking the 90th birthday of its leader, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe made his name as a revolutionary who led what was then called Rhodesia to independence from Britain in 1980. There were high hopes around the world for political and racial harmony in newborn Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe at the helm. Thirty-four years later, many in the West regard Mugabe as a divisive dictator, while many Africans consider him a hero. For more on Mugabe's complicated legacy, we turn to NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Good morning, Ofeibea.


MARTIN: Remind us of Mugabe's political beginnings. We know that he was a political prisoner for more than 10 years after fighting the white regime at the time. He took charge of Zimbabwe after independence. But what were the expectations when he first became the leader?

QUIST-ARCTON: Huge expectations around the world because here was this country next door to South Africa that was living through the evil of apartheid and yet after this guerilla war in Zimbabwe, president - well, he was prime minister - Robert Mugabe at the beginning promised to work with al Zimbabweans to make their country, which was the breadbasket of southern Africa - rich in soil, rich in money - a country where all Zimbabweans could live happily and in unity and harmony.

MARTIN: But then the story soured. Mugabe began to crack down on a burgeoning opposition. What happened? What went wrong?

QUIST-ARCTON: What Robert Mugabe said, look, there was an agreement at Lancaster House in London, in Britain, when we had this deal for independence. And one of the things was that the land that was in the hands of the white minority was going to be distributed so that all Zimbabweans could own land. But what the critics of Robert Mugabe say is that, yes, the land issue was a priority but he used a political motive to start this devastating seizure of land from mainly white commercial farmers and Zimbabwe started on the slide. And then politically, when this new party, the Movement for Democratic Change, challenged his authority, that is when things started going very hard and his thugs, as some people say, cracked down on the opposition.

MARTIN: Mugabe is compared to Nelson Mandela of South Africa at times - both political prisoners turned president. Mandela served just one five-year term as president of South Africa, which is now about to hold its fifth democratic elections in the last 20 years. Mugabe remains in charge of Zimbabwe 34 years later. Is there any sign of a successor at this point?

QUIST-ARCTON: Many Zimbabweans are nervous. Everybody's nervous to talk about a succession because Robert Mugabe is the only leader they have known for these 34 years. So, yes, there are people waiting in the wings. And President Mugabe, who is an incredible political survivor, but those who are hoping to succeed Mugabe, he plays one off against the other. And he has written off the opposition totally in elections that were not deemed totally transparent, free and fair last year.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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