Zimbabwe's Mugabe: From Liberator to Pariah

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is sworn in. i i

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is sworn in for a sixth term in office in Harare on Sunday after being declared the winner of a one-man election. Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is sworn in.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is sworn in for a sixth term in office in Harare on Sunday after being declared the winner of a one-man election.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe flew to Egypt on Monday for an African Union summit, where he is expected to face pressure from other African leaders who want him to negotiate with his country's opposition.

Mugabe was hastily sworn in for a sixth term as president Sunday after a widely condemned runoff election. The opposition boycotted the vote.

A military gun salute and the pomp and ceremony of state were all in evidence for the inauguration, but the 84-year-old veteran — Africa's oldest leader — showed none of his usual energy and exuberance. Mugabe looked unsmiling and subdued as he took the oath of office.

Mugabe has been in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980 — and he has courted controversy for much of that time.

High Hopes

When independent Zimbabwe was born, following a liberation war against white minority rule, there were high hopes for reconciliation in the new nation. Mugabe — a highly astute scholar and the political brains behind the struggle — was to head the new government.

"Our theme is really one of reconciliation," Mugabe said at the time. "And there is no intention on our part to use the advantage of the majority we have secured to victimize the minority. That will not happen."

But after a defeat in 2000 in a referendum that Mugabe hoped would entrench his hold on power, he retaliated. His supporters targeted minority white farmers and black farmworkers — the backbone of the economy. White-owned farms were often violently occupied.

Mugabe felt he had been betrayed by whites who backed a new opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. He also blamed the British, accusing them of supporting the opposition.

'He Reacts with Revenge'

Journalist and commentator Heidi Holland has known Mugabe since the early days. She recently published a book, Dinner With Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant. Holland says it's important to understand that his love-hate relationship with Britain and white Zimbabweans, as well as a poor and austere Catholic upbringing, underpin many of Mugabe's much-criticized actions today.

"He comes to power and he thinks it's going to be all about suffering and sacrificing and helping his people. Well, of course, that isn't the real world," she says. "As things started to go wrong — very early on — when the whites of Zimbabwe, former white Rhodesians, voted racially against him five years into his rule, that was the beginning of it.

"And he couldn't tolerate it. He was too fragile. When he's rejected or humiliated, he reacts with revenge, he gets revenge, and I very much fear that's what he's doing right now. He's getting revenge against his own people in the rural areas, because he knows they rejected him in the March election."

Holland says former colonial power Britain, the United States and other hostile Western governments must be careful not to box Mugabe into a corner. She warns that a wounded and cornered animal is a dangerous adversary, and a defiant Mugabe could come out blazing. And she says ordinary Zimbabweans, who have suffered a campaign of terror meted out by Mugabe's security forces and thugs, could have to endure more violence and oppression.

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