The President of Zimbabwe,Emmerson Mnangagwa, confirmed Mugabe’s death in a tweet Friday, mourning him as an “icon of liberation.”
Zimbabwe declared Mugabe a national hero several hours after his death was announced, with Mnangagwa saying the country would be in national mourning until his burial.
The ex-guerrilla chief presided over a country whose early promise post-independence was eroded by economic turmoil and allegations of human rights violations.
Mugabe blamed Zimbabwe’s economic problems on international sanctions and once said he wanted to rule for life. But growing discontent about the southern African country’s fractured leadership and other problems prompted a military intervention, impeachment proceedings by the parliament and large street demonstrations for his removal.
The announcement of Mugabe’s Nov. 21, 2017 resignation after he initially ignored escalating calls to quit triggered wild celebrations in the streets of the capital, Harare. Well into the night, cars honked and people danced and sang in a spectacle of free expression that would have been impossible during his years in power and reflected hopes for a better future.
Mugabe became prime minister in an election after white minority rule ended in 1980 when the country, then known as Rhodesia, was liberated from British rule. He became Zimbabwe’s first executive president at the start of 1988 after engineering constitutional amendments that scrapped the figurehead presidency.
Mugabe’s decline in his last years as president was partly linked to the political ambitions of his wife, Grace, a brash, divisive figure whose ruling party faction eventually lost out in a power struggle with supporters of Mnangagwa, who was close to the military.
His former allies in the ruling party accused him of grooming his wife to take over — ahead of long-serving loyalists such as Mnangagwa, who was fired in November 2017 before returning to take over with the help of the military.
Mugabe enjoyed acceptance among peers in Africa who chose not to judge him in the same way as the U.K., the United States and other Western detractors. Toward the end of his rule, he served as rotating chairman of the 54-nation African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community; his criticism of the International Criminal Court was welcomed by regional leaders who also thought it was being unfairly used to target Africans.
“They are the ones who say they gave Christianity to Africa,” Mugabe said of the West during a visit to South Africa. “We say: ‘We came, we saw and we were conquered.”‘
Spry in his impeccably tailored suits, Mugabe as leader maintained a schedule of events and international travel that defied his advancing age, though signs of weariness mounted toward the end. He fell after stepping off a plane in Zimbabwe, read the wrong speech at the opening of parliament and appeared to be dozing during a news conference in Japan. However, his longevity and frequently dashed rumours of ill health delighted supporters and infuriated opponents who had sardonically predicted he would live forever.
“Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realize I am still there?” Mugabe told an interviewer from state television who asked him in early 2016 about retirement plans.
After independence, Mugabe reached out to whites after a long war between black guerrillas and the white rulers of Rhodesia. He stressed education and built new schools. Tourism and mining flourished and Zimbabwe was a regional breadbasket.
Reacting to Mugabe’s death, Namibia’s President Hage Geingob said, “He was a committed freedom fighter, revolutionary, not compromising.”
Mugabe was born in Zvimba, 60 kilometres west of the capital of Harare. As a child, he tended his grandfather’s cattle and goats, fished for bream in muddy water holes, played football and “boxed a lot,” as he recalled later.
His father, Gabriel Mugabe Matibiri, a village carpenter, deserted the family when Mugabe was 10 and after the death of his older brother, Michael. His father remarried, and his mother, Bona, a deeply religious woman who lived to be 100, was left to raise Mugabe and his two siblings.
Another brother had died in infancy before Mugabe was born, but it was Michael’s death — said to be from drinking from a gourd that had contained a pesticide — that had a profound effect on Mugabe, according to Heidi Holland, a South African journalist who wrote the book Dinner with Mugabe in 2008.
The former president died at the Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore on Friday, according to the city-state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had been seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness in Singapore in recent months.