Our next dictator is an interesting case because he not only did some crazy things that caused a lot of misery, he was one of the few cases that had a lot of outside support and people who hoped he’d succeed. Robert Mugabe was the first leader of Zimbabwe, first as the prime minister from 1980 until 1987, and then as the president until he retired in 2017.

He was a member of the majority Shona ethnic group and a former guerilla fighter. Everyone knew that Mugabe was tough, but most hoped that he’d be willing to form a new, equitable nation in the ashes of the former white minority dominated Rhodesia.

Most were happy when he gave a speech shortly after taking office that seemed to indicate that he would be conciliatory toward the white minority:

“It could never be a correct justification that because the whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today.”

It didn’t take long, though, for him to go back on his word.

Rhodesians/white Zimbabweans numbered about 250,000 when Mugabe came to power and within a decade their numbers were less than 100,000. Mugabe decided to give in to his hate and embarked on a crazy campaign to dispossess the whites of all their lands and businesses, which led to economic collapse, sending the once-prosperous African nation into despair.

But to be fair, Mugabe also targeted his black political rivals, members of the Ndebele ethnic group, and middle-class and wealthy blacks who supported the white-controlled Rhodesian government. By the time Mugabe died in 2017, he was responsible—directly and indirectly—for the deaths of thousands in his small country.

Mugabe’s crazy antics all but destroyed his country and made it an international pariah.

Mugabe the Guerilla

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born and raised in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia in southern Africa. Although raised in the Catholic Church, young Robert knew that religion wasn’t for him, but in the traditional and tribal society that he lived in, he learned to keep his mouth shut. Robert respected his elders, but even more so he knew from a young age that there was a time and a place for every battle.

Mugabe’s battle would be fought later with words and guns.

Mugabe was educated by Jesuits and taught at Jesuit schools for blacks throughout Southern Rhodesia. He then earned a spot at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa in 1949. Fort Hare was a black university that became a hotbed of revolutionary activism during the 1950s. Mugabe made contacts with the African National Congress (ANC) and became well-versed in Marxism. He then took those ideas and tactics with him back to Southern Rhodesia.

Similar to the situation in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia—and later Rhodesia—was ruled by a sizable white minority, although there were some notable differences between the two countries. South Africa was much larger in size and population than Rhodesia, which was still part of the British Empire until it declared its independence in 1965.

South Africa, conversely, was independent and its government was completely dominated by the white minority, which enacted rigid racial laws. Although Rhodesia was ruled by the white minority, it allowed some black representation in its government, and its racial laws were far looser.

Both countries, though, had growing black liberation and Marxist/communist movements in the 1960s.

Mugabe traveled throughout Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, refining his Marxist ideas and mixing them with the teachings of African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah.

The young Shona had become a well-known revolutionary theorist, so when he returned to Rhodesia in 1963, he was promptly put in prison until 1975.

Mugabe very well could’ve died in prison, but due to luck or fate, he was released. The Bush War (1964-1975) had been raging for years between Rhodesia and various black nationalist and Marxist groups, so Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith was trying anything to keep his hold on power. He agreed to release a number of black revolutionaries as a sign of goodwill during the negotiations.

Robert Mugabe was one of those released.

At that point, Mugabe could’ve gone quietly away, or even moved to the safety of the West, or the communist bloc, and lived a life of luxury as a sought-after speaker. Instead, he chose to fight in the bush.

Well, he was more of an organizer and motivational speaker than an actual fighter, but he was in the bush at the camps with the fighters, and when Smith agreed to bring Rhodesia back into the British Empire in 1979, it meant that black rule was coming to Rhodesia.

The Weapon of Fear

Despite being afraid of their standing in society and for their lives, Mugabe reassured the white minority that he wouldn’t target them.

And for the first few years of the 1980s that was true for the most part.

The large, wealthy farms that were owned and operated by whites were left alone and actually prospered, which was also good for rural blacks because they comprised most of the farm workforce.

Urban whites, though, faced a different reality. The legal segregation of neighborhoods ended, civil service jobs were increasingly given to blacks over whites, and other skilled jobs were also being won by blacks.

The urban whites left in droves for South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the United States, but the farmers hung on until the 1990s.

By 2000, Mugabe had been in power for 20 years and there were grumblings within the black community in Zimbabwe about his rule. He had all opposition members imprisoned, killed, or intimidated, but there were whispers within his own ZANU-Patriotic Front Party.

They said that the white farmers were too rich, had all the good land at black people’s expense and that the war veterans should have a piece of the pie.

Mugabe reacted by officially ordering land appropriation, which took land from the white farmers and theoretically gave it to disadvantaged Zimbabweans. The reality is that most of the farms went to government officials who sold and gave them away in a spoils system.

The farms that weren’t officially re-appropriated were taken by force while the government watched.

Of the more than 5,000 white-owned farms when the seizures began in 2000, less than 500 still exist.

Mugabe famously said during the seizures:

“You are now our enemies because you really have behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe. We are full of anger. Our entire community is angry and that is why we now have the war veterans seizing land.”

It may have seemed like a good political move to Mugabe, but the farm seizures sent Zimbabwe’s economy into a tailspin. Unemployment, hyperinflation, and food shortages all marked the country’s decline until Mugabe’s death. But as crazy as the farm seizures idea was, Mugabe didn’t regret a thing.

“If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold,” said Mugabe in 2003.

Did You Know?

  • Mugabe was also not a fan of gay rights, saying in 2013: “Obama came to Africa saying Africa must allow gay marriages… God destroyed the Earth because of these sins. Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
  • Mugabe single-handedly revised Zimbabwe’s constitution in 1987 to eliminate the office of the prime minister and make the president the primary executive.
  • Although Zimbabwe is technically a democracy and there are opposition parties, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF managed to hold power through a combination ballot stuffing and rigging and voter intimidation.
  • Mugabe was married twice and had four children. He had one child with his first wife, Sally, although that child died in 1966. The other three children he had with his second wife, Grace, who is 41 years younger than him.
  • Robert Mugabe died on September 9, 2019, in a hospital in Singapore at the age of 95.