When he came to power in 1980, Robert Mugabe was seen as the best hope for the country formerly known as Rhodesia. Among the various guerrilla leaders which had fought the country's White minority regime, he was considered the most moderate. His Marxist views were tempered by his Roman Catholic beliefs, and he quickly acquired a reputation as a peacemaker and a statesman. Setting up a gradual transition from minority to majority rule, he worked alongside former leader Ian Smith to ensure Zimbabwe would be a place where all its citizens - Black, White, Colored and Indian - would be able to share in the country's wealth. Most observers figured that White prophecies of "One Man, One Vote… One Time" were just racist sour grapes. Unfortunately, Mugabe has done his best to prove them right; as a result of his tyranny and misrule one of the most prosperous countries in Africa now faces widespread unemployment, poverty and starvation.
Mugabe's authoritarian tendencies showed not long after he came to power. A coalition between his ZANU (Zimbabwean African National Union) and the rival ZAPU (Zimbabwean African People's Union) crumbled within eighteen months, as Mugabe accused his old rival Joshua Nkomo of plotting a coup against him. Nkomo was forced into exile, and most leading ZAPU politicians were killed or jailed. Mugabe ordered the deployment of the Fifth Brigade, a North Korea-trained army unit, into predominantly ZAPU Matabeleland, where they launched a reign of terror, killing some 30,000 pro-ZAPU Ndebles in an action which they called Gukurahundi - "the rain which washes away the chaff." After his re-election in 1985, Mugabe made peace with Nkomo, bringing him into the government as a vice-president and working to set up a one-party socialist state under the auspices of the combined ZANU-PF (ZANU-Patriotic Front).
Together they turned their sights on a common enemy - White Zimbabweans. The joint party abolished the ten parlimentary seats reserved for Whites and created the office of "Executive President" for Mugabe. When Mugabe came to power, approximately 70% of the country's arable land was owned by descendents of White settlers. During the first decade of his rule Mugabe spoke frequently of the need for "land reform," but did nothing to implement these reforms. In the 1990s, this changed, as Mugabe began seizing land and "redistributing" it to "impoverished peasants" and "war veterans." (Critics noted that these "peasants" and "war veterans" were invariably Mugabe cronies or supporters, who were frequently neither impoverished nor veterans). Those Whites who resisted were forced off at gunpoint; several farmers were hacked to death by machete-wielding mobs. Mugabe's rhetoric grew increasingly strident, as he accused Whites of being "foreign agents" and "racist colonists." Unfortunately, the "redistribution" of this land has led to a serious drop in productivity. Frequently it has been accompanied by widespread burning and looting; in other cases enormous tracts of land have been divided into tiny, unprofitable farms which lack even basic machinery.
Mugabe has claimed that these reforms will lead to a "brighter future" for Black Zimbabweans… but for now have only led to widespread hunger and famine. By some accounts as many as 50% of Zimbabwe's people are facing hunger or starvation. It is difficult to say exactly how large the problem is, though: Mugabe has expelled most foreign journalists. Those Zimbabwean journalists who have reported on the famine or criticized the Mugabe government have faced intimidation and torture; in many cases this ill treatment has been extended to family members.
Like much of Africa, Zimbabwe is facing a serious AIDS crisis; an estimated 25% of Zimbabwe's adult population is HIV-positive. Mugabe has responded to this not by distributing condoms but by targeting homosexuals. His political opponents have been accused of "sodomy" and "perversion" and sentenced to up to 10 years under repressive new laws. Combined with his land reforms, this has led to widespread sanctions against Zimbabwe in the European Union: Mugabe has referred to these sanctions as "racism in action" and launched further retaliatory actions against the Whites who remain in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe was voted out of office in 2000; in the best dictatorial tradition, he voided the election and accused his opponent of "treason." Declaring a state of emergency in early 2002, he pushed through parliament laws which criminalized criticism of Mugabe and which gave the government widespread "security" powers. Today Zimbabwe's economy is in a shambles, and Mugabe continues to blame the remaining Whites, along with "colonial powers." He has also continued to support revolutionaries in the neighboring Congo; along with several of his cronies, he has been accused of lining his pockets with that country's vast mineral resources.
Most in Zimbabwe believe Mugabe's days are numbered. The 78-year old Mugabe, like many totalitarians, has left no heir apparent to his throne; rumor has it that he has told his family to be ready to leave the country when he is finally overthrown. The trade unions and working-class people who voted Mugabe out in 2000 have been fighting against his reign of terror with strikes and protests; at present many compare Mugabe to Caligula in his last days. Still, it would be foolish to count Mugabe out just yet. His thugs are scattered throughout the countryside, and he has reacted to these threats to his power with ever-increasing violence. There is likely to be still more bloodshed before things improve.