Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Mugabe, Robert (Gabriel)
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Zimbabwean politician, prime minister 1980–87 and executive president 1987–2017. He was detained and imprisoned in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known) for nationalist activities 1964–74, then carried on guerrilla warfare from Mozambique as leader of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). In 1980, he became the first prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe. But in 1982 he expelled Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) from the national unity government and launched an anti-opposition campaign in the south of the country. The two parties merged in 1987, to form ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe faced increasing criticism from the 1990s as Zimbabwe suffered growing political violence and economic decline following his launching of a programme of land redistribution which drove commercial farmers off the land. Deteriorating political and human rights in Zimbabwe led to EU and USA sanctions in 2002, and Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2004 in protest against its earlier suspension. Mugabe continued in power after disputed presidential elections in March 2008, which saw his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, claim victory with over 50% of the first round vote. Tsvangirai refused to contest a run-off round because of violence against his supporters. Mugabe agreed to a South Africa-brokered deal which saw Tsvangirai serve as prime minister in 2009–13 in a national unity government. Mugabe won the July 2013 presidential elections, with officially 61% of the vote against 34% for Tsvangirai, but the opposition claimed the polls had been fraudulent. Despite his being over 90 years old, in December 2015 ZANU-PF endorsed him as their candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. However, in November 2017 he was removed as ZANU-PF leader and forced to resign as president. This followed a power struggle between his unpopular wife, Grace Mugabe, and the vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, which resulted in the army backing Mnangagwa and carrying out a de facto bloodless coup. Grace Mugabe was expelled from ZANU-PF, but in December 2017 Robert Mugabe was given diplomatic immunity, which protected him from potential prosecution, and was assured a secure retirement in Zimbabwe.

Between 1998–2000, demonstrations were held by students, workers, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), against alleged government corruption, the rise in fuel prices, and Zimbabwe's intervention in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2000 Mugabe supported the invasion of white farms by veterans of the struggle for independence, and invoked special presidential powers in order to seize land without compensation. The Supreme Court condemned the policy as unconstitutional but the move was popular among ZANU-PF supporters in rural areas. This formed the basis for Mugabe's re-election as president in 2002, narrowly defeating the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai; however the elections were marred by violence and intimidation and were considered flawed by international observers.

Born at a Jesuit mission in Kutama, in Mashonaland, northwest of Harare in the then British colony of Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe was a member of the Shona people. He was raised as a Roman Catholic and was educated at mission schools and Fort Hare University, South Africa. He also obtained a degree in economics from the University of London, by correspondence. From 1942–60 he worked as a teacher and, while teaching in Ghana, he was greatly influenced by Kwame Nkrumah's radical policies that blended African nationalism with Marxism. In 1961, with Joshua Nkomo, he founded the black-nationalist organization ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union), which was swiftly banned because of its opposition to white rule.

In 1963 Mugabe broke away to form, with Ndabaningi Sithole, the more extreme ZANU, which was committed to a political and military struggle to end white minority rule. While imprisoned 1964–74 by the Rhodesian government, Mugabe studied law, receiving degrees from the universities of London and South Africa.

Mugabe developed the banned ZANU into a Marxist-Leninist party with a strong guerrilla army. In 1975 he replaced Sithole as secretary-general and joined forces militarily with ZAPU in the Patriotic Front (PF). From bases in Mozambique, the PF gradually gained the upper hand over the military forces of the white-minority Rhodesian government led by Ian Smith, and there was a negotiated transition to full black majority rule in 1980, with the ZANU-PF easily winning the first multiracial elections that year.

As prime minister, Mugabe initially sought reconciliation with ZAPU and whites, but faced a rebellion in 1982 in the ZAPU stronghold of Matabeleland in the Ndebele-speaking south. Mugabe dismissed Nkomo from the cabinet and between 1982 and 1985 the military crushed the resistance, with between 10,000 and 20,000 dying in the unrest. A peace accord was negotiated in 1987, with the merger of ZAPU and ZANU-PF under Mugabe's leadership, and Nkomo was brought back into government as a vice-president. Zimbabwe became effectively a one-party state and the roles of head of state and government were combined, to make Mugabe executive president.

Despite corruption scandals and a deteriorating economy, worsened by the 1991–92 drought in southern Africa, Mugabe was re-elected, unchallenged, in February 1996.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article Mugabe, Robert Gabriel (c. 1924-)
Encyclopedia of African History

Zimbabwean Politician and Former Guerrilla Leader Head of government since independence from white minority rule in 1980, president of...

Full text Article Mugabe, Robert (Gabriel)
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

(born Feb. 21, 1924, Kutama, Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]) First prime minister (1980–87) and executive president (from 1987) of Zimbabwe. With

Full text Article Zimbabwe
The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Landlocked country in south central Africa, bounded north by Zambia, east by Mozambique, south by South Africa, and west by Botswana. Government Zimb

See more from Credo