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6 Sep, 2019 17:04

'Icon of liberation' v 'dictator': Zimbabwe's ex-leader Robert Mugabe dies at 95

'Icon of liberation' v 'dictator': Zimbabwe's ex-leader Robert Mugabe dies at 95

Zimbabwe's former ruler for 37 years, Robert Mugabe, died on Friday. Praised as "hero", he led the nation to independence and became its first elected leader, but was later forced out amid economic collapse.

Mugabe passed away in a hospital in Singapore. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa quickly hailed him as "an icon of liberation" who fought for the "empowerment of his people." Mugabe's contribution to Africa "will never be forgotten," he said.

The late politician was also called "the fearless pan-African liberation fighter" by officials in neighboring South Africa. The country's leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, said Mugabe's quest to rid Zimbabwe of colonialism "inspired our own struggle against apartheid."

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Mugabe for fostering friendly ties with Moscow, while Beijing said he "defended the sovereignty" of his nation.

Catholic school teacher to independence hero

Mugabe taught at a rural Catholic high school before joining the independence movement against British rule in Zimbabwe, which was called Southern Rhodesia at the time. He was soon imprisoned for a decade without a trial for criticizing the government.

The decolonization of Africa, meanwhile, was in full swing. Afraid to lose power, the colonial administration unilaterally declared independence from London. The 'new' Rhodesia was not recognized by any other nation, but little changed otherwise. It was still ruled by a small white minority, because most of the seats in the parliament were reserved for whites.

First democratically-elected leader

Upon being released from prison, Mugabe fled to Mozambique, where he directed rebel raids into Rhodesia. After Zimbabwe won full independence in 1980, Mugabe became its first elected prime minister. Enjoying widespread popular support, he later amended the constitution and became president. He would end up being re-elected five times. His later campaigns, however, were met by allegations of vote rigging. many of his staunch critics also called him "a dictator."

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African socialist

A devout socialist, Mugabe strived to boost living standards. The economy grew in the 80s, while infant mortality dropped and literacy soared. Education was considered Mugabe's pet project as he doubled spending on schools. Zimbabwe still boasts one of the highest literacy rates on the continent.

Controversial land reform

Whites comprised a tiny percentage of Zimbabwe's population upon independence, but they owned the vast majority of fertile land, which had earlier been taken from the black natives. Mugabe and the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), saw this imbalance as a historical injustice, inflicted by decades of colonialism.

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In an effort to change the situation, the government began redistributing the land among black farmers. The measure fueled support for Mugabe among the black population. At the same time, the fast-tracked reform did not go smoothly, prompting forced displacement of white farmers and sporadic violence. This led to an outcry from international human rights groups.

Hyperinflation and 'voluntary resignation'

Mugabe's last years in power were even more turbulent. The economy was stalling since the 1990s and collapsed in the 2000s, paving the way for staggering hyperinflation. The country's production plummeted, sparking food shortages, which made a dent in Mugabe's popularity. He also faced increasing accusations of human rights abuses and violence towards political opponents, which led to Mugabe being condemned by the UN.

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The president insisted that the criticism stemmed from attempts of outside forces to undermine the country. In 2017, he was forced to resign by the army and members of his own party. The military denied that a coup has taken place and granted Mugabe and his wife, Grace, immunity from prosecution. The Zimbabwean Supreme Court ruled that Mugabe resigned voluntarily.

On Friday, Zimbabwean President declared Mugabe a hero of the nation and announced the country will be in national mourning until the late leader is laid to rest.