- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2008

In September 1983, President Reagan hosted Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe at the White House, praising the three-year-old southern African country as a bulwark against Soviet influence and praising his guest for his “wise leadership in healing the wounds of civil war.”

A quarter-century later, the 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe, now the country’s president, is fighting for his political life. Once one of the richest countries on the continent, Zimbabwe today suffers from a shattered economy, plunging health and social indicators, bitter internal divisions and international sanctions that have left its leader and his regime a pariah in the United States and the West.

In post-colonial Africa, dominated by a string of political “big men,” perhaps no one rose so high or fell so far as Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the Jesuit-educated carpenter’s son who has dominated political life since the end of white rule in the country once known as Southern Rhodesia.

The high hopes of the Reagan administration have given way to bitter denunciations in the George W. Bush administration.

“The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters last week during a Middle East tour.

And with opposition parties claiming they have won the March 29 presidential and parliamentary elections, Mr. Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party now stand accused of not even being able to rig an election competently.

“ZANU-PF’s core of power is so weak now that once they start down the path of reforms, they will not be able to control the process,” said David Coltart, a top figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), on a recent Washington visit.

It was all very different when Mr. Mugabe first came to the world’s notice.

A schoolteacher by profession, Mr. Mugabe earned a law degree while serving a 10-year prison sentence for opposing the white-dominated Rhodesian regime. While in prison, his 4-year-old son died of malaria, but government officials refused the prisoner permission to attend the funeral.

Released from prison, he fled to neighboring Mozambique, becoming a key figure in the militant guerrilla movement that eventually forced the capitulation of the minority government of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. The struggle for majority rule claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

Becoming prime minister of the newly christened Zimbabwe in 1980, Mr. Mugabe at first preached a message of reconciliation and racial harmony. Citing the country’s productive economy and thriving agricultural sector, Mr. Mugabe said he had “inherited the jewel of Africa.”

In a direct appeal to the fearful white minority, he said in January 1980, “Stay with us, please remain in this country and constitute a nation based on unity.”

The country enjoyed broad international support under Mr. Mugabe and was seen as a sharp contrast to the apartheid regime in neighboring South Africa. During his first decade in power, the economy grew steadily, infant-mortality rates were cut nearly in half, and average life expectancy increased from 56 years to 64 years.

Productive white landowners, key to the economy, were allowed to keep their often-sizable holdings. “There is a place for you in the sun,” Mr. Mugabe told them.

After a change in the constitution, Mr. Mugabe was easily elected president of Zimbabwe in 1987.

But there were also early signs that Zimbabwe’s leader did not willingly share power.

In 1982, Mr. Mugabe had a falling out with fellow rebel leader Joshua Nkomo, whose rival Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) had a political base in the country’s Ndebele-speaking south. Mr. Mugabe, from the ethnic-Shona north, ordered the country’s North Korea-trained army into the southern provinces, in an operation that killed an estimated 25,000 people, including large number of civilians.

Memories in Matabeleland and other Ndebele strongholds of the attacks have not faded, and many believe Mr. Mugabe has clung to power for so long for fear he will face human rights charges springing from the three-year campaign should he leave office.

Relations between an increasingly authoritarian Mr. Mugabe and the West deteriorated in the 1990s, underscored by the decision of the new Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 to stop funding land-reform programs allowing lower-income blacks to purchase acreage from large landowners, most of them white.

Britain complained that many of the buyers of the land were relatives and cronies of Mr. Mugabe, a pattern of insider dealing that critics say has only accelerated in recent years.

The dispute also intensified Mr. Mugabe’s public complaints about the West, especially Britain, the former colonial power. The president has blamed much of the country’s recent economic problems on U.S. and European sanctions.

“Blair, keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe,” Mr. Mugabe told a U.N. summit in Johannesburg in 2002.

South African author Heidi Holland, who is completing a biography of Mr. Mugabe, said the president appeared to her in a lengthy recent interview to be a resentful, insecure man, one who never got over the perceived British slight.

“He realized Britain had cast him adrift. His problem with Britain was on the scale of a big, family quarrel,” she said in an interview with the German DPA news agency.

Life in Zimbabwe deteriorated sharply after Mr. Mugabe unexpectedly lost a 2000 constitutional referendum designed to increase his hold on power. The regime’s campaign against domestic opposition, including top MDC leaders, intensified, while forced land seizures and economic mismanagement drove the country to the edge of collapse.

The economy has imploded, shrinking by 5.1 percent in 2006. Unemployment is estimated at around 80 percent, and the international financial agencies say Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate at 100,000 percent. After rising throughout the 1980s, average life expectancy has plummeted to 37 years for men and 34 for women, owing in part to a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The country once known as southern Africa’s breadbasket now is dependent on foreign food aid. Neighboring South Africa and Botswana have had to deal with a flood of Zimbabwean refugees fleeing political repression and economic hardship back home.

Even Mr. Mugabe’s iron grip on the country’s security forces and ruling ZANU-PF party have been sorely tested in recent days. A ZANU-PF dissident broke with the president to run in Saturday’s presidential election.

Mr. Mugabe, who compared himself to a boxer in the most recent campaign, has shown repeatedly in the past his ability to face down challenges to his power.

But as the votes slowly trickle in and the opposition makes repeated claims of victory, the president has been uncharacteristically quiet.

ROBERT GABRIEL MUGABE

President of Zimbabwe

Born: Feb. 21, 1924, Kutama, Zvimba District, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Fort Hare, South Africa; bachelor’s degree, University of London; multiple degrees, University of South Africa

Family: Wives Sally Hayfron (died 1992), and Grace Marufu; three children, Bona, Robert Jr. and Bellarmine

Career highlights: Schoolteacher, Rhodesia and Ghana, 1955-60; joins opposition to Rhodesia’s white government and helps form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), 1960-63; sentenced to 10 years in jail for “subversive speech,” earning a law degree while in prison, 1964-74; elected head of ZANU, 1974; elected prime minister in “independence elections” after the end of white rule, 1980; launches military campaign against opposition parties in Zimbabwe’s Ndebele-speaking south, 1982-85; elected president after a power-sharing deal creates the ZANU-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, 1987, re-elected in 1990, 1996 and 2002; voters reject a constitutional referendum to give the government more power, 2000; government accelerates seizures of white-owned farms, causing widespread economic hardship, 2001; ZANU-PF wins parliamentary elections amid growing international condemnation and sanctions, 2005; runs for fifth term as president, 2008.

SOURCES: Government of Zimbabwe; British Broadcasting Corp.; U.S. State Department; Associated Press

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