Special Briefing: Robert Mugabe Is a Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Dictators - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Special Briefing: Robert Mugabe Is a Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Dictators

Special Briefing: Robert Mugabe Is a Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Dictators

By OZY Editors

Robert Mugabi in Salisbury, Zimbabwe on April 20, 1980.
SourceJean-Claude FRANCOLON/Gamma-Rapho


Because Mugabe wasn’t the last African dictator.

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened? Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, has died at the age of 95. Having ruled virtually unchallenged for 37 years, he attracted global scorn for suppressing political opponents and driving the economy into ruin. That’s before he was ousted in a 2017 coup and, ultimately, died powerless in a Singapore hospital — far from a homeland he once wrested from colonial rule and ushered into independence. 

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A protester holds up a sign outside the High Commision of the Republic of Zimbabwe in central London.


Why does it matter? Although President Emmerson Mnangagwa called him “an icon of liberation,” many more will likely remember Mugabe as a power-crazed dictator who destroyed his country. But his tarnished legacy is one many other aspiring African leaders should study, especially as a fresh wave of political change sweeps across the continent, from Algeria to Sudan, to replace despots like him. 


A hero’s welcome. Leading the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU-PF) in the 1970s — following his release from a 10-year prison sentence for resisting minority White-run Rhodesia — Mugabe rose to prominence as an anti-colonial folk hero. That helped the bookish intellectual win the newly independent country’s first-ever election in 1980, after which he set about promoting education for Blacks and building medical clinics. Throughout his several decades in power, Mugabe urged other African nations to follow his example and rally against neocolonialism. 

Descent into dictatorship … By the early 1980s, Mugabe was already dispatching North Korean-trained troops to put down a rebellion by a former ally, which eventually led to the ethnic cleansing of up to 20,000 Ndebele civilians. Throughout his tenure, he’d often use violence against political opponents — a tactic some say he never relinquished from his earliest days as a nationalist revolutionary — as well as a system of patronage to rule. 

…and economic decay. But most painful for ordinary citizens was Mugabe’s disastrous land reform program: Starting in 2000, he snatched away White-owned farms in a move that ultimately tanked the economy, turning Zimbabwe from the so-called breadbasket of Africa into a financially crippled nation dependent on foreign aid. Unprecedented hyperinflation ensued, and prices jumped more than 79,000,000,000 percent — a legacy that’s still felt today. 

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Youths raise their fist 05 March 2002 at a campaign rally of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party in the Harare area, which the presidential candidate did not attend. Zimbabweans are to vote for a president 09-10 March 2002.


What in the world? The global response to Mugabe’s death has been mixed. While African leaders, such as the presidents of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa hailed him as a champion of the Pan-African cause, others were less effusive. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson, for instance, expressed condolences but called Mugabe “a barrier to a better future.” Russia, China and India hailed his contributions to bilateral relations. Mugabe, of course, frequently accused the West of trying to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy. 

The times are-a changin’. If Mugabe’s ouster marked the end of a long, dark chapter, his death is the end of an era. Long-serving autocrats elsewhere across Africa are slowly succumbing to social movements against dictatorship. Following two decades in power, ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally resigned in April amid rolling protests. Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir went out with slightly more fanfare — toppled by the military as his country descended into political violence he helped inflame. Among those still clinging to power is Cameroon’s 86-year-old Paul Biya, who has led the country since 1982 but remained absent for long stretches, letting a secessionist conflict fester while spending lavishly in Switzerland (somewhat fitting for Africa’s highest-paid leader).


Mugabe Is Dead, But He Has Plenty of Imitators, by Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg

“His life story is a warning to all well-meaning authoritarians and the nations willing to tolerate them – a warning that appears to be going unheeded.”

Zimbabwe’s Dollar Crisis Rages, Even With Its Dictator Gone, by Tatira Zwinoira on OZY

“Between November 2017, when Mnangagwa took office, and December 2018, 55 registered companies shut down, 10 percent higher than the 49 that closed shop over a similar period at the end of the Mugabe era.”


Robert Mugabe: From Hero to Despot Who Brought Zimbabwe to Its Knees

“From 2000 to 2008, the economy shrank by more than a third, and unemployment shot up above 80 percent.” 

Watch on The Telegraph on YouTube:

Zimbabwe Mourns Mugabe

“You have mixed sentiments around the person that President Robert Mugabe was.”

Watch on eNCA on YouTube:


Say what? Mugabe was also known for his colorful rhetoric — such as his claim that “only God” could remove him from office, or that he has “died many times. That’s where I have beaten Christ.” Then there’s the time he challenged the reporter who asked whether he’ll resign: “Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realize I am still there?”

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