Robert Mugabe has resigned as president of Zimbabwe, bringing an end to the 37-year reign of one of Africa’s longest-serving and most controversial leaders.
After decades of wielding almost untrammelled power in the Southern African nation, Mugabe was forced to resign as his former allies in Zanu-PF began impeachment proceedings against him following a military takeover on Wednesday.
The surprise decision, read out in parliament by speaker Jacob Mudenda, sparked jubilant scenes in the streets of Harare as Zimbabweans sang and danced in celebration of the 93-year old autocrat’s fall.
I am so emotional. I never thought I would see this day. Mugabe has resigned in my lifetime. This is a stepping stone towards the Zimbabwe we want. It won’t be easy. #Zimbabwe— Trevor Ncube (@TrevorNcube) November 21, 2017
Robert Mugabe learnt today that there are few ZANU PF MPs who have permanent friendships or principles, just permanent personal interests.— David Coltart (@DavidColtart) November 21, 2017
The final abandonment of the military and political elites who for decades sustained and benefited from Mugabe’s charismatic rule began soon after the president sacked powerful vice-president and now heir apparent Emmerson Mnangagwa in a bid to smooth the succession for his wife, the divisive Grace Mugabe.
That uncharacteristically decisive move proved a fatal mistake for a veteran operator famous for his political cunning and imperviousness to change. Once an icon of the liberation struggle against white minority rule, Mugabe became known as the archetype of an African post-liberation era strongman.
As his government cultivated a reputation for political violence, corruption and economic mismanagement, the ageing Mugabe indulged in a conspicuous lifestyle of excess, earning himself pariah status in the West and his country isolation and sanctions on the international stage.
The outlook did not always look so bleak. After winning the country’s first free elections in 1980, having played a key role in the military struggle against the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith, the cerebral Mugabe – initially dismissed as little more than a communist agitator – pursued a short-lived attempt at reconciliation with the country’s white minority, who he appointed to leadership positions in his government.
Yet the frustrations of democratic rule quickly proved too much for Mugabe, who lashed out at the country’s Ndebele population in a concerted campaign of ethnic violence known as Gukurahundi. Tens of thousands are estimated to have perished after Mugabe dispatched the army’s Fifth Brigade to Matebeleland to crush the local population.
Following the campaign, the president and his party continued to centralise power, commanding the unwavering loyalty of the country’s brutal security services and military by disbursing patronage and orchestrating crackdowns on opposition leaders.
As the economy collapsed by the late 1990s, Mugabe turned on the country’s remaining white farmers, whose land was confiscated in a controversial and violent programme of ‘land reform’ which Mugabe argued was addressing the country’s racial disparities. Yet many of the farms were delivered into the hands of ruling party members and those close to the president.
With his rule increasingly threatened by economic collapse, international sanctions, and the disintegration of basic government services, Mugabe ramped up attacks on internal opponents, whom he characterised as stooges of the West, and in particular, former colonial power Britain. Elections were increasingly conducted amid widespread vote-rigging, violence and the detention of political opponents.
Despite Zimbabwe’s decline into widespread poverty and economic inactivity – particularly evident following a period of hyperinflation which saw the infamous printing of worthless trillion dollar bills – Mugabe retained residual support among fellow African leaders who remembered his role as an anti-colonial icon. Rejected in London and Washington, he could always be assured of a warm welcome in the halls of the African Union and at presidential residences across the continent.