During the 1960s, Mugabe served as Secretary General of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party which led the conflict against Ian Smith’s white-minority rule government.
Between 1964 and 1974, Mugabe was a political prisoner in what was then known as Rhodesia. In 1975, upon his release from prison, Mugabe moved to Mozambique to support the Rhodesian Bush War from bases over the border.
By 1979, Mugabe was being hailed as a hero of the African people and became the country’s first post-Independence Prime Minister in 1980. He was considered a great diplomat, urging post-war reconciliation between white and indigenous Zimbabweans. He was also credited with a pragmatic approach to the economy.
During the 1980s, the two groups that had fought together against white dominance formed an alliance. Joshua Nkomo of the ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) party, which had initially been integrated into Mugabe’s government, was fired from Mugabe’s Cabinet in 1983. Between 1982 and 1985 the military crushed resistance from Nkomo’s supporters. The two leaders eventually reached an agreement creating the ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) party in 1988, with Nkomo as Vice President to Mugabe, who was now President under a new constitution.
In 2000, following continued white domination of the agriculture sector (representing 1 percent of the population and possessing 70 percent of the arable land), Mugabe launched a controversial land redistribution programme, whereby mainly white commercial farmers were driven off their farms. Following the mass exodus of these white farmers from Zimbabwe, the economy began to steadily decline.
The violence that marked this policy, and ‘Operation Restore Order,’ a programme of urban slum demolition, has been widely condemned internationally as well as creating much social unrest in the country. With increasing opposition came an increasing tenacity to power, and Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party were accused of instigating a military regime. A range of EU sanctions, including travel restrictions and the freezing of assets, were imposed on Mugabe and many individuals and private companies that supported him from 2002-2008. These sanctions were then eased in 2011 and 2012, principally as a result of Morgan Tsvangirai’s efforts to improve Zimbabwe’s international relations.
Morgan Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the presidential vote in March 2008 but there were reports of attacks on MDC party members and Tsvangirai eventually withdrew from the June run-off elections.
Mugabe thus retained his position as President with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, following international pressure. Mugabe openly opposes this arrangement and Tsvangirai often cites lack of cooperation from Mugabe and violence and intimidation against his supporters.
In March 2013, a referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution whereby the presidential term has been limited to five years and two terms only, and restrictions have been imposed on presidential powers. Provincial legislatures and a constitutional court have also been introduced.
Mugabe’s term as President expires at the end of June, 2013, and elections are expected by the end of September.
Mugabe comes from the African liberationist tradition of the 1960s. He believes in strong and ruthless leadership with no tolerance of opposition. He has a strong suspicion of capitalism and the West in general. Barring his first election by a strong Shona majority, his election campaigns (1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008) have consistently been marred by intimidation. He is accused of using the security forces to inflict violence on opposition party members and supporters, as well as rigging ballots.