The Zimbabwean military, according to news reports, has had enough of Robert Mugabe. The 93-year-old president of the country has been placed under house arrest while the military looks for criminals in his government. It’s likely the conclusion of a long, complicated, and sometimes ugly career, even by the standards of African politics. To understand why, you have to understand why Mugabe rose to power in the first place and what he’s done as, de facto, the leader of Zimbabwe for more than forty years.
- Mugabe started as a freedom fighter: Modern Zimbabwe was, in 1923, called “Southern Rhodesia” on most maps. Much like South Africa, Southern Rhodesia was a segregated minority-white colony, with all the racism, oppression, and other crimes that implies. In 1965, the minority-white government was faced with a choice from the British government: Establish majority rule, thus becoming accountable to the people they’d committed crimes against, or rebel against the British government. The colonists chose rebellion, kicking off one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history, the Zimbabwe War Of Liberation.
- Mugabe was involved in the war, but not directly at first: Mugabe had been pushing for majority rule for a while, and he was jailed for making “subversive statements.” There, he commanded guerilla forces with notes smuggled out of the walls. The war itself is virtually unknown outside Zimbabwe largely because it’s not a simple story of good guys and bad guys. The Rhodesian government was cruel, oppressive, and violent, and slowly drove even well-meaning elements towards violence, and in many cases, innocent people wound up in the crossfire. However, the world stage supported majority rule and by 1975, Mugabe was out of jail and involved in the fighting. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher managed to negotiate a cease-fire, and in 1980, Mugabe won the first free and fair elections in a country renamed Zimbabwe by its people. But the racial tensions, and the economic problems they were causing, not only remained, but rapidly got worse.
- Mugabe increasingly became dictatorial: Although Zimbabwe was a democracy at first, by 1987, constitutional reforms essentially made Mugabe the de-facto ruler for life of Zimbabwe. To be fair, it’s impossible to say who, exactly, could have salvaged the political situation. For example, Ian Smith, leader of the Rhodesian rebellion and head of the white faction in the Zimbabwe War of Independence, was still a political player, instead of in jail where many Zimbabweans justly thought he belonged. Rather than be ruled by a self-proclaimed Marxist, huge numbers of Zimbabwe’s white population emigrated. Mugabe also acted against other political parties, using the constitution to make it harder for any opposition, including former allies, to gain a majority to fight him with. He used violence to win elections and has been decried repeatedly for acting unilaterally and in his interest, not Zimbabwe’s. He also used the LGBT community as scapegoats when things went wrong.
- As a result, Zimbabwe’s economy has become a disaster: Due to resettlement policies, land grabs, and emigration of skilled workers, both white and Black, Zimbabwe has struggled economically for decades. Inflation notoriously went out of control, and the economy is tinged with racial tension. Many of the whites who emigrated kept their ownership of farms, mines, and other resources, and Mugabe has accused them of exploiting Zimbabwe without contributing to the country.
- The coup is likely a result of another power grab by Mugabe: Mugabe, now 94, declared his intent to run for office in 2018. But he also set the stage for his wife to take over if he couldn’t run — by firing long-time ally, intelligence chief, and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and appointing his wife in his place. Grace Mugabe has been an unpopular figure in Zimbabwe for decades, and whether she would rule independently or be a stand-in for her husband ruling behind the scenes, Zimbabweans heartily sick of Mugabe saw it as yet another power grab.
- It’s unclear what happens next. So far, the Zimbabwean military is being very careful not to act like, well, Mugabe at his worst. It appears there’s been the bare minimum of violence. It’s also believed that the military is either acting at the behest of or in support of Mnangagwa. Whether this is a step up or a lateral move is an open question; Mnangagwa is one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest men and, until recently, one of Mugabe’s most loyal lieutenants. One thing, though, is clear; Mugabe is going to have an effect on where Zimbabwe goes as a country for a long time yet.