The downfall of the world’s oldest dictator: From a young Catholic Marxist, to a political prisoner turned violent guerrilla leader who became a brutal despot

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 at a Catholic mission village near Southern Rhodesia's capital city, Salisbury. Pictured: Mugabe with Mnangagwa and Josiah Tongogara, a guerrilla commander
  • Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 at a Catholic mission village near Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia
  • He was raised by Jesuits as well as his carpenter father, Gabriel Matibiri, and religious teacher mother Bona
  • When he was 10, his father walked out on the family and he was taught by an Irish Catholic who hated Britain
  • He trained as a teacher and came to embrace Marxism when introduced to it by South African communists
  • During the war against white rule in Southern Rhodesia, he made speeches praising Mao, Stalin and Lenin 
  • In 1980 he became prime minister of the country but soon became involved in brutal crackdowns against foes

The man who has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years looks set to be deposed after a shock coup was orchestrated by the vice president he sacked last week.

But how did the world’s oldest dictator come to hold so much power for so long – and what influenced him to become the infamous tyrant of his later years?

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 at a Catholic mission village near Southern Rhodesia’s capital city, Salisbury.

His father, Gabriel Matibiri, was a carpenter and his mother, Bona, was a religious teacher.

Raised by Jesuits, the young Mugabe was instilled with an austere sense of self-discipline from the beginning of his life.

When he was 10, his father walked out on the family, and in his absence an Irish Catholic who praised opponents of the British Empire – of which Mugabe was a subject – became a major influence on his life.

When he was 10, his father walked out on the family, and in his absence an Irish Catholic who praised opponents of the British Empire - of which Mugabe was a subject - became a major influence on his life

When he was 10, his father walked out on the family, and in his absence an Irish Catholic who praised opponents of the British Empire – of which Mugabe was a subject – became a major influence on his life

Later in his rule, he used blistering rhetoric to blame his country's downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe's economy. Pictured: Mugabe with his old hero Fidel Castro in 2005
Mugabe with his old hero Fidel Castro in 2005. Right: With his old queen, Elizabeth II, in 2008

Later in his rule, he used blistering rhetoric to blame his country’s downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe’s economy. Pictured left: Mugabe with his old hero Fidel Castro in 2005. Right: With his old queen, Elizabeth II, in 2008

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was soon cast in the role of a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy. Pictured: Mugabe meeting with North Korea's Kim Il-Sung in 1993

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was soon cast in the role of a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy. Pictured: Mugabe meeting with North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung in 1993

Old dictators club: President Mugabe embraces Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the inauguration ceremony of South African president Jacob Zuma on May 9, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa

Old dictators club: President Mugabe embraces Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the inauguration ceremony of South African president Jacob Zuma on May 9, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa

Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush. Pictured: Mugabe during his marriage to second wife Grace

Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush. Pictured: Mugabe during his marriage to second wife Grace

Britain's former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe's independence. He told his biographer that Mugabe 'wasn't human at all,' adding: 'There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.' Pictured: The president with Tony Blair in 1997

Britain’s former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence. He told his biographer that Mugabe ‘wasn’t human at all,’ adding: ‘There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.’ Pictured: The president with Tony Blair in 1997

Two men standing by the the gates of a farm which they seized from white farmers in 2009

A victim of the seizure of white farms overseen by Mugabe's regime decades after he came to power

Mugabe repeatedly called for violence against white people in Rhodesia during the war of independence, lashing out at them in racist rants as being ‘blood-sucking exploiters’ and ‘sadistic killers’. Pictured right: A victim of the seizure of white farms overseen by Mugabe’s regime decades after he came to power. Left: Two men standing by the the gates of a farm which they seized from white farmers in 2009

He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa (pictured), where he met many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders

He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa (pictured), where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders

Father Jerome O’Hea also preached a philosophy of racial equality as well teaching him about the Irish War of Independence and how revolutionaries had seized their country back from the British.

He qualified as a teacher at  17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders. Pictured: Mugabe with his first wife, Sally, at Buckingham Palace in 1982

He qualified as a teacher at 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders. Pictured: Mugabe with his first wife, Sally, at Buckingham Palace in 1982

Father O’Hea doted on Mugabe, telling his mother that one day he would be ‘an important somebody’ and a ‘leader’.

His mother is said to have believed Father O’Hea had brought that prophecy from god, putting his needs above his five siblings’.

Before he died in 1970, Father O’Hea said his former pupil had ‘an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart’.

Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush.

After his time at the mission, he trained as a teacher – with his tuition fees paid for partly by Father O’Hea.

He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.

It was during this period that Mugabe was introduced to Marxism by South African communists.

He later embraced Marxist doctrine, but claimed that his biggest influence was Mohandas Gandhi because of his behaviour during the Indian struggle for independence.

When he returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1952, he was ‘completely hostile’ to European imperialism.

He headed to Ghana to teach in 1958, where he was influenced by president Kwame Nkrumah.

Mugabe qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders. Pictured: Mugabe with Margaret Thatcher in 1988

Mugabe qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, later studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders. Pictured: Mugabe with Margaret Thatcher in 1988

He ultimately embraced Marxist doctrine, but claimed that his biggest influence was Mohandas Gandhi because of his behaviour during the Indian struggle for independence. Pictured: Mugabe in 1979, a year before he became prime minister 

He ultimately embraced Marxist doctrine, but claimed that his biggest influence was Mohandas Gandhi because of his behaviour during the Indian struggle for independence. Pictured: Mugabe in 1979, a year before he became prime minister

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Mugabe (pictured above with Nelson Mandela) was soon cast in the role of a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy

First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Mugabe (pictured above with Nelson Mandela) was soon cast in the role of a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy

During the war against white rule, he made frequent radio speeches during which he praised communist revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro and mass murderers Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. Pictured: Mugabe with New Zealand PM David Lange in 1985

During the war against white rule, he made frequent radio speeches during which he praised communist revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro and mass murderers Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. Pictured: Mugabe with New Zealand PM David Lange in 1985

Mugabe said he went to the country as an ‘adventurist’ because he wanted to see what an independent African state looked like (Ghana was the first nation in the continent to win freedom from a European power).

While there, he attended the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute in Winneba and later claimed that it was while he was in Ghana that fully embraced Marxism.

The timeline of a tyrant

1980: Mugabe named prime minister after independence elections

1982: Military action begins in Matabeleland against perceived uprising; government is accused of killing thousands of civilians

1987: Mugabe changes constitution and becomes president

1994: Mugabe receives honorary British knighthood

2000: Land seizures of white-owned farms begin; Western donors cut off aid

2005: United States calls Zimbabwe an “outpost of tyranny”

2008: Mugabe and opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirayi agree to share power after contested election; Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II annuls Mugabe’s honorary knighthood

2011: Prime Minister Tsvangirayi declares power-sharing a failure amid violence

2013: Mugabe wins seventh term; opposition alleges election fraud

2016: #ThisFlag protest movement emerges; independence war veterans turn on Mugabe, calling him “dictatorial”

2017: Mugabe begins campaigning for 2018 elections

Nov. 6: Mugabe fires deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, appearing to position first lady Grace Mugabe for vice president post

Nov. 15: Army announces it has Mugabe and his wife in custody as military appears to take control

Mugabe returned to his homeland and was detained for his nationalist activities in 1964 before spending the next 10 years in prison camps or jails.

During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence – but the years in prison left their mark.

His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars.

Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.

During the struggle against white rule, Mugabe was famous as a propagandist.

He made frequent radio speeches during which he praised communist revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro and mass murderers Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Mugabe also repeatedly called for violence against white people in Rhodesia, lashing out at them in racist rants as being ‘blood-sucking exploiters’ and ‘sadistic killers’.

In one particularly racist speech, he said: ‘Let us hammer [the white man] to defeat. Let us blow up his citadel. Let us give him no time to rest. Let us chase him in every corner. Let us rid our home of this settler vermin.’

When the war was won, the country freed and renamed Zimbabwe, Mugabe swept to power in 1980 elections.

A violent insurgency and economic sanctions had forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.

In office he initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.

But his lustre faded quickly.

Mugabe took control of one wing in the guerrilla war for independence – the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed forces – after his release from prison in 1974.

His partner in the armed struggle – the leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), Joshua Nkomo – was one of the early casualties of Mugabe’s crackdown on dissent.

Nkomo was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982.

Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo’s Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents.

He headed to Ghana to teach in 1958, where he was influenced by president Kwame Nkrumah. Mugabe said he went to the country as an 'adventurist' because he wanted to see what an independent African state looked like (Ghana was the first nation in the continent to win freedom from a European power). Pictured: Mugabe with British Foreign Secretary David Owen

He headed to Ghana to teach in 1958, where he was influenced by president Kwame Nkrumah. Mugabe said he went to the country as an ‘adventurist’ because he wanted to see what an independent African state looked like (Ghana was the first nation in the continent to win freedom from a European power). Pictured: Mugabe with British Foreign Secretary David Owen

During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence - but the years in prison left their mark. His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith (left) denied him leave to attend the funeral
His onetime ally Joshua Nkomo

During his incarceration, he gained three degrees through correspondence – but the years in prison left their mark. His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith (left) denied him leave to attend the funeral. Right: His onetime ally Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982

Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, leaders of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front, hold a conference in London with British politicians to discuss the future of the independent state of Zimbabwe

Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, leaders of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front, hold a conference in London with British politicians to discuss the future of the independent state of Zimbabwe

ROBERT MUGABE
Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe being sworn in as Zimbabwe’s first executive President. He is receiving the symbols of office by former President Canaan Banana after having taken the oaths of office and loyalty.

In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe – one of the world’s most recognisable leaders with his thin stripe of moustache and thick-rimmed spectacles – had embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West. Pictured: Mugabe being made president by the country’s former president, Canaan Banana

It was the seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mugabe’s transformation from darling of the West into international pariah – though his status as a liberation hero still resonates in many parts of Africa.

Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into economic misery.

Source: dailymail