HARARE (Reuters) - Once feted as a champion of democracy, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has been denounced around the world after an election in which he is accused of using brutal violence to maintain his hold on power.
The former liberation hero was sworn in on Sunday, extending his 28-year rule, after standing as the only candidate in a vote African monitors said was not free or fair.
The 84-year-old veteran of the fight to end white minority rule has been defiant since losing to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of voting in March, accusing the Western countries that criticise his leadership of being responsible for Zimbabwe’s woes.
The opposition and other critics say Mugabe is a dictator who has ruined a once-prosperous country. He has come under increasing criticism from African leaders for violence against opposition supporters and for not calling off the vote.
Nelson Mandela said in a rare political comment last week that he was saddened by “the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe”.
But Mugabe ignored pressure from inside and outside Africa, and pressed ahead with the vote.
He is the only leader many of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people have known. Under his stewardship the economy has plunged into disaster.
Inflation is the highest in the world, officially at 165,000 percent but some analysts say the real figure is now 9 million percent. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring states to escape poverty and unemployment.
Tsvangirai handed him his first ever defeat in the first round of elections on March 29 but fell short of the majority needed for outright victory.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the vote a week ago because of a campaign of violence since the first vote that he says killed almost 90 of his supporters and injured scores of others.
“The world is hearing and the world is seeing that Mr Mugabe is asking Zimbabweans to maim, abduct and kill other Zimbabweans as a campaign strategy,” he wrote in a letter to supporters on Friday.
Mugabe was known in liberal circles in the 1970s as the thinking man’s guerrilla. He was jailed for 10 years in 1964 for opposing white minority rule in the then-Rhodesia.
After a seven-year bush war ended in a negotiated settlement with Britain and white leader Ian Smith, Mugabe was elected as the first black prime minister. He offered forgiveness and reconciliation and was hailed in the West.
He expanded schooling for blacks and presided over an initially booming economy. After two terms as prime minister, he rewrote the constitution and won election as president in 1990.
The change was possible after he crushed a five-year revolt in Matabeleland province, where the discovery of mass graves provoked an international outcry. Mugabe’s troops killed thousands of people in the conflict.
His international isolation accelerated following a land reform programme launched in 2000, when Mugabe encouraged war veterans to seize white-owned commercial farms that earned significant foreign exchange for Zimbabwe.
Critics say the land invasions only benefited his inner circle. He blamed Western sanctions, meant to target him and his close allies, for the economy’s decline.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth group of mostly former British colonies after Mugabe’s re-election to a third six-year term in March 2002 amid charges of poll fraud. Mugabe withdrew from the group in December 2003.
Last week, Britain stripped Mugabe of an honorary knighthood awarded in 1994 “as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe”.
“Mugabe is a disillusioned man surviving on omnipotence and distortion as he approaches the end of his life,” wrote Heidi Holland, a one-time admirer and author of a recent biography.
“He will be remembered by most as a tyrant, by some as a sad figure who suffered and sacrificed.”
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on Feb. 21, 1924, on the Kutama Mission northwest of Harare and educated by Jesuits. He worked first as a primary school teacher and continued to study, earning seven university degrees — three while in prison.
In 1996, after the death of his Ghanaian-born first wife, Sally, he married Grace Marufu, his former secretary, with whom he already had two children. Their third child was born in 1997.