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Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, died this morning in Singapore. He was 95. The onetime national hero who led the fight for independence against Britain and white colonial rule later stamped out dissent. During his almost four decades in power he oversaw the destruction of his resource-rich country’s economy.
Mugabe became a black nationalist while studying to be a teacher in South Africa. When he returned in 1960 to his country, then the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia, he joined the fight against the government, which jailed him for 11 years. Even after leaving prison, he continued the battle from nearby Mozambique.
When peace talks in London led to independence, Mugabe won election as Zimbabwe’s first prime minister and became president in 1987. During the first years of black majority rule, Mugabe encouraged white farmers—and even former Prime Minister Ian Smith—to stay and help rebuild the country. That changed when white farmers sided with the political opposition.
According to a profile in the New Statesman, Mugabe was an Anglophile who encouraged cricket playing: It “civilizes people and creates good gentlemen.” But Mugabe was not a good gentleman. He often turned to violence to subdue his political enemies.
In the early 1980s he used North Korean–trained Zimbabwe troops against his opponents, killing thousands. In 2000, he mobilized war vets to seize white-owned farms, turning them over to people who had no idea how to run them. In 2008 he refused to concede an election, demanding a recount and unleashing his supporters to kill and terrorize backers of the winner, Morgan Tsvangirai. His economic policies led to hyperinflation, and the military finally ousted him in a coup in 2017.
Raised a Roman Catholic, Mugabe called himself an ordinary Catholic “who goes to Mass every Sunday.” His shows of religiosity could not earn the support of many church leaders in his country, but he remained unrepentant in the face of political and church opposition: “Only God who appointed me will remove me.”
Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, survives him.