Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's First President, Dies At 95

Sep 6, 2019
Originally published on September 6, 2019 7:35 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The longtime leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is dead at age 95. He was a liberator who became one of the most ruthless autocrats in the world. This is a story about how history caught up with him in his final moments from NPR's Eyder Peralta.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Last summer, Robert Mugabe summons journalists to his palatial home on the outskirts of Harare. He's at a gazebo by a lake, slumped on an office chair, looking frail.

ROBERT MUGABE: Ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends...

PERALTA: A few months before this, Mugabe's enforcer, one of his most loyal servants, had betrayed him. Emmerson Mnangagwa conspired with the military to push Mugabe out of power. This was a bitter moment for Mugabe, nothing less than a coup, he says.

MUGABE: I say, no, this was wrong. This is the greatest damage we have done to our history, the greatest injustice we've done to ourselves.

PERALTA: He complained that his friends couldn't even visit anymore. Some were arrested, beat up. When others did visit, they were interrogated by security forces.

MUGABE: But they are now - at present, the people are terribly frightened, terribly frightened, I must tell you.

PERALTA: This would be Mugabe's final public appearance. After 37 years in power, he found himself trapped by the oppressive system he had perfected.

MUGABE: What have we become in the country? We've become savages, terrorists to ourselves.

PERALTA: Mugabe was once a hero to the world. Documentarians would follow him around in Mozambique as he planned an armed insurrection against the racist white minority government in what was then Rhodesia. In one film, a young, vibrant Mugabe is seen in a studio trying to rally people toward revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUGABE: We want full and unfettered democracy. Down with a racist constitution, down with the dirty elections. (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: Mugabe came into power when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. He was loved by his people and knighted by the queen of the United Kingdom. But he oversaw one of the most dramatic economic declines in the world. And when his power was challenged, he reacted violently. He intimidated voters. He sanctioned the massacre of dissidents.

IBBO MANDAZA: He got too immersed in his own vanity.

PERALTA: That's Dr. Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst who at one point advised Mugabe. He says by the time Mugabe held that press conference, he was so lost in his wealth and power, he couldn't understand the irony of complaining about government repression. He was so lost in his vanity, he didn't see the coup coming.

MANDAZA: He could not recognize the daggers behind the smiles.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: About a month after that press conference, I went to a gathering of war veterans. These were people who had fought alongside Mugabe, who had sung these songs with him on the battlefield. They opened their meeting with the same chants Mugabe had once led.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: And then - daggers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: Down with Mugabe, down with him - his words, now used against him.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.