Robert Mugabe: African liberator, former honorary knight, aging ruler

Updated 5:14 AM EDT, Sun August 4, 2013

Story highlights

He was once called a liberation hero, but rights groups now accuse him of abuses

Mugabe became a household name during a guerrilla war against white colonial rulers

He was Zimbabwe's prime minister in 1980, then its president seven years later

Survey last year showed his party regaining popularity

(CNN) —  

After more than three decades, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is not ready to give up power.

Referred to by locals as “old man,” the 89-year-old leader trudges on, holding on to his presidency by suppressing the media and intimidating his opponents, rights groups say.

But his supporters have dismissed the claims, saying the bespectacled leader wins hearts based on his popularity and policies.

Zimbabwe election praised by African Union, sidesteps rigging claims

Last week, Zimbabwe’s election commission handed him another five years in power when it said he won 61% of the votes in the country’s presidential elections.

His rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, cried foul and threatened to mount a legal challenge. The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia all questioned the results.

Mugabe has never been shy about his grip on power.

“This is my territory, and that which is mine I cling (to) unto death,” he once said.

War hero

Once hailed as a liberation hero, Mugabe became a household name during a guerrilla war against white colonial rulers in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

The white regime threw him into prison for 10 years. After his release in 1974, he launched a fight for freedom from Mozambique. He coordinated a guerrilla war against then-Prime Minister Ian Smith’s white minority rule in Rhodesia and returned home a hero in 1979.

“He was very clear of what they were looking for, which was really one person, one vote, democracy for his country,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former South African President Thabo Mbeki. “He was leading this party which had an army, which was credible, which was doing a good job against the white settlers in then-Rhodesia.”

He went on to lead the newly independent Zimbabwe – first as prime minister in 1980, then as president seven years later.

Different paths

Mugabe and South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela, both battled to free their nations from white minority rule.

But Mandela, who became president in 1994 after he was freed from prison, kept a promise to retire after only one term. Though both were hailed as liberation heroes, Mandela is considered an iconic statesman. Mugabe, on the other hard, is vilified by some world leaders.

“In western lore he has been a terrorist, a Marxist ideologue, now a bloodthirsty tyrant, stereotypes that he alone on the continent has been able to mock and laugh off,” Roy Agyemang said in an opinion piece in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

Agyemang, who produced the movie “Mugabe: Villain or Hero?” said the leader is unfazed by the characterizations.

” ‘If standing for my people’s aspirations makes me a Hitler,’ Mugabe once said, ‘let me be a Hitler a thousand times.’ “

Good ol’ days

Zimbabwe’s economy was strong in the early years of Mugabe’s rule. The country was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa because of its strong agricultural sector.

But that changed in the 1990s, when the economy began a downward spiral and Mugabe’s government faced charges of elitism, cronyism and corruption.

His liberation credentials brought him high regard during the early part of his leadership, with many seeing him as a unifying figure committed to the needs of the average person.

Goodwill runs out

But the goodwill from his liberation struggle slowly ran out.

In 2000, he drew criticism for his land reform program that evicted white farmers and gave the land to poor black Zimbabweans, many veterans of the struggle for independence. Most were not as familiar with commercial farming.

“Zimbabwe belongs to the Zimbabweans, pure and simple,” he said in a 2009 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

White Zimbabweans – even those born in the country with legal ownership of their land – have a debt to pay, he said.

Soon after, agricultural output decreased sharply.

’One of Africa’s bad boys’

Despite his pariah status in the West, analysts say Mugabe’s anti-Western tirades have propelled his popularity at home.

To some, he commands respect for challenging the status quo and retaining his image as a critic of former colonial powers, said Ayo Johnson, director of Viewpoint Africa, which sells Africa content to media outlets.

“Mugabe … is one of Africa’s bad boys and wears his medal with pride,” Johnson said in a past interview. “He who stands up and shouts the most is usually revered.”

Few African leaders have as willfully and spitefully taunted the West, a major source of donor aid, as Mugabe has.

His anti-West tirades especially target Britain and the United States, which he accuses of colonialism.