HARARE (Reuters) – When he came to power, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was feted as an African liberation hero in a nation that had endured nearly a century of white colonial rule.
Mugabe has not been seen since the military seized power in the early hours of Wednesday, targeting “criminals” around the veteran president.
South African President Jacob Zuma said Mugabe had told him he was confined to his home but was otherwise fine.
Educated and urbane, Mugabe took power after seven years of a liberation bush war. But nearly four decades after independence in 1980, many see him as power-obsessed and willing to unleash death squads, rig elections and trash the economy in the relentless pursuit of control.
The 93-year-old is the only leader Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, has known since independence from Britain. While the West regards him as an autocrat, some in Africa see him as an anti-colonial champion.
Mugabe has said he wants to seek another five years in office and last week he dismissed his putative successor, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, in a boost for Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, also seen as a contender but whose whereabouts are unclear.
Mugabe travels frequently to Singapore for medical treatment as age has taken its toll.
The leader of Zimbabwe’s influential liberation war veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa, told Reuters: “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”
Born on a Catholic mission near Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuit priests and worked as a primary school teacher before going to South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, then a breeding ground for African nationalism.
Returning to Rhodesia in 1960, he entered politics but was jailed for a decade four years later for opposing white rule.
After his release, he rose to the top of the powerful Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, known as the “thinking man’s guerrilla” on account of his seven degrees, three of them earned behind bars.
Later, as he crushed his political enemies, he boasted of another qualification – “a degree in violence”.
After the long bush war ended, Mugabe was elected as the nation’s first black prime minister. Initially, he offered reconciliation to old adversaries as he presided over a booming economy.
But it was not long before Mugabe began to suppress challengers such as liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.
Faced with a revolt in the mid-1980s in the western province of Matabeleland which he blamed on Nkomo, Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained army units, provoking an international outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians.
Human rights groups say 20,000 people died, most from Nkomo’s Ndebele tribe. The discovery of mass graves prompted accusations of genocide against Mugabe.
After two terms as prime minister, Mugabe changed the constitution and was elected president in 1990, shortly before the death of his first wife, Sally, seen by many as the only person capable of restraining him.
When, at the end of the century, he lost a constitutional referendum followed by a groundswell of black anger at the slow pace of land reform, his response was uncompromising.
As gangs of blacks calling themselves war veterans invaded white-owned farms Mugabe said it was a correction of colonial injustices.
“Perhaps we made a mistake by not finishing the war in the trenches,” he said in 2000. “If the settlers had been defeated through the barrel of a gun, perhaps we would not be having the same problems.”
The farm seizures helped ruin one of Africa’s most dynamic economies, with a collapse in agricultural foreign exchange earnings unleashing hyperinflation.
The economy shrank by more than a third from 2000 to 2008, sending unemployment above 80 percent. Several million Zimbabweans fled, mostly to South Africa.
An unapologetic Mugabe portrayed himself as a radical African nationalist competing against racist and imperialist forces in Washington and London.
Britain once likened him to Adolf Hitler but Mugabe did not mind, saying the Nazi leader had wanted justice, sovereignty and independence for his people: “If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler ten-fold.”
The country hit rock bottom in 2008, when 500 billion percent inflation drove people to support the challenge of Western-backed former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Facing defeat in a presidential run-off, Mugabe resorted to violence, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw after scores of his supporters were killed by ZANU-PF thugs.
An increasingly worried South Africa squeezed the pair into a fractious unity coalition but the compromise belied Mugabe’s de facto grip on power through his continued control of the army, police and secret service.
As old age crept in and rumours of cancer intensified, his animosity towards Tsvangirai eased, with the two men enjoying weekly meetings over tea and scones, a quirky nod to Mugabe’s affection for British tradition if not authority.
On the eve of the 2013 election, Mugabe dismissed cries of autocracy and likened dealing with Tsvangirai to sparring in the ring.
“Although we boxed each other, it’s not as hostile as before,” he said. “It’s all over now. We can shake hands.”
At the same time, Mugabe’s agents were finalising plans to engineer an election victory through manipulation of the voters’ roll, the Tsvangirai camp said.
The subsequent landslide was typical of a man who could always out-fight and out-think opponents.
“To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician,” former U.S. ambassador Christopher Dell wrote in a cable released by WikiLeaks.
But whatever the outcome of this week’s events, they could usher in a generational change for the southern African nation.