On Tuesday, a military coup in Zimbabwe led to the house arrest of President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, removing from power Africa’s oldest head of state and one of its worst. This was no popular uprising against tyranny, however. Rather, it was a palace coup within the ruling ZANU-PF party. The next leader of Zimbabwe, probably former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa or one of his proxies, is likely to continue Mugabe’s tyranny, though perhaps with less of a personal touch.
Mugabe is the only president Zimbabwe has ever known since the end of white minority rule in 1980. After independence, politics was organized around ethnic rivalries; Mugabe was associated with the Shona ethnic group, the opposition with the Ndebele. Ownership of productive land remained dominated by a tiny white minority. Although Mugabe was praised by the outside world during the first decade of his rule for pursuing racial reconciliation with the white minority, he also systematically destroyed the political power of his rivals, committing gross human rights violations and stirring up ethnic conflict in the process.
The year 1993 marked a turning point in Zimbabwe’s history. In the face of growing political opposition, which he claimed was financed by whites, Mugabe encouraged military veterans to forcefully seize white-owned land without compensation. This movement destroyed any remaining respect for the rule of law and thoroughly weakened the country’s democratic institutions. Mugabe gained the love and admiration of the rural masses, but earned the opprobrium of the West.
After laying waste to agriculture, Mugabe’s economic policies—often incoherent applications of Marxism-Leninism—subsequently degraded other sectors of what had once been a flourishing economy. At times, near-famine conditions prevailed, and hyperinflation became so pervasive that at one point Zimbabwe adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. Many Zimbabweans fled the country as economic refugees and spread across Africa. Vast swaths of the country’s economy, notably diamond production, fell under the control of Chinese companies and Zimbabwean politicians
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