From reconciliation to repression: Mugabe’s painful legacy

Robert Mugabe’s resignation as president of Zimbabwe brings the curtain down on a political career that saw early successes ultimately wiped out by a litany of human rights abuses.

Mugabe started well in his early years as leader of Zimbabwe following the transition from British colonial rule. He oversaw heavy investment in Zimbabwe’s social services. Areas including health and education saw dramatic improvements, with the country still enjoying one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. The results of this significant investment in education are there for everyone to see.

But Mugabe later undermined his own legacy. During his 37 years in power, he presided over the brutal repression of political opponents, established a culture of impunity for himself and his cronies, and his government implemented a series of policies that have had disastrous consequences for Zimbabweans.

As a leader of the resistance to the white minority government of what was then known as Rhodesia, Mugabe began his political life fighting against injustice. Imprisoned, and later exiled for his political activities, he was one of more than 900 prisoners of conscience in Zimbabwe adopted by Amnesty International between 1965 and 1979.


Becoming prime minister on independence in 1980, on a wave of popular support, he called for reconciliation and portrayed himself as a champion of the “victims of imperialism”. These sentiments proved to be short-lived. Within two years of assuming power, his Zimbabwe African National Union government was responding to the activities of their rivals with increasing severity.

Political opponents, mainly supporters of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe Africa People’s Union, were routinely detained without trial. Allegations of deaths in detention, as well as torture and other ill-treatment, were widespread. By the end of 1982, Amnesty International was receiving reports of human rights violations and abuses by state security agents in Matabeleland. Anyone suspected of sympathising with Mugabe’s political opponents was targeted.

The military crackdown across Matabeleland and Midlands provinces that ensued in the following years was bloody and brutal. Known as Gukurahundi — a Shona word for “the early rains that washes the chaff before the spring rains” — it claimed the lives of more than 20 000 people.

With nobody held accountable for the killings, a dangerous precedent of impunity was set early on in Mugabe’s reign. It was one he went on to exploit time and again.


After assuming the elevated position of executive president in 1987, Mugabe further cemented his power.

Throughout his presidency, general elections were characterised by spikes of serious human rights violations and abuses by state security agents and Zanu-PF activists. Opposition supporters suffered torture, harassment, intimidation and death.

In 2008, the perceived aberration of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) first-round election victory was quickly changed, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw from the run-off.

A wave of violence unleashed by the army against those suspected of voting for the MDC ensured that Mugabe won by a comfortable margin after the second round of votes was counted.

In all, more than 300 people were killed. Thousands more were injured or subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Amnesty International’s calls for the crimes to be investigated went unheeded.

Whenever Mugabe felt under pressure he defaulted to condoning human rights violations, publicly defending the actions of his officials and allowing a culture of impunity to thrive. Such repression was not limited to elections.

An increasing reliance on security services to suppress dissenting voices in and outside his party became a hallmark of Mugabe’s rule. Human rights defenders, journalists, those with dissenting views and opposition party activists were locked up on politically motivated charges or under draconian laws. Some were tortured or “disappeared”.

Much early progress made on economic, social and cultural rights was wiped out by a series of disastrous government policy decisions.

Carried out in 2005, Operation Murambatsvina — a Shona word for “drive out trash” — was one of the most devastating forced evictions in Zimbabwean history.

The United Nations estimated that 700 000 people had their homes or livelihoods, or both, destroyed. Those driven out were plunged deeper into poverty and continue to live without access to healthcare, education and other basic services.

Land reform

Reforms aimed at redressing the unequal land distribution resulting from 90 years of colonial rule proved equally catastrophic. Between 2000 and 2001, an estimated 70 000 black farm workers were assaulted by state-sponsored militia and forced to abandon their homes. The programme also provided a pretext for violent targeting of farm-workers and white farmers who had supported the opposition.

Although land reform was clearly needed and resulted in some legitimate large-scale redistribution, it was also used as a system of patronage. It rewarded Mugabe’s supporters with land but denied it to those considered supporters of opposition parties.

Escaping repression and a shrinking economy, three million Zimbabweans have left the country since 2000.

Because of Mugabe’s uncompromising opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, security forces carried out numerous raids and arrests targeting LGBTI activists, though none were convicted.

Across Zimbabwe, studies show that levels of adolescent pregnancy and HIV are increasing because of declining rates of knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. Recent Amnesty International research highlighted that a lack of education, combined with cost barriers and stigma, are leaving young women and girls more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy and maternal death.

Ambigious legacy

Mugabe’s departure offers Zimbabwe an opportunity to make a break from its past.

Zimbabwe’s future lies in renouncing impunity, addressing the human rights violations of the past, ensuring reparations for the victims and respecting the rule of law. The next generation of leaders must commit to upholding the Constitution and live up to Zimbabwe’s international and regional human rights obligations.

Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s regional director for Southern Africa

Deprose Muchena
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