Governance and Global Affairs Blog

How Mugabe lost his iron grip on Zimbabwe

How Mugabe lost his iron grip on Zimbabwe

The recent fall of the Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe led to a wave of hope and joy in the country. How was Mugabe able to survive his declining popularity?


When Mugabe came into power Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Southern Africa. At the end of his reign many people had fled the country and those still there had to deal with a lack of everything (e.g. food, medical supplies, and money in the ATMs).

Mugabe came into power in 1980 and earned his popularity in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence from the British rulers. Zimbabwe as acountry is also defined by its tribal structure. Early in his reign it became clear that Mugabe favoured his own tribe, the Shona, over the other tribe called Ndebele. After realising that the Ndebele tribe did not support his government, Mugabe declared a one-party state. He trained soldiers, known as the 5th brigade to target the Ndebele tribe resulting in the massacre of approximately 20,000 Ndebele’s.

The dissatisfaction with Mugabe’s reign led to the establishment of a strong opposition in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999. In an attempt to gain support from the black majority in the country, Mugabe implemented the land reform in which the land was taken back from British farmers. However, besides the land being unfairly redistributed, the land reform led to sanctions that brought the country to its knees. Inflation shot up, companies closed down and unemployment went up to over 90%.

Mugabe’s position was contested again after he lost the elections in 2008. However, these elections were declared a stalemate and in preparation for the re-run Mugabe intimidated his opposition. This resulted in the withdrawal of the opposition and the continuation of Mugabe’s reign. Now Mugabe had to deal with a serious declining economy. In order to change the tides, he formed a unity government with the leader of the opposition as the Prime minister. This had the desired effect and with the adoption of the US dollar as the surrogate currency, there was a significant revival of the economy around 2010. In the midst of these economically positive developments, Mugabe changed his mind, aborting the unity government, and putting himself in place again as the sole leader of Zimbabwe.


Time appeared to be Mugabe’s biggest enemy. Aged 93, there was a need to organise his succession leading to a division in his party Zanu-PF. There was the faction G40 (i.e. party members in their 40’s) led by Mugabe’s wife Grace. On the other hand, there was the faction called Lacoste led by Vice-president Emerson better known as the “crocodile”.  A nickname he earned for his ruthlessness in and outside the political arena. The unpopular Grace, also known as Gucci Grace after her shopping sprees, started rallying around the country and denouncing Emerson in the media.  In support of his wife Mugabe dismissed a number of Lacoste ministers and finally dismissed Emerson.

The dismissal of Emerson and the attempt to put his wife in place was the last straw and the army stepped in. Mugabe was placed under house arrest and forced to hand over power. Which he did not without struggle. On the 21st of November, Mugabe ceased his resistance and resigned just as the parliament had gathered to vote for impeachment.


Now with Emerson as head of the interim government Zimbabweans feel that there has been a break through. As Emerson, a former member of Mugabe’s regime, has been part of the problem, the real question people ask themselves is will he also be part of the solution? With the economy on the brink of death, will Emerson be able to attract the so much needed new foreign investors? Will he indeed lead a government that put the need of its people before their own? And will there in the end be a truly democratic regime? Only time will be able to give answers to these questions.

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