Robert Mugabe

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President Robert Gabriel Mugabe is the last of the old African nationalists who rode to power on the colonial winds of change. This year, after months of upheaval in which his two-decade-long grip on government was at last loosened, he flouted the rule of law and Zimbabwe slid into the worst economic decline of its history. The country has never prospered under Mugabe. Hopes for a surge of growth after its 1980 independence from Britain soon faded with an outburst of bloody unrest in Matabeleland, homeland of the Ndebele tribe in Zimbabwe's southwest. In reply, Mugabe sent in a brigade of his notorious North Korean-trained troops-mostly from his own Shona tribe-who went on a two-year rampage, torturing and killing thousands of civilians.

Promises of international investment and aid to Zimbabwe went unmet as signs of incompetence and corruption began to show. After his wife, Sally, died in 1992, Mugabe married his secretary, Grace Marufu, 40 years his junior, with whom he already had two children. He built luxurious houses for her with state funds and commandeered the national airline to take her on international shopping sprees.

As government profligacy, inflation and unemployment increased, disgruntled citizens took to the streets in protest. To placate the discontented, Mugabe in 1997 agreed to pay large gratuities and pensions to "war veterans" who had fought for him in the liberation struggle. He also brought to a head a simmering feud with Zimbabwe's whites by declaring that white-owned farms would be taken by the state without compensation.

In February this year, voters rejected a new constitution that would have entrenched Mugabe's autocratic control. Enraged at such a show of opposition, he encouraged the war veterans to invade white-owned farms and stake their claim to land he said had been stolen by the white colonialists. The veterans marched onto some 1,500 farms, threatening the farmers and assaulting their black workers. Mugabe's land grab effectively crippled Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture industry, dominated by 4,500 mainly white farmers, which in the past made up some 20% of the country's gdp and 40% of its export earnings.

But a general election in June brought another shock for Mugabe. In a poll marred by intimidation and violence in which 31 people died, including five white farmers, an opposition party took close to half the elected seats in the Harare parliament.

Despite the setback, Mugabe continues his land-grab policy as a strategy for gaining rural support in the 2002 presidential election. He has told judges who have ruled that the government's land acquisitions are unlawful that they are no longer needed. He has ignored pleas to respect the rule of law from the international community and other African leaders, including Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki. But Robert Mugabe wants to go down in history as the man who gave African land back to Africans, even if it means the ruin of his country.