Zimbabwe’s long-time former president Robert Mugabe has died at the age of 95 in Singapore, leaving behind a divided legacy in the country he led for nearly four decades.
Zimbabwe’s successor as president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, called Mugabe a national hero and on Friday declared a period of national mourning until the controversial statesman has been laid to rest.
The ex-president had been seeking treatment for an undisclosed illness in Singapore since April this year.
Mnangagwa praised his predecessor for his role in the liberation of his country from white-minority rule.
A number of African leaders also chose to remember him as a “comrade” and “liberation hero,” but Mugabe, who became increasingly autocratic later in his life, did not escape criticism in death from western powers, human rights groups and local Zimbabweans.
“On behalf of the nation and my family, I send my heartfelt condolences to the Mugabe family,” Mnangagwa said at a press conference in the capital Harare.
“History will remember him for his boldness,” he said, adding that Mugabe would continue to enjoy his status as a national hero which “he richly deserves.”
Members of the Mugabe family gathered at the family’s rural home in Zvimba, about 80 kilometres north-west of Harare, a spokesman for the family told dpa, adding that burial arrangements would be announced in due course.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Namibian President Hage Geingob and eSwatini Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini all paid their respects at the end of the regional World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town.
Ramaphosa told South African broadcaster eNCA News he was a “gallant leader,” a “Pan-Africanist who led the fight for independence in Africa” and ensured a refuge for South Africans struggling against apartheid.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose country will fly their flags at half-mast in Mugabe’s memory, said in a statement that he would remember him as “a man of courage who was never afraid to fight for what he believed in even when it was not popular.”
In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called him an “outstanding” leader while Russian President Vladmir Putin said Mugabe had “made a great personal contribution to the struggle for the independence” of Zimbabwe.
Britain, with whom Mugabe had a tempestuous relationship, did not immediately react to the news but a spokesperson for the Foreign Office later said that while they express condolences, “Zimbabweans suffered for too long as a result of Mugabe’s autocratic rule.”
And Amnesty International said in an obituary that he had left behind “an indelible stain on his country’s human rights record.”
There were mixed reactions from Zimbabweans, too. Hildah Chivasa told dpa she had to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa because of Mugabe’s “brutal” rule. Despite being educated, she was unable to get a job in her home country, which is in the midst of an economic crisis.
“I want to respect him because he liberated us from white rule, but I just cannot because I saw with my own eyes what he did to people. He was brutal. He lost his way; power corrupted him,” she said.
Prince Mukukuzvi, a vendor in Harare, said: “It is always sad to hear of someone’s death. However, we are in this mess because of his economic policies.”
The differing reactions reflect the chequered legacy Mugabe leaves behind two years after being ousted in a military coup, with many describing him as the hero who turned villain.
A former liberation fighter who waged a guerilla war against white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, in later years Mugabe clung to power, becoming one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders.
Still revered by some on the continent for his fight against white domination, he is widely despised by others who see him as responsible for destroying the country’s economy and violently oppressing any opposition.
The country’s once-proud health care system was decimated by Mugabe’s years of misrule and Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. As a result, the country’s politicians and other wealthy Zimbabweans seek medical attention in South Africa or further abroad.
Speaking to eNCA News, Zimbabwean government spokesman Nick Mngagwa, said he should be remembered for the good that he did and that his mistakes should not be the “highlight” of his life.
“Ordinary Zimbabweans will remember him as a founding father who failed because he married wrong, ended up staying in power and going the wrong way in the sunset of his years,” he said.
Mugabe is survived by his children and his wife Grace, who is widely loathed in Zimbabwe for her expensive tastes and her political ambitions.
Mnangagwa, whose challenge to Grace Mugabe’s leadership ambitions in part led to her husband’s overthrow by the military, nevertheless thanked her for being by his side “to the end.”
He also thanked the nation of Singapore and the medical staff who cared for Mugabe.
Mugabe had regularly sought medical treatment there during his 37 years in power and since being deposed in a 2017 coup and replaced by former deputy Mnangagwa.