HARARE: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who will extend his 33-years in power on Thursday, once quipped he would rule his country until he turned 100.
Taking the oath for a fresh five-year term at 89-and-a-half, he is getting closer to reaching that goal.
The inauguration ceremony at a 60,000-seater sports stadium is seen as a show of power to confer legitimacy following yet another disputed election victory.
It “can be read as a farewell event for Mugabe. It reminds one of Jesus’s Last Supper,” said political scientist Eldred Masunungure.
After three turbulent decades at the helm of the former British colony, the firebrand leader has gone from a darling of the West to international pariah.
Mugabe swept to power in 1980 as an independence hero in the fight against white minority rule, bringing democracy to millions of black Zimbabweans, and was widely credited with health and education reforms.
But his lustre quickly faded.
From crushing political dissent to ushering in disastrous land reforms that saw the economy crumble, many accuse Mugabe of turning the regional breadbasket into a food importer.
Using blistering rhetoric, he has often blamed his country’s downward spiral on international sanctions.
A new constitution could see Mugabe serve as president until he is 99.
But the health of the feisty leader has been a topic of much speculation in recent years.
He retains an iron self-confidence, telling the New York Times in a rare interview ahead of last month’s election: “The 89 years don’t mean anything.”
“They haven’t changed me, have they? They haven’t withered me. They haven’t made me senile yet.”
He has told his critics to “go hang” and has vowed to forge ahead with his drive to empower blacks by forcing foreign-owned companies to cede their majority shares to locals.
His tenacity is a constant source of chagrin for long-time political rival Morgan Tsvangirai who claimed the July 31 vote was rigged as he failed for a third time to unseat Mugabe.
Schoolteacher turned freedom fighter
Born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission northwest of the capital Harare, Mugabe was raised in a Catholic family and was described as a loner and a studious child.
After his father walked out on Mugabe’s mother and siblings when he was 10, the young man concentrated ever harder on his studies, and qualified as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, meeting many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.
He then resumed teaching, moving to Ghana — whose founding president Kwame Nkrumah profoundly influenced him.
As a member of various nationalist parties that were banned by the white-minority government, Mugabe was detained in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
He used his incarceration to gain three degrees through correspondence courses, but the years in prison left their mark.
His four-year-old son by his first wife Sarah Francesca Hayfron died while he was behind bars, but Rhodesian leader Ian Smith would not allow him leave to attend the funeral.
On release from jail in 1974 he became leader of the ZANU party, and left for Mozambique, from where his banned group staged a guerrilla war on white minority-ruled Rhodesia.
Economic sanctions and war forced Smith to negotiate, after which ZANU came to power in the 1980 election.
Mugabe put down a revolt among the minority Ndebele people with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in a campaign that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected “dissidents” between 1982 and 1986.
In 2000 he launched controversial land reforms, driving out white farmers and seizing their land in often violent rampages by his supporters.
Productive commercial farms were parcelled out and redistributed to supporters, devastating the economy in the process.
By the turn of the millennium, a new challenger to Mugabe’s hold on power had emerged, Tsvangirai, a miner and leader of the country’s largest union.
His Movement for Democratic Change gained a strong following among urbanites and Zimbabweans in the rural west of the country, and he won a first round of voting in 2008 before pulling out of the run-off citing violence against his supporters.
But Mugabe retains the support of a significant proportion of Zimbabweans, who cherish his image as a freedom fighter.