During his 33-year tenure, Mr. Mugabe has presided over the killing of his political opponents, the violent displacement of civilians, a deteriorating economy, and suppression of all forms of human rights.
Yet to some of his countrymen, even some hounded into a far-flung diaspora by his odd fiscal policies and political intolerance, there is grudging admiration for the 89-year-old.
Mugabe’s biggest undoing to date has been the killing of more than 20,000 civilians in the provinces of Matabeleland and Midlands, which make up the southern African country’s western region, in the mid-1980s.
He claimed that his gory “Operation Gukurahundi,” or Operation Summer Rains, was aimed at fighting harmful dissidents. But observers argue he was crushing the then opposition Patriotic-Front Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF-ZAPU), which fought for liberation alongside Mugabe’s own Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) party – and thus was a rival power center.
The two parties came together in a 1987 national unity accord. But there was never any formal apology from Mugabe, no punishment for the perpetrators and no compensation for the killings. The Gukurahundi operation has divided Zimbabwe along tribal lines.
Yet despite all this, there are a number of people who still believe they will miss some things in Mugabe’s style or character one day when he is gone.
Exiled freelance journalist Mkhululi Chimoio believes that despite his well-documented brutality, Mugabe stands above many politicians for his consistency.
“The man is very consistent. Once Mugabe says something, you know he will stick by it no matter what. That way, you always know what you are dealing with,” said Mr. Chimoio.
As an example, take the negotiations for forming the national unity government in 2008. Mugabe said that land reform was not negotiable and that he would not allow the opposition party of current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – with whom he shared power – control of the key ministries of defense, home affairs, or state security that oversee the police, military, and state secret agents. Mugabe has not changed his position.
Most recently, the octogenarian had his way on the date of the upcoming July 31 elections, which was disputed by practically every other opposition candidate and civil society group.
Others Zimbabweans believe that Mugabe is notable as a brave man.
“The way he has stood up to world super powers like Britain and America, despite the sanctions they imposed on him and their ability to forcibly remove him from power should not be ignored,” said Mandla Sibanda, a former guerrilla figure whose party, ZAPU, pulled out of the unity accord with Mugabe in 2010.
“Any other leader would have thrown in the towel after the country’s downward economic spiral post-2000, but Mugabe still stood his ground despite the fact that he had lost support even within his own party, yet he is still around and fighting on,” Mr. Sibanda said.
The most cited evidence of bravery are the verbal attacks Mugabe used to regularly make on leading Western politicians like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former American President George Bush, and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Others believe that Mugabe has done well to preserve African values against a “Western invasion.” His unchanged stance on gays and lesbians have been hailed by many as an example of holding the West and its assumed values at bay. (It is a criminal offense to be caught in a gay act in Zimbabwe.)
On the lighter side, Mugabe will be remembered for his speeches, which have been laden with eloquence and quotable sound bites: “Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe,” is one of his most popular.
When Zimbabwe ran out of fuel as the economic crisis began to bite deeply in 2008, Mugabe offered that, “If you are one of those who believe the lies that there is no fuel in Zimbabwe, sleep on the road and see if you will still be alive the following day.”
Despite finding many faults in Mugabe’s political intolerance, former opposition party official Solomon “Sox” Chikohwero, also has noted some positives about Mugabe, despite being tortured and once left to die by members of Mugabe’s thuggish intelligence organization.
“I hate the man for what he did to me, but there are still many people who would remember him as this charismatic person who always leaves people laughing with his speeches, even though they will not be loving him,” he says.
Become a part of the Monitor community