Historical footage shows a jubilant crowd watching the Union Jack being lowered and the red, black, green and yellow flag of the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe being hoisted.
It was April 1980, and at the center of it all was independence leader Robert Mugabe. His guerrilla war had won freedom for the British colony of Rhodesia, and ended the minority white rule of his country. Across Zimbabwe, thousands celebrated, and Mugabe — who had spent 11 years in prison, from 1964 to 1975, for his fight for independence — delivered a message of unity and inclusion.
“The phase we are entering, the phase of independence, should be conferring upon all of us — the people of Zimbabwe, whether we are black or white — full of sovereignty, full of democratic rights,” Mugabe said.
It was a message that earned Mugabe international praise and filled Zimbabwe with hope. But as the years wore on and Mugabe’s rule turned authoritarian and the economy declined, that hope didn’t last.
Early Wednesday morning, some of the same men who once looked at Mugabe with admiration ordered troops to sideline the 93-year-old despot.
The military Mugabe once led finally turned against him, surrounding his house with tanks and placing him and his wife Grace Mugabe under house arrest.
“I think the legacy of Mugabe’s life will be one of a leader who had so much, but [who] missed so many opportunities and never used the knowledge he had for his own people – a national leader who ruined his own country,” said veteran Zimbabwean journalist and commentator Cris Chinaka.
At independence, Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s prime minister, taking over a country that was considered the breadbasket of southern Africa. But just a few years after independence, Mugabe started showing flashes of the brutal, authoritarian ruler he would become. In a bid to squash opposition groups, Mugabe’s forces killed thousands of people in Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe.
Mugabe became president in 1987. By 2000, Zimbabwe’s economy was in shambles, in large part because of Mugabe’s mismanagement. Amid the crisis, Mugabe proposed a referendum that would have strengthened his own powers and made it easier to redistribute white-owned land.
At the time, a voter told The Guardian: “We are fed up with his promises. We said we wanted less power to the president. But Mugabe has twisted our words. He has created a constitution which suits him but not the people.”
Despite intimidation attempts by the government to get people to vote yes, the measure was defeated at the polls. The economy continued to sour and Mugabe blamed the woes on the British and Zimbabwe’s white farmers – who openly supported the new opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Mugabe then encouraged the violent seizure of thousands of flourishing, white-owned industrial farms. The government handed a lot of those farms to political allies who knew little about farming, and production plummeted.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported in a 2016 study of the Zimbabwean economy that the production of tobacco, Zimbabwe’s major cash crop, dropped by 64 percent between 2000 and 2008. That was followed by drought and profligate government spending. Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed.
The symbol of runaway inflation became the $100 trillion note, printed in early 2009.
But Mugabe stayed in power, even after he lost the first round of a 2008 election. He used violence to muzzle the opposition and rewarded his inner circle with plum jobs that led to riches.
More recently, Mugabe had become a pariah on the international scene and the butt of jokes on social media. But in an interview with South Africa’s Dali Tambo in 2013, he remained defiant and unrepentant.
“If people say you are a dictator, they are saying this merely to tarnish you and diminish and demean your status,” he said. “My people still need me. And when people still need you to lead them, it’s not time … to say goodbye.”
Mugabe had vowed to run for president again in 2018, but his health suffered, and there has been jockeying to take his place.
A deep rift emerged within Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party: Grace Mugabe courted the younger wing, while one of Mugabe’s vice presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa — who had served Mugabe for decades at high levels of government — courted the older members.
Earlier this month, Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, accusing him of plotting to take his place. It was a clear signal that Mugabe was trying to pave the way for his wife to take over power.
A few days later, as the military took to Zimbabwe’s airwaves to announce they had sidelined Mugabe, it seemed that even for a man who had outmaneuvered colonial powers, regional foes and assassination attempts, this was a sleight too far.
NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton contributed to this story.