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World

Robert Mugabe Is The Only Leader Zimbabwe Has Ever Had

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

So if in fact he is on his way out, let's talk about the legacy of Robert Mugabe. The 93-year-old is the only leader Zimbabwe has ever had. Under British rule, the country of course was known as Rhodesia. And to many people, Mugabe was a hero for liberating the country. But then he is also seen as a tyrant for crushing his opposition time and time again often with violence.

To talk about Mugabe, we are joined by Munya Munochiveyi. He's a Zimbabwe historian and associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He's with us on Skype. Welcome to the show.

MUNYA MUNOCHIVEYI: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Tell us about Robert Mugabe. He was born near Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. He was a schoolteacher, right? And then he went to university in South Africa. Tell us about how that time influenced him.

MUNOCHIVEYI: Yes, well, I think, you know, it's really complicated to reflect on who Mugabe is without his history. Of course Mugabe actually comes from a venerable tradition of African political intellectuals who emerged in post-second-world-war era actually, you know, within the context of the rise of anti-colonial African nationalism. His peers in fact include many respected former African statesmen who contributed to the downfall of European colonial regimes - you know, people like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and even certainly Nelson Mandela. So like it or not, you know, this is Mugabe's class of statesmen.

MCEVERS: So you know, he's lumped in with these other intellectuals seen as liberators. And he comes to power. He spends many decades in power. But there has been suppression of opponents sometimes with violence, a terrible economic collapse in 2008. After those events, how does he manage to continue to keep power?

MUNOCHIVEYI: Mugabe actually begun very well. I mean, he was held up - particularly in the Western world, for example - as a model African leader. But fast forward to the 1990s. Mugabe began to transform dramatically both in his quest to continue in power and also to guarantee that his ruling party's empire would dominate the political space in Zimbabwe.

And to do that, he relied on the military - you know, giving them, so far, you know, (unintelligible) and intimidate and even execute opponents. He also allowed his allies to amass so much wealth and allowed corruption in fact - economic corruption to fester as long as these allies guaranteed, you know, Mugabe's power. So in so doing, Mugabe, you know, cultivated his own demise.

MCEVERS: What do people in Zimbabwe think of Mugabe now? Are they split, or has he slowly been losing support over the years?

MUNOCHIVEYI: At this point, you know, for most Zimbabweans, the demise of Mugabe's rule will really not be mourned. Instead, it will be celebrated. Or rather, it is being celebrated right now. And I think this celebration is not because Zimbabweans prefer military rule, no. It simply demonstrates how Mugabe's lone rule had become almost universally despised, you know, even within his own party. You know, for many, he simply had to go, you know, by any means necessary.

MCEVERS: Right. And now those means appear to be this bloodless correction. We're not calling it the coup, as we just heard. If in fact Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is set to take over, I mean, we just heard our correspondent say he is cut from the same cloth as Mugabe. I mean, could this kind of new leadership really mean a new Zimbabwe and perhaps new relationships with Western countries like the U.S.?

MUNOCHIVEYI: In many ways, I think so. I mean, this is obviously the end of an era. But I think it's also a dawn of a new era, albeit being shepherded by the old guard in the military. At this critical juncture, I think it is important for the military maybe to rely on the two existing branches of the Zimbabwean government to ensure a smooth transition. But if this new transitional government, you know, comes into place and perhaps also allow a new democratic dispensation with free and fair elections, there is every possibility that Zimbabwe will once again sort of rejoin the family of nations, you know, internationally.

MCEVERS: Munya Munochiveyi, associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., on Skype, thank you so much.

MUNOCHIVEYI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.