Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, Robert Mugabe, finally resigned this afternoon – bringing to an end one of the longest and most controversial political careers of the last century. Mugabe has ruled his country since its transformation from the old Rhodesia in 1980 and was initially welcomed as a liberator by a majority of Zimbabweans. In the west, the articulate, Mission school-educated leader was hailed as a new breed of African statesman who stood apart from the corruption that had plagued the continent for decades.

It soon started to go wrong.

Less than a year after being elected Mugabe fell out with his fellow revolutionary leader, Joshua Nkomo. This quickly led to rising tensions between Nkomo’s ZAPU party, which mostly drew support from the Ndebele tribe, and Mugabe’s ZANU which was supported by the larger Shona population.

At the same time, Mugabe’s initial conciliatory tone to the country’s white minority, which produced most of Zimbabwe’s food, began to sour. White politicians and military officers began to suffer random arrest and torture from ZANU supporters. Within 18 months of Mugabe coming to power almost a fifth of whites had left the country, mostly heading for South Africa, Australia, and the UK.

In 1983 Mugabe, claiming that Nkomo’s supporters were planning a coup, purged ZAPU members from the government then turned the armed forces loose on Matabeleland, the heart of ZAPU’s support.

The air force was mostly staffed by leftover personnel from the Rhodesian Air Force, who had fought both ZANU and ZAPU during the Bush War; they annihilated most of ZAPU’s militia units in a final act of vengeance, after which most of them abandoned the country and escaped to South Africa. Meanwhile, Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained private army, the 5th Brigade – made up of former ZANU guerrillas – into Matabeleland.

In the genocide that followed an estimated 20,000 Ndebele civilians were murdered. ZAPU was “merged” with ZANU, eliminating it as a pollical opposition.

Democracy becomes dictatorship

The independence deal between Zimbabwe and the UK banned Mugabe from changing the constitution for seven years. As soon as this ban lapsed in 1987 he made major changes, including abolishing the office of prime minister and making himself executive president.

The new role made him head of state, head of government and head of the armed forces; he also gained the power to dissolve parliament and stay in office for an unlimited number of terms. Further reforms in 1989 abolished the Senate and expanded the House of Assembly from 100 to 120 Members of Parliament(MPs), with the additional members being appointed by Mugabe rather than elected.

With Zimbabwe now effectively a one-party state, Mugabe’s moderate facade began to slip. Freed from the constraints of parliament, he implemented increasingly disastrous economic policies. By the late 1990s, living standards had slipped well below what they had been in Rhodesia, and life expectancy was falling rapidly.

Opposition to the once-popular president quickly grew as Zimbabweans saw Mugabe and his inner circle growing fantastically rich at the expense of the people. Mugabe responded with repression and violence.

Economic collapse - Mugabe's legacy

Increasing intimidation culminated in the disastrous “land redistribution” programme which began in 2000 in which hundreds of farms were seized from their white owners, and either looted by government officials then left to decay, or broken up into small plots by ZANU-PF supporters. Food production collapsed overnight, and a country once known as, “the breadbasket of Africa,” plunged into famine.

Over the next 17 years, Mugabe plundered the economy, terrorized opponents, rigged elections and obsessed about homosexuals, who he described as “subhuman” and “worse than dogs and pigs”.

As his health declined, he refused to step down. Apparently, determined to die in office, he began maneuvering to position his unpopular second wife as his successor. That was one step too far for the formerly loyal army, and in a dramatic “soft” coup last Tuesday the decrepit dictator was placed under house arrest and his inner core of loyalists swept away.

Robert Mugabe will not go down in history as one of Africa’s great leaders. Corrupt, greedy, paranoid, homophobic, racist, tribalist and brutal, his 37-year reign inflicted crushing misery on his people and sentenced tens of thousands of them to die. A quarter of the population are political or economic refugees in South Africa and Botswana.

Worst of all, Mugabe leaves behind a legacy of political degeneracy and one-party rule that will probably blight Zimbabwe for decades to come. The people may be cheering in the streets of Harare and Bulawayo this week, but it will be a long time before they escape the mess Bob Mugabe has left them in.