On this day in 1980, following a controversial campaign, African nationalist leader Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister of Zimbabwe in a sweeping election victory.
Before being elected, Mugabe made a name for himself by leading a lengthy and bloody guerilla war against white colonial rulers of what was then Rhodesia. For this, he was hailed as a hero in his nation’s liberation struggle by black Africans, and a denounced a terrorist Marxist by many whites and by his opponents. During his nationalist struggle, Mugabe joined the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1960, which later became the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). In 1963, he left ZAPU and joined its rival, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) party, or ZANU (PF). ZANU and Mugabe were influenced by the ideals of the Pan African Congress in South Africa as well as by Maoism.
Within a year’s time, tensions between the two groups boiled over into violent conflict, the groups were banned, and their leaders, including Mugabe, were arrested and imprisoned. Mugabe’s imprisonment only served to boost his reputation and in 1974, while still incarcerated, Mugabe was elected to take the reins of a new, more militant ZANU.
By this time, it also became clear that white minority rule of Zimbabwe could not continue. In the famous Lancaster House agreements, a party of leading politicians, including Mugabe, decided on a constitution for a new Republic of Zimbabwe with elections to be held in 1980. The campaign was intense, punctuated by intimidation, abuse, and mistrust on all sides. On 4 March 1980, Mugabe was decisively elected prime minister of the country’s new government. His ZANU party had won 57 of the 80 parliament seats, a comfortable majority considering 20 seats were reserved for whites.
After the election, thousands of primarily black supporters took the streets to celebrate Mugabe’s victory and the end of white minority role. In a broadcast television message soon after the election, Mugabe said, “I wish to assure you that there can never be any return to the state of armed conflict which existed before our commitment to peace and the democratic process of election under the Lancaster House agreement.”
More than 30 years later, it’s unclear whether Mugabe’s legacy will be that of a liberator, as he was first viewed, or that of a ruthlessly autocratic strongman whose policies have all but collapsed the nation’s economy. Today, after several dubious re-elections, the 88-year-old’s 30-plus-year grip on power is weakening, along with his popularity.
Credit: BRIAN HARRIS / Alamy
Caption: Robert Mugabe in 1980, returning to Zimbabwe from exile.