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Who is Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe?

Zimbabwe leader detained
Mugabe detained amid political turmoil in Zimbabwe 01:56

To his followers and faithful, Robert Mugabe is an African nationalist hero who defied the might of white rule, and won. To his many enemies and detractors, he is a brutal tyrant who ruled by fear and ruined his country. 

On Wednesday, Zimbabwe's military vehemently denied a coup to topple the Mugabe, but said he and his wife were in custody. From the outside, in spite of the denials, it looked a lot like a coup had toppled Africa's last dictator.   

Rise to power

Born into poverty, Robert Gabriel Mugabe rose to become a leader of one of the guerrilla groups fighting white rule in what was then Rhodesia.

(FILES) A picture taken on February 6, 1
A picture taken on February 6, 1980 shows members of the black nationalist guerrillas of the Zimbabwean African Liberation Army (ZALA), led by Robert Mugabe, staging a rally in an unknown place in Zimbabwe. Getty

When the vicious bush war ended in 1980, Mugabe swept to power -- and made sure he stayed there.

He quickly moved to consolidate his ZANU-PF party's hold on the country, crushing his opponents in a brutal crackdown in which thousands of people were killed.

He became President of Zimbabwe in 1987, when the constitution was altered, and turned Zimbabwe in to a personal fiefdom and virtual one-party state.

Costly vengeance

In 2000, Mugabe ordered his followers to begin seizing white-owned farms -- supposedly to re-distribute the land more equitably to blacks.

In reality, thugs grandly-titled "war veterans" drove off the farm owners, wrecked homes and barns, killed livestock and then left the land fallow.

Farm owner Neville Tapson walks through the burnin
Farm owner Neville Tapson walks through the burning debris of his tobacco barn at Dean farm some 60 miles southeast of Harare, April 24, 2000. A group of 150 so-called war veterans overran the farm overnight, torching the tobacco crop and trying to burn workers alive, beating them as they fled their burning homes. Getty

The farming industry that once made Zimbabwe the bread basket of southern Africa collapsed with devastating speed. Within a few years, much of the population was dependent on food aid.

Downward spiral

A new opposition party gained broad support in elections in 2008, in spite of widespread voter fraud and violence, but Mugabe held onto power in a coalition that was more pretense than political reality.

The economy went into free-fall. Shelves in stores stood empty and unemployment soared.

The Zimbabwe dollar was being printed in denominations of billions.

A four-year-old girl scrapes food from a
A four-year-old girl scrapes food from a saucepan while her siblings looks on outside of their shack on February 25, 2009 in a slum on the outskirts of Harare. Getty

Tens of thousands of economic refugees fled to neighboring South Africa.

Isolated in his own power clique and guarded by a vicious and all-pervasive security service, Mugabe's rein may come to an unceremonious end thanks to his insistence that he be succeeded by his wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe.

Last week, Mugabe sacked his vice president, Emmanuel Mnangagwa, who was backed by the country's military to succeed the African dictator.

On Wednesday, Mugabe's own ZANU-PF insisted there had been no coup, but said Mnangagwa had been named interim leader of Zimbabwe's ruling party -- and by extension, presumably, leader of Zimbabwe. 

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