Robert Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s liberation from colonial rule

Robert Mugabe was Zimbabwe’s revolutionary leader who played a crucial role in its liberation from colonial rule. Serving as Prime Minister and later President, his tenure witnessed both significant achievements and controversial policies. While celebrated as a liberation hero, his later years were marked by allegations of rights abuses and economic challenges.

Mugabe played a pivotal role in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against British colonial rule, leading the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its military wing, ZANLA.

In the article below, WHE takes an in-depth look at his involvement in Zimbabwe’s fight for independence:

Early Involvement in Nationalist Movements

Mugabe became involved in the nationalist movement in the early 1960s. He was a member of various political groups opposing British rule, such as the National Democratic Party (NDP) and its successor, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Formation of ZANU

Disagreements within ZAPU led Mugabe and other leaders like Ndabaningi Sithole to split and form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963.

Time in prison

For his anti-colonial activities and outspoken criticisms of the white-minority government of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known), Mugabe was arrested in 1964 and spent the next ten years in prison. During his incarceration, he continued to provide leadership to ZANU.

Guerilla Warfare

After his release in 1974, Mugabe went on to lead ZANU’s military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), in a guerilla war against the Rhodesian government. ZANLA, together with ZAPU’s military wing, Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), intensified their armed struggle against colonial rule.

Lancaster House Agreement

The prolonged guerrilla warfare, combined with international sanctions against the Rhodesian government, eventually forced negotiations. Mugabe, representing ZANU, was a key figure in the Lancaster House Agreement in London in 1979, which set the stage for Zimbabwe’s independence.

Election and Premiership

In the elections following the Lancaster House Agreement, ZANU secured a majority, and Mugabe became the first Prime Minister of independent Zimbabwe in 1980. His early years in office were marked by efforts to integrate former guerrilla fighters into a national army and policies to expand education and healthcare.

In 1980, after the first multiracial elections, ZANU (later ZANU-PF after merging with ZAPU) emerged victorious, and Robert Mugabe became the Prime Minister of the newly independent Zimbabwe. Under the new constitution, the position of Zimbabwe’s president was symbolic, holding no governing authority; Canaan Banana was the inaugural holder of this role. Image: Robert Mugabe (left) and Canaan Banana


Over the next few years, political tensions and violence persisted, particularly between ZANU and ZAPU. However, by 1987, the two parties merged to form the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), solidifying Mugabe’s power. That same year, the constitution was amended, and Mugabe assumed the newly created role of the executive president, further consolidating his control. In this role, he became somewhat of an authoritarian as he could dissolve parliament, proclaim martial law, and seek re-election without any significant form of opposition.

Zimbabwe leader Mugabe meeting with US President Ronald Reagan in 1983

Mugabe’s mixed legacy

Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s liberation has solidified his place as one of Africa’s prominent liberation leaders. However, his legacy is mixed. While he is lauded for his role in ending white-minority rule, his later years in power were marked by economic mismanagement, alleged human rights abuses, and political repression.

He became the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 and transitioned to the presidency in 1987, a position he held until 2017.


In summary, Robert Mugabe’s leadership was instrumental in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. His tenacity, oratory skills, and strategic maneuverings positioned him at the forefront of the movement that led to the end of colonial rule in Zimbabwe. However, his subsequent leadership of the country remains a topic of considerable debate and controversy.

Facts about Robert Mugabe

  • Robert Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was educated at mission schools and went on to become a teacher, teaching in Rhodesia and later in Ghana.
  • While in Ghana, which had recently gained independence from British colonial rule, Mugabe was influenced by the ideas of pan-Africanism and decolonization. Mugabe thrived in this setting. Alongside his teaching, he studied at the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute in Winneba. He later stated that it was during his time in Ghana that he fully adopted Marxist ideologies.
  • He was a well-educated individual, holding multiple degrees, some from universities abroad, including the University of London.
  • One of his most controversial policies was the land reform program in the 2000s, which saw white-owned commercial farms expropriated and redistributed to black Zimbabweans.
  • In the later part of his presidency, Zimbabwe experienced severe economic challenges, including hyperinflation, unemployment, and shortages of essential goods.
  • Several elections during his rule, especially from 2000 onwards, were marred by allegations of rigging, violence, and intimidation.
  • Mugabe was one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, ruling Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. He held the presidency from 1987 to 2017.
  • In November 2017, after a military intervention and mounting pressure, Mugabe resigned from the presidency.
  • This long-serving African leader passed away on September 6, 2019, in Singapore.

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