HARARE — – Robert Mugabe, the austere Jesuit-educated guerrilla chief who led the former Rhodesia to independence 20 years ago, has thrown away most of the respect and goodwill he won in his first years as Zimbabwe's president.
Mugabe, 76, plunged his country into crisis in April with radical plans to seize white farms for blacks just 20 months after dragging Zimbabwe into a costly and unpopular foreign war.
While his pursuit of land for the country's peasant farmers seemed morally unshakeable, critics and some in Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party saw it as a cynical ploy to hang onto power.
The land-grab campaign has been accompanied by violence in which at least 29 people, mostly supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been killed ahead of crucial parliamentary elections this weekend.
Mugabe has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980 but his grip was seriously shaken in February when he lost a referendum on a draft constitution his opponents said was tailored to consolidate his authority.
Now at the nadir of his political career, Mugabe has threatened war against Britain, run a virulent campaign against homosexuality, spoken of a global conspiracy against him and, over the last four months, challenged white farmers to surrender their land or leave the country.
"We are staring into the abyss of despair," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said in a newspaper advertisement decrying Mugabe's record.
"ZANU-PF has transformed the country, once much respected in the community of nations, into a state whose leader is commonly perceived as a deranged despot."
Even Tutu Is Critical
Even South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a champion of black empowerment, has turned on Mugabe, calling him "almost a caricature of all the things people think black Africans do. He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself."
But his admirers insist that he is — as his ZANU-PF party officially portrays him — "a consistent revolutionary leader" demonized by the West for refusing to be reduced to a puppet.
Zimbabwe Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge once described Mugabe as "the custodian of Zimbabwe national interests" while a junior minister called him "the second Son of God."
But critics say Mugabe has nearly crippled southern Africa's second biggest economy and prefers to travel than to attend to issues at home. His decision to drag some officials to court for alleged corruption is seen as too little, too late.
His commitment of more than 10,000 soldiers to help President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo has drained the economy and antagonized the people of his country.
Mugabe's land reform message helped ZANU-PF to win past elections and he hopes it will bring victory at the polls again.
He has defied court orders judging the invasion of hundreds of white-owned farms illegal and endorsed the land-grab, saying any policeman who tries to evict the veterans will be sacked.
"The war veterans are the vanguard of our revolution, and they must be accorded the respect they deserve," Mugabe told a recent campaign rally.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe spent 10 years in jail for fighting white supremacy in Rhodesia. He defeated rival liberation leaders in 1980 to become prime minister, and then president in 1987 after rewriting the independence constitution.
Political analysts say he has managed to retain power through patronage, allegedly unfair electoral rules and by ensuring a weak and divided opposition.
Mugabe consolidated his power in 1987 when he crushed a seven-year armed rebellion in Matabeleland province. But there was a world outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians.
An aggressive political speaker, Mugabe has courted controversy many times with harsh attacks, including on gays whom he has called "worse than dogs and pigs."
Mugabe, an ascetic teetotaler, married his ex-secretary, Grace Marufu, in 1995, three years after the death of his Ghanaian-born wife, Sally. He already had two children with Grace before Sally died and their third child was born in 1997.
He became the first democratically elected leader of then-Rhodesia in 1980 after a seven-year bush war that ended in a negotiated settlement with colonial power Britain.
He initially preached racial reconciliation, but now blames whites, about one percent of the 12.5 million population, for Zimbabwe's woes.
He says blacks have no moral obligation to pay for acquired white farms, saying the land was stolen from blacks by British colonialists in the 1890s.