Robert Mugabe, who has ruthlessly led Zimbabwe for the last 28 years, refuses to admit defeat in his country’s recent elections. Will he ever peacefully relinquish power?

What kind of man is Mugabe?
He’s a bundle of contradictions. At 84, he still gets up before dawn and works until late at night. Despite virtually unlimited power to indulge his appetites, he is a near vegetarian, a teetotaler, and apparently faithful to his second wife, Grace. Educated by Jesuits, he espouses Marxism; fiercely nationalistic, he wears expensive Western suits. Polite and reserved in private settings, he often reverts to fist-waving tirades in public. But on one point, there is no ambiguity: Robert Mugabe is a tyrant responsible for the deaths of uncounted thousands of Zimbabweans and the ruination of their country. (See below.)

What’s his background?
Mugabe was born in 1924 in what was then British-ruled Southern Rhodesia. His father, Gabriel Mugabe, a carpenter, disappeared not long afterward. The family lived off the land, but instead of herding cows, as he was expected to, the young Mugabe would catch birds in homemade nets for extra food. Bookish and solitary, he went on to earn degrees in education, economics, and law from various African universities as well as from London University. In 1956, he moved to Ghana to teach.

How did he enter politics?

When Ghana gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, Mugabe was inspired to help end colonial rule in his own homeland. Returning in 1960, he worked with nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo and became secretary general of the new Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) in 1963. Almost immediately, the white minority government of Prime Minister Ian Smith locked up Mugabe, calling him a “terrorist.” He languished in jail for 10 years. Released in 1974, he then fought against Smith’s regime in a guerrilla war that lasted the rest of the decade and cost 40,000 lives. Eventually, the conflict and stiff U.N. sanctions forced Smith to the bargaining table. Mugabe maneuvered his way up the Zanu hierarchy and, in 1980, was elected prime minister of the newly independent country, renamed Zimbabwe.

How did he rule?

Quite effectively, at first. In a landmark speech, he declared, “I urge you, whether you are black or white, to join me in a new pledge to forget our grim past, forgive others, and join hands in a new amity.” In short order, he built schools and hospitals and offered universal free education and health care. He included whites in his Cabinet and gave aid to small peasant farmers. As literacy soared and the country prospered, Mugabe was hailed as a model postcolonial leader. “Mugabe gave African children dreams for the first time in their lives,” said Zimbabwean political scientist Masapulu Sithole. “He was our Martin Luther King Jr.”

When did that change?
In 1982, when he fell out with his former patron, Nkomo, and expelled him from the government. Civil unrest then erupted in Matabeleland, Nkomo’s political base. Mugabe responded by unleashing his North Korean–trained Fifth Brigade, killing some 20,000. Yet he was still popular enough to be elected to a second term, in 1985. However, when poll results indicated that the people wanted him to overhaul his Cabinet, Mugabe replied coldly: “The people are going to be very disappointed.”

And were they?

Yes. It soon became clear that Mugabe intended to remain in power indefinitely. Thanks to vote rigging and bribery, he got himself re-elected in 1990, 1996, and 2002. But it is mainly through sheer ruthlessness that he has clung to office. In Zimbabwe, dissidents are routinely intimidated, beaten, and murdered; women are taken to special camps and raped. The secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, patrol neighborhoods after dark and lurk in park bushes with rifles and riot gear. Three years ago, Mugabe crushed growing opposition in Zimbabwe’s poorest cities by bulldozing homes and burning them to the ground, uprooting at least 200,000. No longer does he speak of reconciliation; today, he boasts, “I have a degree in violence.”

What brought out his dark side?

There are various theories. Some blame the death in 1992 of his first wife, Sally, who was said to be a moderating influence. Others believe that when Nelson Mandela supplanted him as Africa’s most popular and enlightened leader, Mugabe’s jealousy drove him over the edge. Still others think Mugabe always had the makings of a monster. “Even when he was giving these beautiful speeches on reconciliation,” said his former press secretary, Andrew Mutandwa, “I would always notice that underneath [the lectern] he was clenching his hands in a big fist.” Some believe he’s simply insane. “Mugabe seems to have gone bonkers in a big way,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a one-time admirer. “He’s almost a caricature of all the things that people think black African leaders do.”

Will he ever step down?

Based on the most recent elections, held late in March, the odds are slim. The main opposition party initially announced that its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, had soundly defeated Mugabe, 50.5 percent to 43.8 percent. But following a month marked by beatings, threats, and charges of murder, the Zimbabwe Election Commission announced that Tsvangirai—who has fled the country—had received only 47.9 percent, forcing a run-off. Western nations are calling on Mugabe to accept defeat, but he has dismissed such pressure as a renewal of Western imperialism. “Zimbabwe is not for sale and Zimbabwe will never be a colony again,” he declared. He is equally dismissive of charges of fraud. “Why should I cheat?” he asked. “The people here are supporting us.”

A nation in ruin
When Mugabe came to power nearly three decades ago, Zimbabwe’s economy, according to the World Bank, boasted a “diversified productive base, well-developed infrastructure, and a relatively sophisticated financial sector.” Today, Zimbabwe is an economic wreck. By seizing white-owned farms for his cronies, Mugabe ruined agriculture; by unleashing political violence, he frightened off tourists and stifled foreign investment. Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate now stands at 50 percent, and 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. With little revenue coming in, the government has resorted to churning out money. As a result, inflation is running at 165,000 percent. When Zimbabweans shop, they bring bricks of currency lashed together with rubber bands; an egg costs 5 million Zimbabwean dollars, a chicken 200 million, and a tank of gas 1.8 billion. Along with the devastated economy has come a dreadful human toll. Zimbabwe now has the world’s lowest life expectancy—37 years for men, 34 for women—and about a quarter of its 12.5 million people are infected with the AIDS virus.