In his earlier days as Prime Minister and later President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was regarded as a symbol of the freedom and liberation of the Southern African state.
Yet, in his death in Singapore yesterday aged 95, Mugabe departed as a polarising figure.
In his 37-year tenure, Mugabe transformed from the hero that helped liberate Zimbabwe -- formerly Rhodesia -- from colonial rule, to a villain who had to be removed from power in a military coup.
Put out to the public, the question of whether he was a revolutionary leader or an oppressive dictator, will draw harsh debate.
But Mugabe’s Pan-Africanist views and sacrifices for Zimbabwe are undeniable, from his days as a guerilla fighter to his later struggles with Britain.
When announcing his death, President Emerson Mnangagwa described his predecessor as an icon of liberation.
“… (Mugabe was) a Pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten,” Mnangagwa said, a glowing tribute from the man who deposed him in November 2017.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has ordered the flag flown half-mast on Saturday and Monday in honour of Mugabe.
“Comrade Mugabe was a shining beacon of Africa’s liberation struggle, an icon that led Zimbabwe in its liberation struggle from colonialism to independence,” he said.
Uhuru said Mugabe was also an embodiment of the Pan-African spirit and offered immeasurable assistance to South Africa in their struggle to end apartheid.
Former President Mwai Kibaki said Mugabe stood for the greater good of Africa. “His unrelenting quest for a free Africa stood out. In spite of the sentiments of those who serially vilified him, Mugabe will be best remembered for courageously defending the dignity of the African people,” he said.
Baringo Senator Gideon Moi eulogised Mugabe as one of the leading lights in Africa’s independence struggle who stood for the dignity and respect for the African continent.
“He was a Pan-Africanist who played a pivotal role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, a gallant freedom fighter and an astute politician. He will be remembered for his eloquence and his unwavering stand in matters concerning the welfare of Zimbabweans and Africans in general,” said Gideon.
Born Robert Gabriel Mugabe in 1924 in Zvimba, southwest of Harare, Mugabe led the fight for Rhodesia’s independence from Britain and was imprisoned for a decade from 1964 to 1974.
After his release, he led Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) guerrilla fighters against British rule and was elected Prime Minister in April 1980.
In the progressing years of his presidency, Mugabe would fall afoul of the British over his land policies and for clamping down on opposition.
In 2000, he fell out with the West for permitting the seizure of white-owned farms. His government was slapped with sanctions from the US and Britain.
Former Assistant Minister Amukowa Anangwe recalled receiving Mugabe at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in 2000 on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while the then Zimbabwean president was on transit to Zimbabwe.
During that encounter, Amukowa said Mugabe used him as the sounding board.
“In the course of our conversation, he asked me how Kenya had solved the problem of White Settlers soon after independence,” Amukowa reminisced.
“I explained to him that the British had guaranteed a World Bank loan to Kenya to enable the government buy out the White farms,” he responded.
According to Amukowa, Mugabe had used him as a sounding board for the drastic step that he would take next and which doomed Zimbabwe’s relationship with Western countries – repossessing white owned land.
Mugabe’s battles with former colonial masters, whom he accused of meddling with the affairs of his country, persisted throughout his tenure.
And following his death yesterday, the United Kingdom issued an unemotional message conveying their condolence to those mourning Mugabe but also pointing out that the nation’s opinion of his leadership remained.
“There will be mixed emotions in Zimbabwe at today’s news. We of course express our condolences to those who mourn but know that for many he was a barrier to a better future. Under his rule, the people of Zimbabwe suffered greatly as he impoverished their country and sanctioned the use of violence against them,” a spokeswoman from Number 10 Downing Street said.
“His resignation in 2017 marked a turning point and we hope today marks another which allows Zimbabwe to move on,” she added.
The message communicates the fractious relationship between Mugabe and UK.
In 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth.
Two honours bestowed upon him by British institutions would be revoked within a year. First, in June 2007, he was stripped of an honorary degree awarded to him in 1984 by Edinburgh University then a year later his knighthood.
Buckingham Palace created Mugabe an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1994 but he was stripped of the knighthood in June 2008.
He won fans among fellow African leaders who saw his constant fights with Britain as a fight for African dignity.
“Only God, who appointed me, will remove me - not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me,” he said in 2008 election rally contested against Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe lost the election but won the run-off after opponent Tsvangirai withdrew from the race.
The two later formed a coalition government in which Tsvangirai served as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2013.
“He had his shortfalls but to me I think some African leaders have a lot to learn from him. He had a vision to give us our land... A great vision but the way it was done and ill advice given to him by people around him made the whole thing a spectacle,” Ramsey, a Zimbabwean, commented.
His is one of the positive comments in what highlights the divisiveness of Mugabe in life and in death.
“He had 37 years to envision what he wanted and what is his legacy? He introduced hyperinflation that virtually killed off the economy,” another comment reads.
“He dimmed his own Pan-Africanist image by letting power go into his head. He led his country to be labelled a pariah state. He outlived his usefulness and had to be disgracefully ejected from power. In death, as in his last days, he sleeps condemned by public opinion,” Charles Mwabili said on Twitter.