Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe's President Robert Gabriel MugabeWikimedia Commons

Zimbabwe's President Robert Gabriel Mugabe has turned 90 and the country is preparing for a weekend of tributes - at a cost of about £1m - to honour Africa's oldest head of state.

One of the most controversial politicians on the continent, Mugabe is in his seventh term and has been Zimbabwe's president for 34 years. There seems to be no sign of him giving up.

The third of six children, Mugabe was born in 1924 in southern Rhodesia (the region now known as Zimbabwe). After his father abandoned the family in 1934, Mugabe was raised as a Roman Catholic.

In 1951 Mugabe graduated from Fort Hare University in South Africa with Bachelor of Arts degree, the first of seven degrees he would attain over his lifetime. He came in contact and was influenced by the African National Congress youth league while he was a student.

Mugabe worked as a teacher in Northern Rhodesia and then in Ghana where he met his first wife, Sarah Heyfron, whom he would marry in 1961. In Ghana, Mugabe declared himself a Marxist, supporting the Ghanaian government's goal of providing equal educational opportunities to the lower classes.

Mugabe returned to a Southern Rhodesia in which the white population had exploded. He was outraged by the displacement of thousands of black families by the new colonial government. In July 1960, Mugabe tried to convince crowds of protestors at the March of 7,000 in the capital city Salisbury (later renamed Harare) that Rhodesia could gain its independence through Marxism.

Just weeks later Mugabe was elected public secretary of the National Democratic Party.

The government banned the NDP in 1961, but the freedom movement, the Zimbabwe African People's Union garnered mass support. For his part, Mugabe began publicly advocating guerrilla war by the end of that year. He defiantly said: "We are taking over this country and we will not put up with this nonsense."

In 1963, Mugabe founded Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU, in Tanzania. This was also banned and Mugabe was arrested in Southern Rhodesia later that year and sent to Hwahwa Prison. Mugabe would remain in jail for over a decade. During his time in prison Mugabe managed to continue waging guerrilla war on British ruled Rhodesia, via secret communications and orders.

In 1974, Prime Minister Ian Smith allowed Mugabe to leave prison and go to a conference in Lusaka, Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). Mugabe instead escaped back across the border to Southern Rhodesia, assembling a troop of Rhodesian guerrilla trainees along the way. The battles raged on throughout the 1970s, and by the end of that decade the British agreed to monitor the changeover to black majority rule: Southern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe. Running under the ZANU party banner, Mugabe was elected prime minister of the new republic.

In 1982, Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to crush an armed rebellion by fighters loyal to Joshua Nkomo, leader of the minority Ndebele tribe, in the province of Matabeleland. At least 20,000 people died in the ethnic cleansing.

By 1987 Mugabe, in an attempt to reconcile each group's differing agendas, invited ZAPU to be merged with the ruling ZANU-PF, creating a one-party authoritarian state with himself as the ruling president; his deputy was Nkomo. A year later Mugabe assumed the new office of executive president of Zimbabwe. He set about trying to rebuild the country's economic growth across its farming, mining and manufacturing industries; he oversaw a program of building schools and clinics and schools for the black population.

However, Mugabe insisted that the only way to level out the economic playing field for the disenfranchised black majority was to seize white people's land and farms without any compensation to the owners. Self-awarded pay raises of government officials coupled with high inflation added to the public's resentment toward Mugabe's administration.

In 1998 Mugabe sent Zimbabwean troops to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil, which many viewed as a grab for the country's diamonds and valuable minerals.

In 2000, Mugabe passed an amendment to the constitution that made Britain pay reparations for the land it had seized from blacks. Mugabe claimed that he would seize British land as restitution if they failed to pay. Groups of individuals calling themselves "war veterans" invaded white-owned farms, sparking violence and causing many of Zimbabwe's whites to flee the country.

Mugabe later announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country. "If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend," he said to them. "If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you."

"Hitler of the time"

Robert Mugabe
Demonstration against Robert Mugabe's regime next to the Zimbabwe embassy in London, on August 12, 2006Wikimedia Commons

Mugabe sparked international controversy when he compared himself to Hitler, during a state funeral of one of his cabinet members in 2003.

"I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources," Mugabe said.

Following the president's speech, members of the Zimbabwe National Army began a rampage which left more than 250 people dead.

The then US President George W Bush froze the assets of Mugabe and 76 other government officials, accusing them of undermining democracy.

Despite famine, an Aids epidemic, foreign debt and widespread unemployment plagued the country, Mugabe has held on to the reins of power, by any means necessary, as he did in 2002 and then in 2005 amid accusations of violence and corruption.

In March 2008, Mugabe lost the presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change, but demanded a recount. MDC supporters were violently attacked and killed by members of Mugabe's opposition and Tsvangirai later withdrew.

Mugabe was re-elected in 2013 with 61% of Zambabwi's people showing support for him. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commended the Zimbabwean people for a broadly peaceful election day and for exercising their democratic rights.

There is a widespread consensus about abuses of human rights in Zimbabwe, especially towards suspected members of the political opposition, including executions, torture, death threats, kidnappings, unlawful arrest and detentions.