By 1979 the Bush war at a stalemate. Smith controlled the city centres, his opponents controlled everything else. 20,000 guerillas and security personnel had died in the war, along with hundreds of white civilians. Black civilian deaths were considerably greater. An uneasy peace agreement was finally struck, and the following year Mugabe ascended to the position of prime minister in a newly formed united government.
Mugabe, now overseeing a weak capitalist economy, found it exigent to step back from his socialist ideals. He sidelined the revolutionary ZAPU leader - Joseph Nkomo and elevated the role of Emmerson 'the crocodile' Mnangagwa
. Mnangagwa was a former ZAPU member who had joined ZANU in 1963 and later became a hero in Zimbabwe's fight for independence. He oversaw a savage operation to kill off Nkomo's power base and orchestrated the executions of thousands of his one-time comrades. It was cynically named Gukurahundi, "the early rain the washes away the chaff before the spring rain"
in Mugabe's native Shona tongue. Over 20,000 people died in the crackdown. Nkomo was forced into submission and folded what remained of his party into Mugabe's, to form the ZANU-PF.
Mugabe himself had by then made the leap from prime minister to president (after rewriting the constitution); he was now an absolute ruler
. But the economy had continued to suffer. The government sought International Monetary Fund aid money but despite that the unemployment rate breached 50% by 1998.
After the death of his first wife in the early 90s, Mugabe married his paramour Grace. Their lavish lifestyle soon provoked outrage amongst a starving population, but dissent was severely punished. A coup attempt came and went. Journalists were routinely tortured. And Mugabe turned a blind eye to the violent expropriation of land from white farmers. A racial exodus followed.
Mugabe threw himself increasingly extravagant parties and his wife's profligacy earned her the nickname 'Gucci Grace'. Like so many other strongmen, Mugabe spent the autumn of his life trying to hold on to power. The long-standing assumption had been that his ally Mnangagwa would ascend after his death. But earlier this year, at the ripe old age of 93, Mugabe decided that Grace should be his successor. Mnangagwa protested and was promptly ejected from government. It would prove to be a costly mistake for Mugabe. Even those his own influence over the military had waned over the years; the Crocodile's hadn't.
As coup d'etats go, this was a quiet affair. Two columns of armoured personnel carriers rolled into the capital late at night. Two loud explosions were heard and some gunfire was reported, but when morning broke there were few obvious signs of violence. The army announced its loyalty to ZANU-PF, rather than to Mugabe himself, and said that it would seek a peaceful transition of power.
Grace Mugabe has fled the country, leaving behind luxuries
and her husband who is now under house arrest. Robert Mugabe has so far refused to resign. Even with his empire in ruin the nonagenarian is still trying to cajole, coerce and outfox his captors
; claiming to be the only legitimate ruler of Zimbabwe.
The military now faces a conundrum. If Mugabe is removed swiftly the country may face sanctions. Meanwhile conspiracy theories abound regarding China's hand in the coup. The country has tipped billions into Africa in recent years and Chiwenga, the leader of Zimbabwe's armed forces, has only recently returned from Beijing. .
Mnangagwa may return to government as president. If he does he may also bring back many of the old habits learned during Gukurahundi. Another possibility would be Morgan Tsvangirai, the long sidelined opposition leader who was routinely outflanked by the wily Mugabe. Or Chiwenga may just decide that he likes the taste of military rule.
We shall see.