Robert Mugabe's mother told him when he was a child that he had been chosen by God to be a great leader. No wonder he thinks only divine power — not elections, not foreign critics, not a crumbling economy or a much younger opposition leader — can unseat him.
In the mind of Zimbabwe's leader of nearly three decades, reality is summed up by a massive banner hanging in the entrance to the presidential offices: Mugabe is Right.
Mugabe defied the world Friday to hold a one-man presidential runoff on the heels of a campaign of torture and violence in which dozens of opposition supporters have been killed and thousands injured and driven from their homes.
Mugabe fought to liberate a nation of oppressed Africans from a brutal and racist white rule and then built it into a much-hailed economic and social success. What would drive him to preside over its decline and ruin?
Lowest life expectancy
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe fed itself and became a major exporter of food as well as of tobacco and minerals. Literacy and longevity rates shot up. Today, a third of the population is starving and the country has the lowest life expectancy in the world — just 34 years for women.
Twenty-eight years after he freed the country from white rule, he depicts himself as a liberator fighting to keep Zimbabwe from white imperialists. He calls whites vermin and mongrels.
Heidi Holland, who recounts the anecdote about God's chosen one in her recently published book "Dinner with Mugabe," says Zimbabwe's leader is an "emotionally weak man" who's never come to terms with some of life's earlier disappointments.
He has never forgiven the father who abandoned him when he was 10 to the women in the family — a heathen grandmother and an over-pious mother converted to Catholicism who proudly gave her son into the care of Jesuit priests at nearby Kutama mission. There, Mugabe found a surrogate father in Anglo-Irish headmaster the Rev. Jerome O'Hea.
To this day Mugabe models himself on a British gentleman — dark lounge suits, silk ties and handkerchiefs, a fondness for tea and cricket.
Holland said Mugabe was likely humiliated in the past week when Queen Elizabeth II stripped him of the honorary knighthood bestowed in 1994 when he was an anti-colonial hero.
Love, hate relationship with Britain
Yet it is Britain that Mugabe has chosen to demonize, accusing the former colonizer of wanting his southern African nation back.
"When you hear Mugabe vilifying Britain, expressing hatred of Britain, underlying that is a love of Britain," said Holland, a Zimbabwean journalist living in South Africa who won a rare interview with Mugabe in November, meeting with him for 2 1/2 hours.
She did not think he was crazy, but "lives in the world in a mad kind of way. But I think it's deliberate, I think he's in denial, I think he can't face what he's done in Zimbabwe because that isn't what he intended to do. He did genuinely, I think, want be the savior of his people, the liberator of an oppressed nation. What has happened is a source of deep pain to him, I think."
Mugabe still is bitter, Holland says, that the white Rhodesian regime refused to allow him out of jail, where he was a political prisoner for 11 years, to attend the funeral of his only son with his first wife, Ghanaian fellow teacher Sally Hayfron.
Even as a child, Mugabe could not bear to be criticized, she said. He was a loner with his head constantly stuck in a book and an astute scholar who earned six degrees while he was in jail.
Mugabe would have been fine if he'd remained a teacher, perhaps advanced to headmaster, Holland said, but "the problem is he has an army and police force to act out his anger."
And at 84, Mugabe has the strength, stamina and health of a 60-year-old, with no sign that age is slowing him down or softening his sharp brain.
Chenjerai Hove, a Zimbabwean poet, novelist and essayist who fled Mugabe's regime, says whenever Mugabe is challenged "he becomes a wounded lion and goes on the attack."
Those who have failed to see that pattern chose "to look the other way while the man was busy showing his dictatorial tendencies," says Hove, a writer in resident at Brown University.
Cruel past began in the seventies
Back in 1976, when Mugabe fled Rhodesia to take control of the war for black rule from Mozambique, "a lot of people were arrested and tortured for him to be accepted as a leader, so his cruel past started at that time, and he has always worked like that," Hove said.
When Mugabe's leadership was challenged after independence in 1980 by disgruntled military leaders of rival liberation leader Joshua Nkomo's movement, Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained elite Fifth Brigade on a rampage against Nkomo's minority Ndebele tribe. Some 20,000 people, most innocent civilians, were killed. Thousands starved to death as Mugabe withheld international drought relief from Ndebele civilians.
The international community looked the other way, still pleased that Mugabe had urged reconciliation with the whites who had oppressed his people, allowing former Rhodesian ruler Ian Smith to draw a government parliamentary pension and whites to continue living privileged lifestyles with domestic workers in mansions replete with pools and tennis courts.
But then the white farmers started voting against him, infuriating Mugabe. He again turned brutal after voters rejected a 1999 referendum that would have strengthened his presidential powers and allowed his government to seize white-owned farms without compensation for redistribution to black farmers.
Redistribution brought collapse, oppression
Few could argue with the logic of redistribution when some 5,000 white commercial farmers owned two-thirds of the best arable land in a country of millions of blacks. But Mugabe sent self-styled "war veterans" to violently take over farms that were then given to his Cabinet ministers, military leaders and other elite. Hundreds of thousands of black farm laborers lost their jobs, fertile lands turned fallow and nearly a third of the population fled the economic collapse and political oppression.
In 2005, Mugabe sent bulldozers to shantytowns and street markets where residents had voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.
This year, Mugabe unleashed his military and ruling party hooligans on his people after Zimbabweans rejected him in the first round of presidential elections in March, giving the most votes to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Dozens of opposition supporters have been killed and thousands have been injured.
As the violence intensified, fearing more blood on his hands, Tsvangirai withdraw from the runoff election held Friday.
Mugabe has shrugged off the growing chorus of criticism, which this week belatedly was joined by African leaders condemning him for pursuing his violent re-election.
Holland fears the violence won't end now.
"This is a man who does not forgive ... I think it's about revenge ... He now knows that his own people don't want him."