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Mugabe's slow fall from grace

Tomorrow, Zimbabwean voters make up their minds on the man once heralded as Africa's paragon of progress.

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Robert Mugabe was once praised by Nelson Mandela and Western leaders as a democratic exemplar.

The former high school teacher - with degrees in economics, history, education, and law - was known as the "thinking man's guerrilla," leading his people to freedom from British rule, and nationhood in 1980.

But as Zimbabweans head to the polls in a hotly contested presidential election this weekend, President Mugabe is now seen by many as a dictator in decline - deserted by old allies, denounced by former admirers.

In some ways, Mugabe's trajectory is a familiar parable in post-colonial Africa. Twenty-two years of power without any opposition can corrupt a man, says Joseph Ayee, a political scientist at the University of Ghana. "This is repeated time and again - when African leaders get to office they soon forget why they went there."

One of the reasons for this phenomenon, says Professor Ayee, is that "our leaders are not recruited out of civil society. They come from the military, where they are trained in the cult of personality," he says. They are not taught to think about the will of the people, Ayee contends. "The military does not teach you that."

But others close to Mugabe say that's only part of the story. They say after the death of his first wife, he changed. And yet others say the world beyond Zimbabwe never saw Mugabe accurately.

In the early 1960s, Mugabe left his job as a high school teacher to join the struggle against Ian Smith and the white-minority rule in then-Rhodesia. He was promptly imprisoned for 10 years.

Freed in 1975, he continued the fight from nearby Mozambique, becoming a leader of the bloody campaign against Mr. Smith. Under a peace settlement which allowed for elections that included the black majority, Mugabe was overwhelmingly elected the country's first prime minister.

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