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 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 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?
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 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 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.
Yet it is Britain that Mugabe has chosen to demonize, accusing the former colonizer of wanting the southern African nation back.
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 his son's funeral with his first wife, Ghanaian 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, 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 writer who fled Mugabe's regime, says whenever Mugabe is challenged “he becomes a wounded lion and goes on the attack.”
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 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 civilians.
In 2005, Mugabe sent bulldozers to where residents had voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.
This year, Mugabe unleashed his military and party hooligans on Zimbabweans after they rejected him in the first round of elections in March, giving the most votes to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
As the violence intensified, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff election held Friday.