SINGAPORE    -   Robert Mugabe, a hero of Africa’s independence struggle whose long rule in Zimbabwe descended into tyranny, corruption and incompetence, has died at the age of 95, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said.

In a statement early on Friday, Mnangagwa called Mugabe “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.” Monica Mutsvangwa, the minister of information, confirmed the death, saying: “Yes, it is really saddening. Some of us were like his children to him. We can never write our history without mentioning him.”

The death of the former president, who ruled Zimbabwe for close to four decades before being ousted in a military takeover in November 2017, marks the definitive end of an era in the history of the former British colony. Mugabe is believed to have died in Singapore, where he had made frequent visits to receive medical care in recent months as his health deteriorated. As far back as November 2018, Mnangagwa, who took over from him as president, told members of the ruling Zanu-PF party that Mugabe could no longer walk.

Though once widely celebrated for his role in fighting the white supremacist regime in his homeland, Mugabe had long become a deeply divisive figure in his own country and across the continent.

His final years in power were characterised by financial collapse, surges of violent intimidation and a vicious internal power struggle pitting his wife Grace, 41 years younger than him, against Mnangagwa, his former right-hand man.

The rivalry was resolved when Mnangagwa, a Zanu-PF stalwart, took power when Mugabe reluctantly resigned after a military takeover. The news of his decision prompted widespread rejoicing.

Early reactions to Mugabe’s death underlined the controversial nature of his life and mixed legacy.

The ruling African National Congress party in neighbouring South Africa described Mugabe as a “friend, statesman and revolutionary comrade”. In a statement, the ANC acknowledged that it had sometimes “differed vociferously” with him, but remembered “an ardent and vocal advocate of African unity and self-reliance” whose struggle had been an inspiration.

Nelson Chamisa, leader of the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change, said: “A giant has fallen.”

“Even though [we] had great political differences with the late former president, we recognise his immense contribution to the liberation struggle,” Chamisa wrote on Twitter.

In the decades since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, power had concentrated in Mugabe’s hands. Before Mnangagwa took over, an entire generation of Zimbabweans knew no other leader.

After his fall, Mugabe was granted the status of a respected father of the nation and a generous pension by the new government. The move angered his many opponents and upset many of the victims of his regime.

But Mugabe’s own frustration and sense of humiliation over his ousting were clear, and voiced with typical rhetorical force at an extraordinary press conference in the grounds of his residence in Harare, the capital, days before elections in July 2018.

Mugabe, flanked by his wife, suggested he would vote for the opposition MDC, a party he had brutally suppressed before co-opting it in 2008 to form a supposed unity government that he still dominated.

Until the end he retained friends on the African continent but increasingly became an international pariah. Mugabe was stripped of an honorary knighthood by the British government in 2008.