In the advent of Robert Mugabe’s removal as Zimbabwe’s head of state, much of the world has celebrated the fall of another African dictator. But for some, particularly in the African continent, Mugabe remains a revolutionary hero.

Revered by his former comrade in arms, scorned by many of the people he swore to honour and defend; it is hard to reconcile the two conflicting images of Mugabe. One is the ailing 93 year old autocrat who presided over the economic collapse of a country once known as the ‘Breadbasket of Africa’, the other is the hero who usurped white minority rule in Rhodesia.

Desmond Tutu once remarked that Mugabe was becoming “a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator”, while African Union (AU) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said that Mugabe will forever been known as the fearless Pan-Africanist who liberated – devoted his life to – Zimbabwe. Mahamat’s statement reflects the burgeoned respect many regional leaders appear to have towards the deposed leader. Does this tell us why AU members and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) turned a blind eye to Mugabe’s human rights abuses for so long?

Many are familiar with the Mugabe of today: refusing to relinquish power for 37 years, the autocrat led his country to economic ruin. Though he implemented a policy that sought to return white owned farms to black Zimbabweans farmers, the result was a plummet in agricultural production. An investigation later found that forty percent of farms seized Mugabe kept for himself and his allies, rather than ordinary Zimbabweans.

But to understand Mugabe the revolutionary, it is necessary to contextualise these more recent exploits within the colonial era and Cold War. Zimbabwe – then known as Rhodesia – was colonised by the British in 1888. It exhibited an apartheid state apparatus similar to South Africa, but due to the smaller white population the ability of the colonial government to instil a perfect system of racial separation was hindered.

Nevertheless, black Rhodesians were deemed to be of unequal status in their own country and the dehumanising treatment they experienced under white minority rule inevitability created conditions for dissent and rebellion. Under colonial law, white Rhodesians seized the best land whilst forcing the majority of black farmers to divide the rest amongst themselves. Given the abundance of natural resources such as oil, diamonds and gold – as well as the rich fertility of the country’s agriculture – the apartheid laws laid the foundations for the inequality many Zimbabweans experience today.

Also in the mix was the ideological struggle between communism and capitalist democracy, which helped spark a wave of secessionist movements across the African continent. After Ghanaian independence in 1957, many other colonised states followed the path to self-determination and liberation. While most African countries had achieved their independence by the late 1960s, Southern Africa was still locked in a struggle against white minority rule. In 1965, Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith declared independence from the UK in response to mounting pressure to return power to the black majority.

It was around this time that Robert Mugabe emerged as a key figure in the country’s anti-colonial movement. Mugabe was a school teacher who had embraced the teachings of Marxist-Leninism during his time at university; angered at the subjugation of his country under colonial rule he joined a group of Pan-African nationalists who called for independence. As a result of his challenge to government rule, he was arrested and thrown in jail for eleven years. After his release he fled to Mozambique, becoming leader of the Zimbabwean Africa National Union (ZANU). He then tried to topple Smith’s government through guerrilla warfare in what became known as the Rhodesian Bush War. The civil war raged on but in 1979, the ZANU emerged victorious. It was the war’s aftermath (and the subsequent election in 1980) that cemented Mugabe as the revolutionary hero that brought down the white colonial regime that had ruthlessly oppressed the masses for so long.

The sense of jubilation felt at Mugabe’s 1980 inauguration as Prime Minister is often compared to the elation many South Africans felt when Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994. Preceding Mandela, it was Mugabe that became the first shining example of the great African leader: setting a precedent for other African nations and creating a prosperous country which reflected the key tenants of Marx’s utopian vision. To this day, most regional leaders publicly maintain this image of Mugabe – making any criticisms levelled at his regime only half-hearted.

South African leaders are one example of this, including incumbent President Zuma. For thirty years the African National Congress (ANC) and ZANU-PF had a history of not criticising each other, with leaders such as Zuma and Mbeki implementing “quiet diplomacy” when it comes to Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs. As mentioned, the AU and SADC have also followed a policy of silence – and as a result have been accused of complicity in Zimbabwe’s human rights violations. Even after his ousting his allies are loyal: the Ugandan government have criticised Zimbabwe’s military for their hand in the coup, and their Foreign Minister stated that “Mugabe is one person who couldn’t care what the West thought. He spoke out for Africans’ rights, pan Africanism”.

The protection Mugabe received from his African neighbours over the years allowed him to stay in office despite huge setbacks, such as the 2008 General Election. But secret Zimbabwean intelligence cables seen by Reuters around the time of the coup suggest that behind the scenes, African leaders were in fact pushing for Mugabe to step down in a document describing him as “an embarrassment to the whole African continent”.

If this is true, it implies that praise (or complicit silence) for Mugabe in the region may be less about a nostalgic admiration, and more about concern for their own image. Take President Zuma and Ugandan President Museveni, who like Mugabe face rising public dissent against them. Zuma has an array of serious corruption charges to contend with, while Museveni is more concerned with keeping the powerful Ugandan army on his side – just last year thirty soldiers and opposition leaders were arrested under suspicion of plotting a military coup against him. For many African leaders, criticising Mugabe could mean opening up criticism of themselves. The Mugabe hero narrative suits them much better. But now he has fallen, it is hard not to wonder who might be next.