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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai dies aged 65

The leader of the Movement for Democratic Change was prime minister for three years under Robert Mugabe

Despite suffering violent attacks at the hands of the Mugabe regime, Tsvangirai, left, developed a surprising respect for his long-term opponent. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP
Despite suffering violent attacks at the hands of the Mugabe regime, Tsvangirai, left, developed a surprising respect for his long-term opponent. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

Morgan Tsvangirai, the veteran Zimbabwean opposition leader who fought Robert Mugabe’s regime for many years, died on Wednesday after battling cancer, an official for his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party confirmed.

Mr Tsvangirai, who founded the MDC in 1999, was among the most prominent critics of Mugabe, the long-time authoritarian leader who was ousted from power in November and was frequently the target of violent attacks by the regime.

“It is sad for me to announce that we have lost our icon and fighter for democracy,” Elias Mudzuri, an MDC vice president, wrote on Twitter.

Mr Tsvangirai’s death was confirmed to AFP by another senior party member. He was 65 and had been receiving treatment for his cancer for the last 18 months in South Africa.

Mugabe's government detained him on numerous occasions over his vocal criticism of the regime.

Security forces swooped on Tsvangirai in 1989 after he bluntly warned about the rising tide of political repression in the country.

Tsvangirai also claimed to have been the target of four assassination attempts – including one in 1997 in which he said attackers attempted to throw him out of his office window.

A powerful orator from humble beginnings, Tsvangirai was arguably Zimbabwe’s most popular politician and came within a whisker of unseating Mugabe only to be out-manoeuvred and ultimately outlived by his long-time nemesis.

At the peak of his career, the self-taught son of a brick-layer served as prime minister in Mugabe’s presidency in a 2009-2013 unity government cobbled together after a disputed and violent election in which scores of his supporters were killed.

His presence helped stabilise an economy in free fall but Mugabe reneged on pledges to overhaul the former British colony's partisan security forces and Mr Tsvangirai was shunted back into his familiar role as opposition gadfly.

A hefty electoral defeat in 2013, blamed in part on Mr Tsvangirai’s involvement in two sex scandals, put paid to his dreams of one day leading the southern African nation. Three years later, he revealed he was being treated for colon cancer.

Despite their rivalry, Mugabe harboured grudging respect for an opponent who suffered multiple abuses at the hands of security forces, including a police beating in 2007 that left him with deep gashes in his head.

During their time in power together, the two men developed an uneasy working relationship, squabbling frequently but also taking afternoon tea every Monday and even joking about their frequent head-butting.

“I’ve got my fair share of criticisms and also dealt back rights and lefts and upper cuts. But that’s the game,” Mugabe said on the eve of the 2013 vote, mimicking the movements of a boxer.

“Although we boxed each other, it’s not as hostile as before. It’s all over now. We can shake hands.”