Mr Mugabe, with his high profile in the independence movement, secured an overwhelming victory in the republic’s first election.
But over his decades in power that followed, the international perception of Mr Mugabe soured, with an increasing number of critics portraying him as a kind of dictator.
In 2000, facing serious political opposition for the first time, he seized white-owned farms to resettle black farmers on – causing economic disruption but boosting his popularity among his supporters.
Around the same time, pro-Mugabe militias used violence to influence political outcomes. In 2008, when he lost the first round of the presidential election, attacks on the opposition resulted in his rival pulling out of the contest.
He was forced to concede to power-sharing in 2009 amid economic collapse, installing rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.
But in 2017, amid concerns that he was grooming his wife Grace as his successor, the army – his long-time allies – turned against the president and forced him to step down.
What has the reaction been?
Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi, of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, told the BBC it was “very much saddened” by the former leader’s death.
“As a government, we are very much with the family members of the Mugabe family,” he said.
“He was a principled man, he could not change easily over his beliefs, he’s a man who believed himself, he’s a man who believed in what he did and he is a man who was very assertive in whatever he said.”
“This was a good man.”
Robert Mugabe – key dates
Later trained as a teacher
1964: Imprisoned by Rhodesian government
1980: Wins post-independence elections
1996: Marries Grace Marufu
2000: Loses referendum, pro-Mugabe militias invade white-owned farms and attack opposition supporters
2008: Comes second in first round of elections to Tsvangirai who pulls out of run-off amid nationwide attacks on his supporters
2009: Amid economic collapse, swears in Tsvangirai as prime minister, who served in uneasy government of national unity for four years
2017: Sacks long-time ally Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, paving the way for his wife Grace to succeed him
November 2017: Army intervenes and forces him to step down