Obituary: Sabina Mugabe, politician

Sabina Mugabe, politician. Born: 14 October, 1934, in Zvimba, Zimbabwe. Died: 29 July, 2010, in Harare, Zimbabwe, aged 76.

SHORTLY after the white Zimbabwean farmer Terry Ford was found tied to a tree, battered and with a single bullet through his head, his Jack Russell terrier, Squeak, curled up at his feet, President Robert Mugabe's sister Sabina declared that 53-year-old Ford's farm was now hers.

Mugabe had begun harassing Ford 18 months before his still unsolved murder in 2002. Arriving on Gowrie Farm in a government Mercedes, she had told Ford that the house on the property of his aunt, Paddy McCleary, was now hers: she would be moving in the next day and she would be taking the furniture as well.

"Terry told Mugabe she couldn't do it," recalled his cousin, Harry Munro, who was frequently with Ford when Mugabe and her entourage turned up at the 400-acre Gowrie Farm. "She said 'I can. My brother's the president and if you don't do it, then heads will roll.' When Terry asked if she was threatening him, she denied it."

Prior to Ford's killing, Mugabe had sent a group of Zanu-PF vigilantes, the so-called "war veterans", to Gowrie Farm, confiscated all his equipment and ordered him to plough the fields so they could plant their own crops.

Gowrie was one of several farms in the Norton area, 30 miles south-west of Harare, taken over and looted by Sabina Mugabe in a sustained terror campaign by her "war veteran" militias. Among the stolen farms was neighbouring Parklands, belonging to John Wilde, once the country's leading specialist producer of seed vital for the once bountiful maize crop.

Most of the farms taken by Sabina Mugabe now stand idle and overgrown. Farmers accused Mugabe of ethnic cleansing.

Fulsome tributes to Mugabe, the younger sister of President Mugabe, were paid in the Zimbabwe media following her death, with no mention of the Ford murder, her mass confiscation of white-owned farms or her leadership of the violent war veterans.

She was described as a humble woman who would be badly missed by her brother, to whom she was close. The state-owned daily The Herald described her as "one of Zimbabwe's bravest and most outspoken women, a sensitive human rights believer". On her death Zanu-PF declared her a "national heroine", without consulting its partner in government, the Movement for Democratic Change. She will be buried in the controversial North Korean-built Heroes' Acre, reserved almost entirely for Zanu-PF activists.

Sabina Mugabe was born at Kutama Roman Catholic Mission, run by Jesuits of the Rome-based Marist Order, in the Zvimba District 50 miles northwest of Salisbury, now Harare, to a Malawian father Gabriel Matibili and a Shona mother Bona.

She had four brothers, but only Robert, now aged 86, survives: President Mugabe's only surviving sibling is Sabina's younger sister, Bridgette. Sabina, raised as a Catholic, was only five when her father, a carpenter, abandoned the family and went to live in Bulawayo where he took a second wife.

Sabina served her brother's party for 20 years as an MP and was a national secretary of the Zanu-PF Women's League. Two of her sons, Leo and Patrick, were also ruling party MPs. Leo was chairman of Zimbabwe Football Association before he was sacked for allegedly appropriating a soccer development grant from Fifa, the world's soccer governing body.

Leo's wife, Veronica, has filed divorce papers in the Harare High Court claiming ownership of half the farms he confiscated from white owners together with livestock, machinery and furniture. Britain and the United States have imposed travel and financial sanctions on Leo. Patrick took over two large commercial farms after driving off their white owners.

In a rare interview, Sabina said her brother, Robert, had advised her during the days of white rule not to get involved in politics. "But I couldn't avoid it," she said. "I firmly believed that independence would only come through fighting the imperialists."

She left Zimbabwe under an assumed name in 1975 and studied home economics and nutrition at Battersea College and Richmond College in London before going to Nova Scotia, Canada, to study for a Diploma in social development at a Catholic College. Before leaving the country she had been sheltered by the Silveira House Catholic seminary, on the outskirts of Harare, when her brother Robert was leading guerrillas fighting former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith's forces from bases in Mozambique.

She was referred to by Zanu-PF as Comrade Mugabe or Ms Mugabe, and it is unclear who were the fathers of Leo, Robert and her other two sons, Kevin and Innocent, who predeceased her.

Sabina Mugabe suffered a stroke in 2007 and resigned as an MP in 2008. A cause of death was not given, but President Mugabe said he had visited her recently and been told that one-third of her brain had been damaged by the stroke. "I looked at her and she was very frail, but at least she could recognise me," said the head of state. "She became somehow confused and doctors said she had abdominal pains."

Sabina Mugabe is survived by her brother Robert and sister Bridgette, her sons Leo, Robert and Kevin and several grandchildren.