HomeAnalysisBritain’s vested interests in the newly independent Zim

Britain’s vested interests in the newly independent Zim

THIS is the third in a series of articles of a detailed research paper by British academic Hazel Cameron on the state-sponsored killings of civilians by Zimbabwean security forces between 1982 and 1987 under the pretext of suppressing dissidents in the atrocities now widely referred to as the Gukurahundi massacres.

Hazel Cameron ,British academic

Robert Mugabe (left) and Joshua Nkomo during the Lancaster House negotiations in London before Zimbabwe gained independence.
Robert Mugabe (left) and Joshua Nkomo during the Lancaster House negotiations in London before Zimbabwe gained independence.

On March 5 1983, United States Secretary of State George Shultz claimed that “what we are addressing is not simply a bad policy choice by the GOZ (Government of Zimbabwe) to deal with a difficult security situation in a section of their country. What is involved is the very fundamental issue of relations between the two parties, between the Ndebele and the Shona (a struggle for dominance dating back a century and a half)”.

Of significance, Shultz also noted that the “mailed fist policy of the Government of Zimbabwe” was directed not only “against dissidents themselves, but against the entire Ndebele populace which is deemed to be the sea in which the enemy fish swim”.

One RP Ralph, a member of the secretariat during the Lancaster House conference wrote a confidential letter to senior staff of the British High Commission, Harare, which he copied to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Central African Department of the FCO. He noted that a few days previously, during a visit to Bulawayo on February 16–19 1983: “There was much talk — and evidence — of widespread brutality by 5 Brigade towards villagers.

“Many people — including women and children — had evidently been killed; precise numbers will probably never be known, but reports of 500 may not be exaggerated … All this was seen in largely tribal terms as a Shona vendetta … In the long-term the brutality was seen as creating a tribal powder keg … Everybody I talked to feared some sort of tribal war of the security forces did not stop killing Ndebele …Most people hoped HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) ‘could do something’.”

Handwritten comments on this document, made by FCO staff, note “(s)ome interesting variation on the standard reporting” — presumably referring to the sanitised information on the scale of Fifth Brigade depredations, which they had been receiving from the British High Commission, Harare.
An additional comment in a different hand notes “(d)epressing and now rather old but worth reading”.

Crucially, handwritten notes confirm that a copy of this letter was forwarded to the Cabinet Office.
The West German ambassador to Zimbabwe, Richard Ellerkmann, thought it “ominous” that “(Prime Minister Robert) Mugabe, in his latest speech in Manicaland, had used the Shona equivalent of ‘wipe out’ with reference to the Ndebele people, not just Zapu people, if they didn’t stop supporting the dissidents”.

However, “most poignant for Ellerkmann was the remark of a German-Jewish refugee in Bulawayo who said the situation reminded him of how the Nazis treated Jews in the 1930s” there can be no doubt that Gukurahundi was Zimbabwean government policy.

On March 7 1983, Roland “Tiny” Rowland, a British businessman and chief executive of the Lonrho conglomerate with heavy economic commitments in Zimbabwe, met with Mugabe and then subsequently reported to the American ambassador in Harare that he was absolutely convinced that Mugabe was “fully aware of what is happening in Matabeleland and it is government policy. (Emmerson) Munangagwa (sic) (Secretary of State for Security) is fully aware and he was in the meeting when they discussed the situation in detail. Tiny described Mugabe as blunt and unyielding”.

Gukurahundi only came to an end seven years later with the signing of the Zimbabwean Unity Accord of 1987, which made no recognition whatsoever of the victims of the violence. There was no public admission of guilt for the atrocities or measures proffered for reparations. Instead, a blanket amnesty was offered to all those involved in the Matabeleland Massacres

Britain and newly independent Zim

A key British figure throughout this period was Robin Byatt, the British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe (appointed in April 1980).

Byatt was to find himself overseeing British diplomatic responsibility in a country that, as noted, very quickly became embroiled in mass state-sponsored political violence. He was proud that he enjoyed “a good relationship really” with Mugabe during his posting as High Commissioner in Harare.
Byatt’s wife Jilly “was on very good terms with Sally Mugabe (Mugabe’s then-wife), who was a charming person”. Indeed, Byatt notes that “Jilly’s relationship with her (Sally) could be useful in a practical way, trying to get round the Prime Minister’s office”.

It was on January 14 1983 that the FCO in London were made aware by British diplomatic cable from Harare that, as a result of increased dissident activity in Matabeleland in the period leading up to and covering Christmas and the New Year, the Zimbabwe government had “deployed some extra security forces to Matabeleland to little avail”.

David McMillan of the British High Commission noted that “(t)he government’s attitude is not encouraging … A further depl oyment of troops and more toughness will not help if they simply mean more brutality towards the Ndebele peasant. ‘Blind swipes’ by large numbers of troops are almost bound to be counter-productive”.

On the same date, during a visit to Zimbabwe, Cranley Onslow, British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, met with the Zimbabwean Deputy Prime Minister Simon Muzenda and Joshua Nkomo, at which time Nkomo “pointed out (to Onslow) that the problem (in Matabeleland) is essentially a political one which needs a political solution”.

The following week the Fifth Brigade, clearly identifiable by their red berets, were deployed to Matabeleland North. Units were assigned particular areas covering the entire province and, once deployed, they went village-to-village conducting their shocking spectacle of violence against civilians, civil servants, Zapu party chairpersons, and only very occasionally, dissidents.
Within one week, Zapu parliamentarians had lodged a complaint in parliament that widespread and indiscriminate atrocities were being committed.

By the last few days of January 1983, violence by Fifth Brigade was raging. Yet despite being in possession of intelligence that “5 Brigade … have beaten up Ndebele workers at a Shangani mine and arbitrarily executed three Tsholotsho villagers”, Byatt informed London on January 28 1983 that “information reaching us up to a few days ago suggested that army brutality in Matabeleland had considerably lessened”.

He continued: “At a press conference in Harare today (28 January 1983) Nkomo claimed that security forces had killed many innocent civilians (95 murders reported: by yesterday: 47 confirmed: the figure might now be much higher) in anti-dissident operations in Matabeleland since 22 January.

Nkomo said at least some of the murders had been carried out by members of ‘support unit’ 5 Brigade who had told the people they were being punished for supporting dissidents and that the Ndebele would be taught a lesson.”

Nkomo had already discussed his concerns the previous day with acting Prime Minister Muzenda so as “to seek an end to the carnage”.

According to Nkomo, Muzenda “had been very disturbed and said he would immediately consult with the Ministers of Defence and Home Affairs.

Byatt met with the Zimbabwean Minister of Defence, Sydney Sekeremayi, on the same day and “sought to urge that ruthlessness would merely compound the government’s problem”. However, Sekeremayi appeared to Byatt “convinced that … a “tough line ” is inescapable.

Just over two weeks later, the British defence attaché in Harare noted in a cable to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) that “although 1 BDE (Brigade) are still reporting to army ops room 5 BDE are not. I presume COMD (Command) 5 BDE to be operating on the loose direction of (Rex) Nhongo or Sekeramayi”, and not the ZNA (Zimbabwe National Army) High Command.

The British defence attaché continued: “You (MOD) have some details of 5 BDE excesses. Ministerial statements in the last 24 hours have given full support for their (Fifth Brigade) actions … indications are that they (Fifth Brigade) have been launched as a ‘mailed fist’ to deal not only with dissidents, but to scare the local population out of providing support for them. We have reports of murders and beatings by 5 BDE. There is no doubt that the situation has seriously deteriorated in Matabeleland.”

At this early stage, it appears that the British High Commissioner was unclear on the command structure in relation to the acts of violence committed by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland. However, he does claim that there was ministerial support for the “murders and beatings by 5 BDE”.

In spite of this knowledge, the British MOD, who had by this point already trained six Fifth Brigade personnel, continued to offer their assistance in the training of Fifth Brigade, including the 43 members of Fifth Brigade who were at that point in time attending courses at the British Military Advisory and Training Team base of Inkomo. A copy of this cable was also forwarded to the FCO by the British defence attaché.

Further credible intelligence of ongoing atrocities was available to the British government, including in the form of a letter written by the Catholic Bishop of Bulawayo Henry Karlen to Mugabe, detailing atrocities witnessed by priests and a German Catholic missionary doctor in Lupane.

The missionary recorded incidents she had witnessed in the first few days of February, noting that “in the village of Isilwane in Jibajiba ward … 52 people were killed as the soldiers moved from home-to-home on February 6 1983”.

Dr Cameron teaches International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Britain. Her main research interests include state crime; external institutional bystanders and international criminal law; state and corporate complicity in genocide, war crime and crimes against humanity; intersection of criminality and the extractive industries in the DRC; and Rwandan state violence. She has written a monograph of her doctoral research titled Britain’s Hidden Role in the Rwandan Genocide.

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