In 2017, the Daily Maverick published a series of articles based on Stuart Doran’s monumental history of Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe, titled Kingdom, Power, Glory. In this major review of the book, former British Foreign Secretary David Owen reflects on his own intimate dealings with Mugabe during the 1970s, and his efforts to understand the man who would rule Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. Drawing on personal observation and reporting by British secretive service, MI6, Owen was initially attracted by Mugabe’s “high personal standards” and “apparent integrity”. But other, darker strands soon became visible.
David Owen,British politician
Stuart Doran’s book Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and The Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987 is a book of towering importance for the African continent and I cannot recommend it too highly. Pages 646 to the end are of huge importance, and the following three paragraphs deserve quoting in full.
“One social force that has received attention, at least with regard to the period before 1980, is ‘tribe’ or ‘ethnicity’. Scholars of Zimbabwe and, more generally, of African studies, have reacted to stereotypes about ancient tribal animosities by pointing to the complexities that attend conflict and the fact that ethnicity often has little to do with situations popularly categorised as a function of tribe.
“The history of Zanu’s rivalry with Zapu bears this out at many points. The leaders of the two parties were initially united under the Zapu banner and came to blows after the split not because they were different but because they shared the same supremacist ideology. Ethnically, many Shona leaders remained with Nkomo into the 1980s, and Zipra also retained an important Shona membership throughout the war. On the Zanu side, Zapu’s most vocal opponent was a Ndebele speaker, Enos Nkala.
“And yet it will not do to follow another vagary of academic fashion which, prompted by an anxiety to demolish popular colonial shibboleths, has often seen tribe and ethnicity vanish almost completely from the historical narrative. The reality is that the historical participants themselves refer too frequently to tribe and other ethnic divisions for it to be discounted as a motivating factor. It is not enough to simply elucidate the often fluid and arbitrary parameters used by participants (or former colonial authorities) to define tribe. In and of itself, this is an abstraction that can serve to simply discourage the acknowledgement of powerful ethnic forces on political events and movements.
“Zanu (PF)’s characterisation of Ndebele speakers as ‘dissident people’ in 1982 had a political function, as did the deployment of 5 Brigade in 1983, but the intensity of the killings, the hatred that made their obscene nature and vast scale possible, and the constant references to tribe that accompanied them are poorly explained by politics alone.
“The dark sides of politics and identity are, ultimately, a reflection of the human condition. Just as politics can mirror base human instincts such as the lust for power and wealth, so too can ethnic or tribal distinctions.
Hatred, fear, the pleasure of vengeance and unadorned sadism are also potent and all-too-human impulses. It is unnecessary to look beyond the history of the 20th century to see that where such impulses coalesce, individuals and societies are capable of acts that were not deemed possible by those who knew them. Such a coalescence provides the most credible explanation for what occurred in Matabeleland in 1983-84. Zanu and Zapu were not only rival political formations whose leaders had long and bitter personal histories; by the 1970s and 1980s their memberships were increasingly polarised along ethnolinguistic lines.
“Within the parties, political and tribal antagonisms had progressively merged and magnified each other. To be a Zapu supporter was, increasingly and undeniably, to be a Ndebele speaker. But, in the minds of many Zanu (PF) members, this also meant that to hate Zapu was to hate the Ndebele people. This is one reason why the Gukurahundi killings could be regarded not only as ‘politicide’ but as genocide.”
I first became involved in African politics in 1968-70, when Minister for the Royal Navy and responsible for the Beira patrol, which had been established after UN Resolution 221 in 1966 to check on oil tankers heading for the Mozambique port. Beira acted as the terminus of a pipeline going into what was then Southern Rhodesia. Bulgaria, Mali, Uruguay and the Soviet Union abstained because of the inadequacy of the measures. France also abstained because she did not believe that there was a threat to international peace which the resolution endorsed.
The Beira Patrol was the closest the UK ever came to having to take on Ian Smith militarily following his Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965. Many criticise the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, for not using force when independence was declared, but he had only been elected with a narrow majority in 1964, and he and Denis Healey felt that to use force would divide the British people. To have landed troops would have necessitated first destroying the Rhodesian air force, and this had been ruled out as it meant extensive bombing of airfields close to civilian housing.
On April 1 1966, Joanna V was sighted by a Shackleton aircraft flying from Majunga (Madagascar) and intercepted by HMS Plymouth on April 4, but allowed to proceed and actually berthed at Beira in Mozambique on April 10. On that same day, the tanker Manuela was intercepted by HMS Bowick and boarded until the tanker had steamed well south of Beira.
The Portuguese government were refusing to participate in sanctions and refusing to interfere in the transport of any merchandise into Rhodesia. Joanna V was struck off the Greek register, given provisional Panamanian registration and told it would be cancelled if she discharged oil.
On April 15 the Portuguese flew in paratroopers from the port of Lourenco Marques to protect the Beira pipeline, and tension mounted as the world watched to see what the Portuguese would do next. On April 16 Ian Smith announced that, though the oil on the Joanna V was meant for his country, he had decided to forego it in order not to involve other countries in his dispute with the United Kingdom.
Instead the UK decided to rely on sanctions applied to Rhodesia’s major exports and to key imports, particularly oil. It had been a huge shock to those in Africa, which included President Kuanda, who believed that British oil companies, BP and Shell, were not using their oil to supply Rhodesia. In 1977, I was faced by documentary evidence that in 1967 a controversial swap arrangement made with Total ensured that Rhodesia was supplied with oil directly and Total were then compensated by Shell and BP in South Africa. This arrangement operated until 1971.
The fact that this swap arrangement had been revealed in full by the oil companies to the British government in 1968, and the British government had taken no steps at the time to consider prosecution for the breaches in the law, was confirmed by the enquiry which I established under Thomas Bingham QC. His deeply embarrassing report published in 1978 revealed to the wider world the ambivalence of British policy towards Rhodesia and reluctance to use the full weight of sanctions against South Africa. Of course, their reluctance was in part self-interest, but there was also an important strategic element in trying to preserve a strong economy for a post-apartheid South Africa.
Probably the only time the UK might have used force over Rhodesia was when the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in April 1974, but again a Labour government had only just been elected and was short of a majority. They saw the main immediate challenge was to ensure that Portugal itself became a stable democracy. The Beira Patrol lasted until June 25 1975, when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal and assured Britain that it would not allow transship oil to Rhodesia.
Doran’s book does not dwell much on the external pressures put on Ian Smith until independence in 1980; instead it provides a fascinating account of the origins and of the struggle of black Rhodesians for independence — the truly crucial factor. How Joshua Nkomo was chosen to lead the Southern Rhodesian ANC (African National Congress) which was outlawed in July 1959 when Nkomo was travelling abroad. The continuing problem with Nkomo’s readiness to compromise, and in February 1961 he was publicly condemned for accepting new constitutional proposals which he soon backed off.
The British High Commissioner in Salisbury (now Harare), Cuthbert Alport, later Lord Alport, wrote: “Nkomo’s fear of being bumped off … is, of course, absolute nonsense, but indicates his well-known physical cowardice … leading Africans sympathetic to Zapu (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union having been formed in December 1961) now tend to write Nkomo off and are looking around for someone to replace him.” (Lord Alport telegram, September 27 1962)
In early 1963, Mugabe was talking about the need to replace Nkomo, and on August 8, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole announced the establishment of the Zimbabwean African National Union (Zanu).
Mugabe assumed the presidency of Zanu by default, when Sithole was formally deposed in 1973. He held that position until 2017. The rivalry between Nkomo and Mugabe had by the spring of 1977, when I first met them as Foreign Secretary, become painfully obvious and it was simmering in the background throughout the Malta conference in January 1978 to discuss the Anglo-American Plan. This was also the time when we saw more of the tension between the military figures within the two armies of the Patriotic Front and Field Marshal Lord Carver met them with Josiah Tongogara, the person he then believed held the key to a successful integration of the two armies in any pre-electoral period.
Nkomo tried in the summer of 1978 to engineer a place to come in as chairman of the internal settlement’s executive committee at the expense of Mugabe. In a secret meeting with Ian Smith in Lusaka in the presence of President Kenneth Kaunda and Joe Garba, the personal representative of President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, probably the most powerful single African figure at that time — the meeting was fully supported by the UK — I had told the US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, of the initiative but it was agreed that the US would remain sufficiently distant so that if the meeting failed they would not be damaged.
Mugabe was deliberately not invited, and Kaunda ruled out any involvement of Julius Nyerere and Samora Machel of Mozambique, feeling that the latter would have difficulty managing at a meeting in which at that time he could not speak fluent English. Nkomo called for a second meeting, perhaps sensing that Ian Smith was not fully on board, claiming he wanted to involve Mugabe. News of the meeting inevitably leaked and Nyerere was deeply hostile to it despite Garba briefing him in Dar es Salaam. The initiative was killed off by the shooting down of a Viscount aircraft with Nkomo claiming responsibility.
Tensions within the Patriotic Front were very visible at the Lancaster House Conference brilliantly chaired by my successor, Peter Carrington, at the end of 1979. Unfortunately Tongogara, the Zanla chief, was killed in a car accident on December 26 1979. There is conflicting evidence as to whether that was an accident or an assassination, and Doran describes the background very well: “It is clear that Tongogara’s meetings with Zipra and Nkomo and his inclusive approach, coupled with an open desire to lay down arms — neither of them popular positions within Zanu’s central committee — provided a motive for Tongogara’s elimination. A preference for Nkomo over Mugabe, if the central committee understood that to have been Tongogara’s attitude, supplied yet greater incentive. And Dabengwa also believed that Tongogara was opposed to the plan to use Zanla to ensure an electoral victory, seeing this as the decisive factor in his death. But concrete evidence that he was assassinated has never emerged.”
Lord Owen served as Navy Minister, Minister of Health and Foreign Secretary under Labour governments during the 1970s. He served as an MP for over 26 years standing down in 1992. He served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia from 1992-95. He now sits in the House of Lords as an independent social democrat.
To be continued next week.