Africa, World

Lord David Owen: Mugabe a ‘deeply conflicted zealot’ who should never have ruled Zimbabwe

Lord David Owen: Mugabe a ‘deeply conflicted zealot’ who should never have ruled Zimbabwe

In 2017, 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 MI6, Owen was initially attracted by Mugabe’s “high personal standards” and “apparent integrity”. But other, darker strands soon became visible.

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 1983-4. 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-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 1 April 1966, Joanna V was sighted by a Shackleton aircraft flying from Majunga (Madagascar) and intercepted by HMS Plymouth on 4 April but allowed to proceed and actually berthed at Beira in Mozambique on 10 April. 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 15 April 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 16 April 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 25 June 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, 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, 27 September 1962)

In early 1963, Mugabe was talking about the need to replace Nkomo, and on 8 August, the Revd 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 Patriot 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 Robert Mugabe. In a secret meeting with Ian Smith in Lusaka in the presence of President Kaunda and Joe Garba, the personal representative of President Olesegun 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 26 December 1979. There is conflicting evidence as to whether that was an accident or an assassination, and Stuart 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.”

There are many different interpretations of what actually happened once the Lancaster House conference was over. Doran describes how, after weeks of relentless pressure during the elections, the British position manifested itself in the approach of Christopher Soames, Carrington’s inspired choice as the last Governor of Southern Rhodesia:

Slowly, the balance between international and internal considerations that had guided the British approach during Lancaster House began to shift. It had been difficult to reconcile the two when they were so often in conflict; the internal objective of a moderate, multiracial government friendly to the West had, for example, been problematic given that the external goal of achieving wide international support required the backing of countries which supported the PF and its ostensibly radical agenda. The solution had been to accept and sell compromises such as the adoption of Nkomo as a moderate and the notion that limited international recognition for the new government (with some – hopefully temporary – damage to Britain’s international relationships) would suffice. Such considerations continued to be in play, but undoubtedly the weight given to international factors had incrementally begun to increase under Soames, while there had been a decrease in the weight given to Britain’s internal aims.

This was most clearly seen in the changing attitude to Zanla’s clear and sustained breach of the ceasefire.”

Mugabe’s victory should have been no surprise to anyone. Zanu politically and Zanla militarily had been building up strength steadily over the years. Initially Mugabe handled almost every aspect of his Prime Ministership in a spirit of reconciliation that surprised everyone including me. It was, in many respects, an even greater reconciliation than that which followed immediately after Mandela’s walk to freedom in South Africa. But there was one hurdle Mugabe could not personally surmount. Doran writes,

While overtures to the whites were unambiguous, the signals given to Zapu and other minority black parties were more equivocal and complex. This was a theatre whose language was poorly understood by Western observers, most of whom were impressed and distracted by Mugabe’s temperance towards the white community and its institutions. After discussions in the Zanu (PF) central committee, Nkomo was offered the titular presidency.” It surprised nobody when Nkomo rejected it as it was widely seen as “a symbol of impotence among African liberation movements.”

Mugabe’s fatal decision, which was inherent in his deeply conflicted personality, was when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, at Tito’s funeral in Yugoslavia in May 1980. A meeting which the Korean Vice Premier, who visited Zimbabwe that July, told the Rhodesian Herald had “recorded a new chapter in the history of [bilateral] … relations” and that he had come to have further discussions when under the leadership of Mugabe the Zimbabwean people were “unfolding a dynamic struggle to consolidate their independence”.

Addressing Zanla ex-combatants in August 1981, Mugabe announced the formation of 5 Brigade to be a “special unit” used to “deal with dissidents and any other trouble in the country”. It was to be trained and equipped by the North Koreans. Mnangagwa, who later in 2017 supplanted Mugabe as President, told the House of Assembly that 106 Korean instructors had arrived in Zimbabwe and would stay for 8-12 months. Zimbabwe’s own military intelligence in December 1981 reported that 5 Brigade was structurally ill-equipped for any serious military role and that “this Brigade to all intents and purposes non-integrated, has become a symbol of the One-Party state”.

Estimates of the total death toll attributed to the 5 Brigade’s operation in Gukurahundi in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1984 vary widely. The most accepted number is 20,000. The term genocide has also often been applied. Doran is careful, as befits his disciplined research, emphasising that “a charge and finding of genocide are dependent not only on extensive expert debate but also on a legal process”. The fact is that the world turned aside from putting its full weight behind a proper international investigation but Doran is clear that it was “motivated by political objectives and ethnopolitical animosity”.

The depth of the attitudes and emotions that fed such actions were not possible – and nor are they comprehensible – without context of equal measure. In the same way, it was not possible to bring such a mindset to its logical conclusion during the formative years of the post-colonial nation-state without such events leaving an ineradicable mark on perpetrator, victim and nation. Yet the massive violence of the Gukurahundi and its proximity to independence do not on their own explain its defining character. Rather, the nature of the ideology itself was necessary: the vision that fed the Gukurahundi was not a tempestuous and untamed philosophy which impinged itself temporarily if devastatingly on the nation; the killings were instead an expression of a perverse ideal – of what Zanu (PF) believed the people and their rulers were meant to be.”

As so often in politics, the personality of leaders is a critical factor and time after time its importance is underrated.

I have written extensively on this in a book called In Sickness and in Power first published in 2008 [David Owen, In Sickness and In Power. Illness in Heads of Government over the last 100 years (Methuen, 2008, updated edition 2016)]. I spent very many hours with Robert Mugabe in 1977 and 1978. Initially I was attracted by his seriousness, his careful use of words and apparent integrity: reluctance to lie, and high personal standards with no evidence of corruption. I had MI6 confirm he was not just a Catholic by name but at that time in Maputo a regular clandestine attender at mass. Yet he was also an open Maoist, something later continuously manifested in government with a close relationship with China.

It became very clear to me by the middle of 1978 that Mugabe was in favour of “re-educating” his people through a one-party state and so for all his personal crookedness and indecision Nkomo would be a better leader initially of Zimbabwe. From 1980-82 I felt embarrassed that I had misjudged Mugabe’s personality, but from 1982 onwards he gave every sign that he was and remains to this day a deeply conflicted zealot, the sort of person who should never be President of any country. That judgement was made after watching another zealot, a Maoist and a Buddhist, wreaking havoc on his people, namely Pol Pot, in Cambodia.

The question for Africa is: how much longer will its parliamentarians allow their leaders to remain in power, not just for one or two terms but for decades? South Africa may now be the country to demonstrate that there is another way forward, not only have they been able to oust President Zuma but he has now been served with very serious criminal charges. One of the interesting facets of South Africa under apartheid was that the courts remained remarkably resistant to successive Afrikaner governments. I first met Cyril Ramaphosa when he was a miners’ leader in 1979. I remember having breakfast with Nelson Mandela in London in 2007, when he confirmed to me that Ramaphosa had been his first choice to succeed him, but that was not the wish of the ANC. It is no exaggeration to say that on President Ramaphosa’s shoulders rests the future of the African continent.

Kingdom, Power, Glory should be at his bedside to dip into from time to time to remind him of the depth of the problems he faces. DM

Dr David Owen (now Lord Owen) served as Navy Minister, Minister of Health and Foreign Secretary under Labour Governments during the 1970s. He was a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and leader from 1983-1990. He served as a Member of Parliament 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.

Stuart Doran’s book, Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–1987, was published by Sithatha Media in May 2017. See

Photo: David Owen delivers a speech during the launch of the Vote Leave ‘Save Our NHS’ (National Health Service) campaign in London, Britain, 06 April 2016. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options