Officials in London accused of being ‘wilfully blind’ to massacre of thousands of dissidents by Robert Mugabe in 1980s
British officials repeatedly downplayed the massacre of thousands of dissidents by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in the 1980s to protect the UK’s interests in southern Africa and their relationship with the former colony’s new ruler, new research has claimed.
According to thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Dr Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, British officials in London and Zimbabwe were “intimately aware” of the atrocities but consistently minimised their scale.
Cameron described the policy as one of “wilful blindness”.
“The British government could have influenced authorities in Zimbabwe but put political and economic interests first … There were steps they could have taken and they chose not to,” she said.
Mugabe took power in elections held in 1980 following a gruelling and brutal guerilla struggle against white minority rule in what was known as Rhodesia. His Zanu-PF party won more than 60% of the vote.
In 1983 the new leader launched a massive security clampdown in parts of Matabeleland, the heartland of the Ndebele ethnic minority and a stronghold of his political rival, Joshua Nkomo. The operation, prompted by scattered murders and attacks on property allegedly by members of Nkomo’s political party, was spearheaded by the Fifth Brigade of the new Zimbabwean national army and portrayed as directed against “bandits”. The unit had been trained by North Korean military specialists and was fanatically loyal to Mugabe.
Over a nine-month period the Fifth Brigade killed, tortured and raped tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. In all, historians of the period believe, between 10,000 and 20,000 died in the atrocities, and many more suffered severe physical or psychological harm.
The new documents include hundreds of cables exchanged by Robin Byatt, the British high commissioner in Harare, with officials in London. These, Cameron says, reveal the British official attitude towards Zimbabwe in the first months of the massacres.
In one cable, sent on 24 June 1983, Byatt explained how “Zimbabwe is important to us primarily because of major British and western economic and strategic interests in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe’s pivotal position there. Other important interests are investment and trade … prestige, and the need to avoid a mass white exodus. Zimbabwe … [also] is a bulwark against Soviet inroads”.
When Jeremy Paxman arrived in Zimbabwe in March 1983 to make a documentary for the BBC’s Panorama, Byatt complained that the journalist was taking an “unreservedly gloomy and sensational view of events”.
When Britain’s then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, asked for the diplomat’s reaction to an article in Newsweek graphically describing the Fifth Brigade’s violence, Byatt said its author had “a reputation for sensational reporting”.
Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock
“The behaviour of the Fifth Brigade has certainly been brutal but it is [the] impression [of senior British military officials] that they are not out of control,” the high commissioner wrote.
As the violence in Matabeleland intensified, Byatt relayed the allegations of killings made by opposition politicians in Zimbabwe and told London he had received reports indicating widespread acts of brutality including murder, rape and torture.
With concern growing among western diplomats in Harare, the high commissioner told London “he was sure that our best tactic is to continue to try to proffer sympathetic and constructive, rather than simply critical, advice if we wish to influence Zimbabwean decisions”.
The policy of engaging with Mugabe was supported by Foreign Office mandarins. The campaign of violence – known as Gukurahundi, a local word for the wind which separates chaff from grain – continued into 1984.
Jilly Byatt, the wife of the former high commissioner, said criticism of her husband, who is ill, was misplaced and that the decision to opt for engagement with Mugabe rather than confrontation had saved lives.
“It was very important to keep good relations … Aggressive criticism would have got us nowhere. It would just not have worked,” she said.
“Mugabe had just begun to trust the British again … and nothing would have been gained by losing that trust. The slaughter would just have worsened. It is unthinkable that we could have helped in any way in the activities of the Fifth Brigade.”
Experts said the influence of foreigners in Zimbabwe at the time was more limited than sometimes suggested.
Stuart Doran, a historian and author of a forthcoming book on the atrocities, said: “The Gukurahundi was driven by Mugabe and Zanu-PF from start to finish. This was a domestic issue [but] there’s no doubt that serious misjudgments were made by the British … By 1983, when the massacres began, members of the high commission were swallowing much of Mugabe’s propaganda without adequate reflection. It had become a habit … and they weren’t alone. Plenty of other western diplomats were in the same place.”
None of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities of the 1980s. Those implicated include many who are now senior political figures in Zimbabwe. Mugabe recently celebrated his 93rd birthday and has been in power for 36 years.
Emerson Mnangagwa, the 70-year-old vice-president, is mentioned in the new documents in a letter from tycoon Roland “Tiny” Rowland to the US ambassador.
Rowland, whose Lonrho conglomerate had major investments in Zimbabwe, wrote that he was “absolutely convinced” that Mugabe knew about the atrocities and claimed that Mnangagwa, then secretary of state for security, was “fully aware”.
Mnangagwa, who denies any responsibility for the killings in Matabeleland, is tipped by many observers to succeed Mugabe on his death.
“The alleged main perpetrators are still in charge of the political and military infrastructure in Zimbabwe. It is still very difficult for survivors and their relatives to have any form of justice,” Cameron said.
Robert Mugabe giving a campaign speech in February 1980. Photograph: SIPA Press/Rex/Shutterstock
Thembani Dube, a survivor of the massacres and a human rights activist, said the research “unravels the complicit role of the British government of Margaret Thatcher”.
The reaction of British officials and the government sometimes contrasted with that of US diplomats and policymakers, even if official policy may not have differed greatly.
George Shultz, the then US secretary of state, noted “the Fifth Brigade military operations in Matabeleland have succeeded in terrorising, intimidating and alienating the people of Matabeleland”. The “mailed fist policy of the government of Zimbabwe was directed not only against dissidents themselves but against the sea in which the enemy fish swim”, he added.
US diplomats reported that the Foreign Office prioritised “bilateral relations” with Zimbabwe and complained that British officials were “excessively defensive about what has been going on in Matabeleland”, describing one as “almost an apologist for the [government of Zimbabwe]”.
In a recently published academic article detailing her research, which was self-funded, Cameron quotes a cable from Byatt in which the diplomat points out that “the white farming community (a substantial portion of which is British or dual [nationality]) are being treated scrupulously correctly by the Fifth Brigade and, while they dislike the methods being used, are relieved that their own security has improved very considerably as a result of Fifth Brigade deployment”.
This, Byatt said, was “the other side of the coin” to the alleged atrocities.
One of the Foreign Office’s deepest concerns, other than the wellbeing of British citizens in newly independent Zimbabwe, was the effect on public opinion in the UK of reports of atrocities.
Senior ministers who visited Zimbabwe while the Gukurahundi offensive was ongoing failed to mention the atrocities in parliamentary reports on their return.
When Prince Charles met Peter Preston, then editor of the Guardian and Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer, who had published his own eyewitness account of the atrocities, shortly after a 1984 visit to Zimbabwe, the prince said the Foreign Office had told him that “those massacres in Matabeleland [were] all exaggerated”.