Four decades of underestimating Mugabe: how the British never expected he would win Zimbabwe's 1980 election

Thursday 24th December 2015

In 2013, Robert Mugabe was re-elected president of Zimbabwe in a landslide victory over his longtime political rival Morgan Tsvangirai. The result - criticised by the opposition - baffled many observers. Few players were more taken aback by Mugabe's reassertion of political dominance than the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Writing in Prospect magazine, soon after Mugabe's re-election, the director of the Royal Africa Society, Richard Dowden, commented that the Zimbabwean president's triumph was "the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom's policy in Africa in 60 years. Both the British ambassador and the MI6 head officer in Harare called it wrong".

Dowden was correct that the British ambassador at the time, Deborah Bronnert, was mistaken about the likely election outcome. I met Bronnert in Harare during her diplomatic tour there and encountered her a final time at Chatham House (London), where she delivered a presentation on the political situation in Zimbabwe a few months before the 2013 election. Bronnert never left me with the distinct impression that she had a good understanding of Mugabe the political operator and of politics in the ruling ZANU PF party. And I saw her unqualified delusion at Chatham House, months before the fateful ballot. Bronnert could not see Mugabe's coming poll shocker. According to confidential sources that can be expected to know, Bronnert swayed UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in their bilateral discussions, to believe that Tsvangirai would win the election, even as opinion was split within the FCO as to the credibility of Bronnert's standpoint.

Where I part ways with Dowden is on his conviction that Mugabe's 2013 victory was the UK's "biggest defeat" in Africa in six decades. There was a much more significant foreign policy defeat for the FCO in Zimbabwe: Mugabe's first success in the 1980 independence election. Mugabe has been immovable since independence - seeing off a range of domestic and international political opponents across three decades. He has now been president of Zimbabwe for 36 years.

My newly published research relies on previously unused private documents belonging to Major General Sir John Acland, to reassess the UK's role in the 1979-1980 Zimbabwe/Rhodesia ceasefire. Acland commanded the Commonwealth Monitoring Force that supervised the cessation of conflict.

The 1979-1980 ceasefire halted a hard-fought liberation war and was central to Zimbabwe/Rhodesia's transition to independence, which culminated in an inclusive election. Acland's papers reveal deep division between the British military officers who managed the ceasefire and FCO diplomats. An important disagreement was over which of the political parties contesting the February 29 1980 election would triumph and form the independence government.

FCO diplomats believed the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo would win the 1980 election, whereas the military foresaw a victory for Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe's party won 57 seats (63%) to ZAPU's 20 seats (24%) in the poll, vindicating the military's view, amid spirited attempts by certain FCO diplomats to have some ZANU PF candidates banned from contesting the election.

Lord Charles Powell - then a Foreign Office diplomat - reminisced that:
"We never realised Nkomo was not going to win until the results came in. There was even a sweepstakes in the Foreign Office on the election result and it was won by a man in (foreign secretary) Peter Carrington's office called Sir Paul Lever. And it is interesting that he was the one person in Carrington's office who had had absolutely nothing to do with Lancaster House and Rhodesia, but he won!"

From the beginning, Mugabe was not - and never will be - a favourite of the FCO. He was seen as a Marxist-Leninst who was unmanageable, from the point of view of UK interests in Zimbabwe. A combination of genuine disdain for Mugabe and poor intelligence gathering on the likely election outcome, resulted in the FCO downplaying his chances.

As my research uncovered, the UK government only managed the 1979-1980 Zimbabwe/Rhodesia ceasefire effectively because the independence, political nous and competence of military officers such as Acland ultimately prevailed over the injudicious views and machinations of FCO diplomats. Added to these factors the fact that - in key moments - fortune smiled on the FCO's pursuit of making sure Zimbabwe/Rhodesia won independence.

Take for instance the Mozambique president Samora Machel's eleventh-hour intervention during the FCO-led Lancaster House independence negotiations in December 1979, in which he plainly told Mugabe to agree a settlement because he was no longer prepared to support the guerrilla war that ZANU-PF was waging from Mozambican soil. Without Machel's intervention at Lancaster House, the FCO would not have achieved an independence settlement for Zimbabwe/Rhodesia in 1979.

Today the FCO continues to face challenges in its Zimbabwe policy. After a decade in which Mugabe and the UK actively demonised each other, resulting in non-engagement between them, there has been gradual, pragmatic re-engagement since the 2013 election.

Zimbabwe is no longer high up on the FCO's priority list - there are more important foreign policy agendas to grapple with, such as the future of the European Union and terrorism in the Middle East and other parts of Africa.

The UK's interest in Zimbabwe also waned after 2005 because, by then, Mugabe had effectively removed the majority of white Zimbabwean farmers from commercial farmland. There is no escaping the fact that UK interest in Zimbabwe was strongly influenced by affinity for besieged kith and kin in its former colony.

Still, how far reaching the re-engagement with Mugabe - who will next face election in 2018 - should be and what a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will look like continue to exercise the minds of British diplomats and to divide opinion among the diminished numbers in the FCO who remain keenly engaged on Zimbabwe.