Margaret Thatcher banned her envoy to what was then Rhodesia from meeting Robert Mugabe in 1979, refusing to talk ”with terrorists until they become prime ministers,” files released Wednesday showed.
At the time, Britain was debating whether to recognise the government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the first black-led administration in what subsequently became Zimbabwe, previously secret documents revealed.
Muzorewa was elected in 1979 after years of white minority rule led by Ian Smith, against which Mugabe’s party and others waged a bloody 15-year guerilla war.
But the election came after an internal settlement brokered by Smith and he remained in Muzorewa’s government, so its result was bitterly opposed by other African nations and elsewhere.
As Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister in May 1979, officials in Britain, the former colonial power, were considering a quick recognition of the Muzorewa government and lifting sanctions.
”The people of Rhodesia have the right to decide themselves who shall be their govt. and whether they approve the internal settlement,” Thatcher wrote on a letter she received from Australian premier Malcolm Fraser that month.
Former colonial power Britain soon sent an envoy, Lord Harlech, to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia to hold negotiations with African countries like Nigeria and Tanzania about the future, as well as developing contacts with Muzorewa.
But Thatcher was forcefully opposed to him meeting Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, leaders of the Patriotic Front rebels.
In a letter to Downing Street on May 25, a senior Foreign Office official wrote that then foreign secretary Lord Peter Carrington ”considers that the emissary should offer to meet the co-leaders of the Patriotic Front”.
Thatcher wrote on top, in a heavily underlined note: ”No — please do not meet leaders of the ‘Patriotic Front’. I have never done business with terrorists until they become Prime Ministers! MT”.
Meanwhile, African leaders remained convinced that Britain was about to recognise Muzorewa’s government.
Then Nigerian vice-president Shehu Musa Yar’Adua even suggested that his country could leave the Commonwealth over the affair during a conversation with Britain’s ambassador to Lagos, according to a diplomatic telegram on May 29.
The Muzorewa government did not survive, in part due to lack of international recognition.
Britain called a conference on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in London later that year and an agreement was secured, after which the country briefly returned to British rule before Mugabe was elected in 1980 and the country was renamed Zimbabwe.
Mugabe has held office ever since, facing widespread international condemnation in recent years amid unemployment, food shortages and human rights violations.
In February 2009, he formed a unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change following disputed elections in 2008.
The 1979 documents were released by the National Archives in London under the 30-year rule. This allows classified government files to be made public after three decades. – AFP