Why Britain turned a blind eye on Gukurahundi

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Britain was quite aware of the Gukurahundi massacres committed by Zimbabwe’s Five Brigade in the 1980s but it turned a blind eye because Zimbabwe was important for both British and Western economic and strategic interests in Southern Africa, a new report just released says.

Between 10 000 and 20 000 people were killed between 1983 and 1987 in the killings that were centred around Matebeleland and parts of the Midlands in what President Robert Mugabe has admitted was a moment of madness.

While the massacres are often described as a purge of the Ndebele speaking people by the Shona-speaking members of Mugabe’s army, some former Zimbabwe African People’s Revolutionary Army fighters, who were the victims of Gukurahundi, say the killings were engineered by the British to weaken Zimbabwe and to delay the independence of South Africa.

The new study clearly indicates that Britain was more interested in its economic and strategic interests than the people of Matebeleland.

British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe at the time Robin Byatt told Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Geoffrey Howe that: “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 (£800 million) and trade (£120 million exports in 1982), Lancaster House prestige, and the need to avoid a mass white exodus.

“Zimbabwe offers scope to influence the outcome of the agonising South Africa problem; and is a bulwark against Soviet inroads … Zimbabwe’s scale facilitates effective external influence on the outcome of the Zimbabwe experiment, despite occasional Zimbabwean perversity.”

According to Hazel Cameron, writing in the International History Review, the “occasional Zimbabwean perversity” were the Gukurahundi massacres which the ambassador downplayed.

The British investment was quite substantial and is currency is estimated at £2.6 billion (about US$3.3 billion).

Besides, the Zimbabwe National Army, including leaders of 5 Brigade, was being trained by the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT) which had been given £75 million for this.

“The rationale for Britain’s inertia in Zimbabwe when faced with grave violations of human rights is expressed clearly in numerous communications between Harare and London,” Cameron writes.

“This includes Britain’s determination to maintain good diplomatic relations with Mugabe so to protect their significant British economic and strategic interests in southern Africa. Britain recognised the critical role Zimbabwe played in southern Africa during this Cold War era.

“Furthermore Britain had invested substantially in Zimbabwe and enjoyed good trade relations, which they sought to maintain. The dataset also identifies that it was of great importance to Mugabe that the economically viable whites stay in Zimbabwe, whilst it was equally important to the Thatcher government to take measures to prevent the possibility of ‘a major exodus’ of Zimbabweans to the UK.”

She adds: “What is apparent from the documentary material is that the overarching motivation to maintain a British Military Advisory and Training Team in the country at the behest of Mugabe, and safeguarding positive relationships with his government, was for London’s own political, economic and strategic interests. Harare was pivotal to Britain’s regional strategy; British overarching concern was the political risk that negative public and parliamentary opinion might cause to their vested interests, and not the security and protection of the victims of Gukurahundi.”-insider

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