On 1 March 1980, as Zimbabwe was waiting for the result of its independence election, General Peter Walls, the country’s military chief, wrote a letter marked “secret” to the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, telling her of his wish to stage a coup to prevent Robert Mugabe from coming to power. Thatcher managed to dissuade the general. It is uncanny that General Walls, just like Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe’s recent polls, was calling for an election that would bring Mugabe to office to be declared “null and void” (“on the grounds … of massive intimidation”) before the result was officially known. Below is Walls’ letter in full and Thatcher’s response through an intermediary.
1 March 1980
The Right Honourable
Margaret Thatcher, MP
10 Downing Street
Dear Prime Minister
I am exercising the right conferred upon me by you personally that I have direct access to you when the situation warrants it. I believe it is my solemn duty and responsibility to now report to you directly and make an appeal on behalf of all freedom-loving and law-abiding Zimbabwe Rhodesians. Many of these have trusted you and your Government because of my colleagues and my own example, assurance and encouragement, and in the case of the security forces, our command.
We have now completed three days of voting as part of the electoral process agreed at Lancaster House and await announcement of the results on next Tuesday morning. I therefore judge this to be the right moment for me to take this action. I must first explain the background.
Despite the assurance to me that Lord Soames would measure up to the grave responsibility delegated to him, I must confirm reports sent to you, through intermediaries, that he has proved to be inadequate, lacking in moral courage, lacking in ability to listen and learn, and above all incapable of implementing the solemn promise, given by yourself and Lord Carrington, that he would rely on us for advice on military and other situations, and act in accordance with the interests of [the] survival of a moderate, freedom-loving and anti-Marxist society.
I will not accuse him of being unwilling to do so, although many in their bitterness think this to be the case. He has often treated us as if we had no special status in your eyes and certainly not as people who, at great political sacrifice, had agreed to go to the conference table after militarily forcing the other parties to agree to do so.
It is true his task has not been made easier by your Government insisting on unrestricted entry of hundreds of observers and journalists, many of whom are avowedly left-wing orientated and definitely anti-Muzorewa.
Many of them, and some junior monitors, have been arrogant enough to set themselves up as instant experts on this country, and Africa generally, and have made pronouncements accordingly, contributing greatly to the emotional and hysterical wave of hostile propaganda levelled against us. Had the Governor acted resolutely and effectively in the early days of the pre-election period, his task would have been much easier, and our survival as a democratic nation would have not now be [sic] so seriously imperilled.
Although it is possible the moderate parties may achieve acceptable results in the election, I must say to you in all sincerity and gravity that it will be a miracle if it happens and in spite of intimidation, breaches of the ceasefire, and sheer terror accepted pathetically by your representatives.
Although I have sufficient faith in God to hope that the true wishes of the people in this country will be manifested some day in some way and may be even now, I must take the precaution of making contingency plans for the worst case on this occasion, especially as reports from all around the country indicate that massive intimidation makes a victory by Mugabe the most likely if not inevitable result of the election.
I should add that many of the affidavits about intimidation, in the hundreds being forwarded to us today, have been sworn by your British policemen and other visitors. I wish you could see the sullen hurt and misery in the eyes and faces of our black people, who are normally so cheerful, good-natured, and full of goodwill.
My appeal to you must be on the following basis:
(a) If Mugabe succeeds in gaining a simple majority by winning 51 seats or more, or if he is able to attract sufficient defectors from other parties, it is vital to our survival as a free nation that you declare the election null and void on the grounds of official reports of massive intimidation frustrating the free choice of the bulk of the people.
(b) If Mugabe gets less than 50 seats but has more than any other party, our present efforts to form a coalition based on the tripod of [Bishop Abel] Muzorewa, [Joshua] Nkomo, and [Ian] Smith must be given every opportunity and help, however overt or devious as may be necessary, to succeed in governing the country and resisting the efforts to overthrow them of Mugabe, and anybody who supports him.
(c) In the event of the election being declared null and void, or the moderate parties failing to form a viable coalition with a working majority in the House of Assembly, it is essential from my considered point of view that you maintain a British presence in ZR [Zimbabwe Rhodesia] to run the country with a Council of Ministers, thus allowing us to provide, if necessary, the military conditions for an orderly and safe withdrawal of those people of all races who wish to take refuge in South Africa or elsewhere.
This will be preferable to my taking unconstitutional action which would be fraught with snags and dangers, apart from being loathsome to me as a professional soldier, and almost certain to result in much bloodshed and damage to property, and embarrassment to your Government. However, if you are unable to see your way to honouring the bond between us, I must reserve the right to take whatever action is necessary in the interests of the majority of [the] people whom I am pledged to serve.
It must be without precedent or at least abnormal, for a person like myself to address such a message as this to no less than the Prime Minister of Britain, but I wish to assure you I do so only in the extremity of our possible emergency, with goodwill, and in the sincere and honest belief that it is my duty in terms of the privileged conversations I had with you and Lord Carrington. I don’t know how to sign myself, but I hope to remain your obedient servant.
(According to a minute on the letter written by a Mr Powell, Margaret Thatcher saw General Walls’ letter on 2 March and a reply was sent to him on the following day, 3 March, dissuading him from taking the unconstitutional action he had in mind. Thatcher chose to communicate with Walls through an intermediary)
& Commonwealth Office
London SW1A 2AH
3 March 1980
Dear Michael Lafferty
Rhodesia: Message from Gen Walls
The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary discussed with the Prime Minister yesterday evening the message from General Walls. Lord Carrington recommends that instructions should be sent as soon as possible today for the Governor or Sir A Duff to reply to Walls on the Prime Minister’s behalf. The purpose will be to calm and reassure Walls, without giving hostages to fortune about the precise composition of the government, or our own role after the elections results are known.
The implied threats in Walls’ letter are worrying and no doubt reflect the strong pressure which Walls is under from within the armed forces. But he has played a helpful role over the past week or so both in bringing together the forces of the two sides and in establishing the foundation for a coalition between Mr Nkomo, Bishop Muzorewa and the Whites, He will be aware of the grave consequences of any action to overturn the election results; and it is unlikely that he has any firm assurances of South African support. While the risk of hasty action in the event of a Mugabe landslide undoubtedly exists and there is evidence of contingency plans in the Rhodesian forces to deal with the PF in the assembly places, we have no grounds to think that any action is imminent.
Lord Carrington considers that the Prime Minister’s reply should so far as possible seek to reassure Walls and to recognise the vital role that he has played in recent days. Clearly, he cannot be given any specific commitment about the formation of a government. But provided Mugabe gets less than 40 seats (i.e. short of a majority of African seats), the sort of coalition between Nkomo, Muzorewa and the Whites that Walls is seeking would be a perfectly legitimate objective, though it might be possible to take some elements of Zanu-PF into it. Walls should therefore be reassured that we share the goal of a broad, moderate and stable government which contributes to national unity and reconciliation.
If Mugabe gets more than 40 seats, the situation will be much more difficult; and it will be hard to avoid a situation in which he does not have a leading role in the government. Walls and the Whites could probably be brought to accept some form of national government, though their suspicion of Mugabe is such that we should have to approach it carefully, emphasising the need for unity and reconciliation after the elections and for a broadly-based government which reflected all viewpoints in the country.
If Mugabe wins an absolute majority, then our aim will again have to be a national government in which all parties are represented, and Mugabe’s influence thus diluted. It will be very difficult to bring the Whites to accept such a government in which Mugabe would have such a prominent role, and the risks of a White reaction would be strongest in these circumstances. But it is probably the best outcome that we can hope for. Our role in such a case would be difficult, But to reassure the Whites we would have to indicate that we stood ready to help with the problems involved with the transition to independence (though we would not envisage extending the Governor’s stay by more than a matter of days and certainly not beyond independence).
I enclose a draft letter of instructions for the Prime Minister’s approval.
(Assistant Private Secretary to Lord Carrington)