UK downplayed Robert Mugabe massacre in Zimbabwe

Officials in London accused of ignoring massacre of thousands of dissidents throughout the 1980s


British officials deliberately downplayed the massacre of thousands of Robert Mugabe's opponents in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, newly released documents have revealed.

Who did what?

Mugabe swept to power in what was then Rhodesia in 1980, when his Zanu-PF party won more than 60 per cent of the vote in elections that followed years of bloody struggle against minority white rule.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

However, the man hailed by western liberals as a freedom fighter began a brutal security clampdown against his political opponents.

Spearheaded by the so-called Fifth Brigade, a group of fanatically loyal pro-Mugabe militias who had been trained in North Korea, the crackdown targeted ethnic minorities and areas loyal to Mugabe's political rival Joshua Nkomo.

Over a nine-month period in 1983, it is believed the brigade raped, tortured or killed between 10,000 and 20,000 unarmed civilians.

And who knew what?

Thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that British officials in London and Zimbabwe knew of the atrocities but sought to minimise their scale, writes The Times.

"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," said Dr Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews who requested the files.

Messages between Robin Byatt, then high commissioner in Harare, and officials in the Foreign Office stress Zimbabwe's importance as a major investment and trading centre in southern Africa and the need to preserve "British and western economic and strategic interests".

They also insist on "the need to avoid a mass white exodus" while continuing to support Mugabe "as a bulwark against Soviet inroads" in the region.

Declassified documents also show Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Prime Minister Justin, urged a "very broad and soft" approach when dealing with Mugabe for fear of turning public opinion against the newly independent country.

Has anyone ever been held to account?

According to The Guardian, none of the perpetrators of the massacre has ever faced trial and "those implicated include many who are now senior political figures in Zimbabwe".

Mugabe this year celebrated his 93rd birthday, having been in power for 36 years.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.