British ‘excessively defensive’ on atrocities in Matabeleland

Source: British ‘excessively defensive’ on atrocities in Matabeleland – The Zimbabwe Independent June 2, 2017

THIS is the fifth in a series of articles of a detailed research paper by British academic Hazel Cameron on the state-sponsored killings of civilians by Zimbabwean security forces between 1982 and 1987 under the pretext of suppressing dissidents in the atrocities now widely referred to as the Gukurahundi massacres.

Hazel Cameron,British academic

The following day, March 5, US Secretary of State George Shultz informed the American embassies in Maputo, Mozambique, and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), that the “Fifth Brigade’s activities have been lightly covered in the British press; however, a detailed report by Nick Worrall datelined Bulawayo appeared in today’s Guardian. Worral wrote in part: ‘At one church refugee centre in a Bulawayo suburb last night, 209 people slept the night on a bare stone floor surrounded by their bundles of possessions. Most were either old men or women with small children. One woman said she had fled from her village north of Bulawayo after she and all the other people from the village had been made to lie face down on the ground while soldiers walked along beating them with sticks. She said two men who had tried to get up had been shot dead by soldiers … an old man from a village 30 miles east of the city said two of his young male relatives were shot dead by soldiers last week. He had left home and was afraid to return’.”

The offensive by the Zimbabwean government continued, with Minister of State for Security, Emmerson Mnangagwa, making a public statement on March 4, at a rally held not far from Lupane. His statement was reported in the Chronicle, March 5 1983.

“He told his audience that (the) government had ‘an option’ of ‘burning down … all the villages infected with dissidents’.

“He warned ‘the campaign against dissidents can only succeed if the infrastructure which nurtures them is destroyed’. In a supercilious manner, he chillingly described dissidents as “cockroaches” and the Fifth Brigade as “DDT” brought in to eradicate them.”

The very next day, the largest recorded massacre occurred at Cewale in Northern Lupane with the death of 55 people.

“Mnangagwa, in these statements and in others he made later, made clear plainly that the action against the civilian population of Matabeleland was part of a deliberate state policy.”

In an effort to develop a working strategy to deal with the Zimbabwe problem, Chester Crocker, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Africa, wrote to a US delegation visiting Zimbabwe to explain that: “The reasons for the (Prime Minister Robert) Mugabe’s government’s actions are several and interrelated. Like African leaders since the wave of independence began in 1957, he wants to consolidate his power. In practice, this means suppression of the rival, minority, Ndebele tribe by the Shona. This comes against a background of centuries of tribal rivalry …

“Another core reason for the Zimbabwe government’s action — with important US domestic political ramifications — is the need which Mugabe recognises, to maintain a climate of law and order in Zimbabwe that encourages the still economically necessary white minority to stay.”

It is of note that in this same document, Crocker described Mugabe’s policy in Matabeleland as “turning the Fifth Brigade loose on the Ndebele”, while on the very same day (March 4 1983) British High Commissioner Robin Byatt met with Minister of Defence Sydney Sekeramayi and told him that “we sympathise with the difficulties his government face in handling the dissident problem. We did not wish to add to these”.

Byatt continued, saying he “thought that Zimbabwe’s image and international reputation would suffer badly if the kind of reports which had been appearing recently were to continue over any protracted period of time … I urged him strongly to ensure that excesses were curbed and that, while military force was needed, no more was used than was essential to the requirement of the moment … I said, again speaking personally, that in addition to our concern for Zimbabwe’s security and for her international reputation … we had to be particularly careful of the reputation of our army”. Byatt ended by advising London “I am sure that our best tactic is to continue to try to proffer sympathetic and constructive, rather than simply critical advice if we wish to influence Zimbabwean decisions”.

The rationale for such decision-making is undoubtedly multi-stranded. However, it is quite clear that one of the major concerns for the British is “the reputation of (their) army” and British public opinion as opposed to the ongoing atrocities and human violations.

Such was the increasing concern among Western diplomats in Harare over the unbridled atrocities taking place, that a meeting was organised at the Canadian High Commission on March 11 1983 to share data on conditions in Matabeleland among the chiefs of mission. Representatives from the major involved Western countries — Canada, West Germany, Sweden, Australia and the United States — all attended. Strikingly, Byatt failed to attend, with no apology proffered.

After the meeting, the Americans concluded “that conditions are about as bad as they have been reported in the press, if not worse, though there may have been an improvement following the initial Fifth Brigade rampage in late January and early February”.

Intelligence collated from “Zapu people” by the West German ambassador indicated “that the terror (in Matabeleland) has been directed mainly against women and children. Fifth Brigade has had little contact with actual dissidents, they say, and in two cases where there was contact, five brigade soldiers fled the scene. Zapu people insist there was no intention to restore law and order. Rather the operation was purely political — to crush Zapu and establish a one-party state”.

A decision was made during this meeting that individual démarches should be undertaken “mainly directed at acting foreign minister Nathan Shamuyarira”.

Later that same day, US Ambassador Robert Keeley made “a fairly strong démarche” with acting Prime Minister Simon Muzenda, while the Swedish and West German ambassadors met separately with Shamuyarira to make their démarche. In the meantime the Canadian ambassador “had received very broad and soft instructions about a démarche” while the Australian ambassador planned to make a démarche at the earliest opportunity, but had “not seen any one high-level yet”.

It is notable that the British did not participate in a démarche. As has been noted, Byatt failed to attend the chiefs of mission meeting and Keeley reporting back to Washington that the “UK was conspicuously absent, for reasons I don’t know”.

Upon learning of Byatt’s failure to appear at the meeting in the Canadian High Commission, Washington wrote to the American ambassadors in both London and Gaborone advising them that “off the record, I want you to know that we don’t entirely share the (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) FCO’s confidence about how much of a lead their representatives are willing and eager to take. The UK High Commission has always, since independence, cared more about the UK’s bilateral relations with the GOZ (Government of Zimbabwe) and has not been inclined to participate in démarches that might cause them damage, though clearly supportive of the overall Western interest in this country. One example is that we and the West Germans have worked hard on trying to get the Zimbabwe media to bring more balance to their coverage of east-west issues, but our British colleagues have not joined us in this endeavour.”

Washington continued: “Still off the record, the British High Commissioner leaves here on transfer to London in two weeks’ time after nearly a three-year tour and a decade of involvement with the Rhodesian problem. He seems somewhat distressed at having to leave at a time when things are going sour. He doesn’t want to go out on a low note, that is, a GOZ-UK confrontation over the GOZ’s strategy for (Joshua) Nkomo, Zapu, the Ndebele and Matabeleland …

“I had an hour-long conversation with General Shortis 10 days ago before he had received his instructions on what to say about Matabeleland and found him excessively defensive about what has been going on in Matabeleland and almost an apologist for the GOZ, as well as naive about the political consequences in the longer term. He obviously has a vested interest in the success of BMATT (British Military Advisory and Training Team)’s armed forces integration exercise and tends to downplay the dangers of a blow-up which would scuttle that long and arduous effort.”

As previously noted, a film crew had arrived in Zimbabwe to make a documentary on events in Matabeland. David McMillan of the British High Commission in Harare, invited the film presenter, Jeremy Paxman, to dinner on March 16 1983. After the meeting, McMillan reported back to London that Paxman “took an unreservedly gloomy and sensational view of recent events in Matabeleland where he has recently spent some 10 days. He (Paxman) claimed tha tthe situation was worse than any other he had covered in his years with the BBC. He did not think that the Zimbabwean government would much care for the programme he intended to produce, which was due to broadcast on 21 March (1983)”.

In his report, McMillan noted that he “tried to get Paxman to see events in Matabeleland in their true perspective and put it to him that it was difficult to believe that he had seen nothing worse … I would expect next Monday’s Panorama to be hard-hitting and likely to displease the Zimbabweans”.

One of the more notable parts of the subsequent film was Paxman interviewed BMATT chief of staff, Colonel Chuck Ivey. Ivey was excessively defensive and dismissive regarding events in Matabeleland, claiming, when questioned, “there are stories out of Matabeleland and stories out of Northern Ireland. Which stories are you going to believe?”

At Easter 1983, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference prepared a pastoral statement noting: “Violent reaction against dissident activity has, to our certain knowledge brought about the maiming and death of hundreds and hundreds of innocent people who are neither dissidents nor collaborators. We are convinced by incontrovertible evidence that many wanton atrocities and brutalities have been and are still being perpetrated.”

Dr Cameron teaches International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Britain. Her main research interests include state crime; external institutional bystanders and international criminal law; state and corporate complicity in genocide, war crime and crimes against humanity; intersection of criminality and the extractive industries in the DRC; and Rwandan state violence.

She has written a monograph of her doctoral research titled Britain’s Hidden Role in the Rwandan Genocide.


  • comment-avatar
    BARAMANZA 5 years ago

    What happened during the Ndebele- Shona wars of 1890s ?Who started the war.Balance your reporting

  • comment-avatar

    You tell us Baramanza there were no guns involved there were no mass grave it was only tribal wars with cattle involved then tell us how you became not having your own currency without anything in the shops

    Shona are like cockroaches and rats

  • comment-avatar
    Zambuko 5 years ago

    Gukuruhundi was an atrocity. The perpetrators have not been brought to justice. The victims have not received justice. The British response may not have been commendable but the responsibility for the atrocity lies in Zimbabwe.

  • comment-avatar
    Doris 5 years ago

    The British have always had a policy of interfering in other countries affairs. Then when things go wrong, they back off and plead ignorance. Look at India for one.

  • comment-avatar
    Barry 5 years ago

    Good for Hazel. Give her a cookie. If this is meant to divert attention from the real culprits it’s failing miserably.