Lancaster House: the talks that ended war but did not finalise reforms

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The signing of the Lancaster House Agreement on 21 December 1979 ended a bloody war of liberation.

What was the general background to the conference?

The armed struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe intensified in the late seventies. The Rhodesian government was compelled to seek a settlement but was not prepared to consider majority rule. Several talks were held to resolve the impasse culminating in the Internal Settlement Agreement of 1978 which established the short lived government of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, ostensibly headed by Abel Muzorewa, but with real power invested in minority hands.

Following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Lusaka in August 1979 and as per the resolution reached there, the British government invited Muzorewa’s government and the leaders of the Patriotic Front to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House.

A compromise constitution that would satisfy all stakeholders and bring the war to an end was desperately needed. There was a desire to secure international recognition for any peace agreement, necessary for the lifting of sanctions and the return of international investment.

Invitations to the Conference were issued on 14 August, barely a week after the conclusion of CHOGM and both sides accepted quickly.

Why hold it in the UK?

From the beginning, and as it remains today, Britain’s commitment in Rhodesia was hesitant and reluctant. Bullied by Cecil Rhodes in 1889 into accepting some sort of responsibility for the territory, comparatively little attention was given in comparison to other territories such as India and South Africa.

In Rhodesia, therefore, the drama of colonial process was played out in reverse – metropolitan power having been very limited initially but with total responsibility being assumed in the end. There is thus something ironic in the fact that, in the end, Britain could only terminate her constitutional connection to Rhodesia by taking on a role more extensive and demanding than she had played in the previous 90 years.

This was largely due to the energy and determination of newly-elected Margaret Thatcher whose government sent the invitations, set the agenda and provided a draft constitution for delegates to pick apart and re-create.

Many former “dependent territories” (i.e. colonies) of the UK successfully made the transition to independent statehood on the basis of constitutions agreed at Lancaster House and the organisers probably hoped that the similar atmosphere and setting would have the same effect on the notoriously wilful and stubborn parties involved in the Rhodesian negotiations.

What was the stated aim of the Conference?

Broadly, the organisers hoped to “lay the foundations for a free, independent and democratic society in which all the people of Rhodesia, irrespective of their race or political beliefs, would be able to live in security and at peace with each other and with their neighbours”.

The purpose of the Conference was to create an Independence Constitution, with elections supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means. The Conference was unique in British colonial history because it had to achieve peace as well as a future constitution.

What did each political group hope to achieve?

The British made it clear that they would grant independence to Rhodesia under the same conditions it had done for its other territories in Africa. As Lord Carrington, the Chair of the conference said in his opening address, this would entail “that the principle of majority rule must be maintained and guaranteed; that there must be guarantees against retrogressive amendments to the constitution; that there should be immediate improvement in the political status of the African population; that racial discrimination is unacceptable; that we must ensure that, regardless of race, there is no oppression of majority by minority or of minority by majority; and that what is agreed must be shown to be acceptable to the people of Rhodesia”.

The other groups, while endorsing these viewpoints, had their own concerns.

What about the Patriotic Front?

This was an alliance of Zanu and Zapu, headed by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo respectively. They were intent on ensuring that the post-independence government actually controlled the army, judiciary, police and civil service – unlike the Muzorewa government.

They posed a number of questions in their opening address to the Conference, focused on the protection of the people and control of the security forces.

The most relevant question was “What will be the future of the people’s land?”

Did the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government have demands?

Muzorewa saw the conference as a way of legitimising his government and gaining international recognition. His aim was to convince the rest of the world to lift sanctions by presenting his regime as democratically elected.

Ian Smith had much the same idea, although he wanted to preserve the power of the whites in government who could negate decisions made by Muzorewa by virtue of their veto in parliament.

Remind us what happened on the first day.

The Conference began on 10 September, and it was a matter of getting bodies into seats and then listening to the opening statements by the leaders of the delegations. Lord Carrington’s speech was upbeat, set within the context of Britain’s recent decolonising past.

He repeated that Britain would set the tone at the Conference but would be prepared to entertain alternative formulations if agreed to by all sides. Bishop Abel Muzorewa repeated his assertions that Zimbabwe-Rhodesia be granted international recognition as it was now a democracy with majority rule, meeting Harold Wilson’s six principles.

Joshua Nkomo, speaking on behalf of the PF, was cautiously optimistic – emphasising the control they had over a large swathe of the country – but firmly stated the PF would not compromise on essential issues.

Did the delegations have anything in common?

Both delegations were seriously divided coalitions: Muzorewa’s had often antagonistic white and black members while the PF was best described only as a negotiating vehicle for two politico-military movements long marked by hostility and tension between their members.

Neither believed the conference would succeed due to mutual mistrust, but neither, as Jeffrey Davidow said in A Peace in Southern Africa: The Lancaster House Conference on Rhodesia 1979, was willing to “abdicate the field of negotiation to the other.”

The military commanders for both sides – Peter Walls for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and Josiah Tongogara and Lookout Masuku for the PF – recognised the war had reached stalemate and recommended a political solution as infinitely preferable to continued bloodshed.

Additionally the delegations each believed they enjoyed majority support amongst the electorate and were willing to allow elections to settle the matter.

What compelled them to the negotiating table?

For Muzorewa’s government, the failing economy was a major driving force. The war they were fighting – to preserve their economic interests and social privileges – was rapidly eroding these selfsame stakes.

Additionally, South Africa indicated it was tiring of supporting Rhodesia.

The PF was being pressured by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique to enter into negotiations. Melancholic about the war – and its dramatic negative impact on their economies – the Frontline leaders saw the conference as a plausible and honourable way out for themselves and the PF.

Their threats to withdraw logistical, financial and moral support for the PF would play a major role in the months to come. Added to this was the real possibility of the new British PM Margaret Thatcher recognising Muzorewa’s government and granting it full legal status and thus international recognition, thus by-passing the liberation movements which she regarded with some distaste.

This became known as the “second-class” solution and it remained an option until the day the ceasefire was accepted. Britain saw an honourable way out of the Rhodesian imbroglio with minimal commitment on their part while the PF recognised they could gain political control of the country through internationally-supervised elections.

Muzorewa’s government gained a clear shot at the lifting of sanctions and international legitimacy as well as an end to the war.

Did the British have an overall strategy?

They did not develop a blueprint prior to the conference to dictate each move but certain elements were decided in advance:

1) An emphasis of British centrality in the negotiating process which mandated other governments to the periphery

2) A strong, almost dictatorial style of conference management

3) A step-by-step approach to build momentum

Their decision to employ a solo approach was due to the failure of other peace negotiations with several competing national and international interests; the Frontline States, the US and RSA had always proved unhelpful and unfocused in the past.

The British did acknowledge their help would be critical on certain issues and were prepared to include them when necessary.

Why did they want a “Constitutional”, not a “Peace,” Conference?

This was explained in an interview with Robin Renwich, a member of Carrington’s negotiating team, and later British Ambassador to Zimbabwe:

“The attainment of majority rule was what the war was supposed to be about. If it was possible to achieve an independence constitution which indisputably, provided for that, the conflict would be reduced to the dimensions of a struggle for power; and the pressure would be greater in the parties for that competition to be settled by other means.”

Due to the gulf between the parties on almost all the issues, the British decided traditional negotiation measures of establishing an opening position and then trading concessions would not work. Carrington took the initiative, always offering an outline plan and allowing discussion to amend it before presenting a final detailed proposal.

What was in the initial constitutional proposal?

Carrington distributed a 13-page summary on 12 September, aimed at modifying the offensive elements of the 1979 Constitution.

Among other proposals, it contained clauses for a constitutional head of state, with a Prime Minister as head of government, a bicameral Parliament as well as sections dealing with the security forces, judicature and finance.

Whites in the country reacted somewhat hysterically to these proposals fearing a complete erosion of their interests, ignoring the provisions made in their favour such as entrenching of clauses of the constitution, reserving a percentage of seats for whites for a set period of time and the inclusion of a Bill of Rights enshrining Western freedoms.

The PF immediately argued that special provisions for whites would enshrine racism but the main British concern was to ensure a smooth handover of power which meant keeping the largely white civil service intact; anything less might have prompted a massive exodus and, potentially a collapse of the economy.

All other attempts to discuss alternative constitutions were sidelined by Carrington.

How did the PF take it?

The PF reiterated their original demands that the conference should begin with a discussion of the transition to independence followed by constitutional talks.

When this proposal was politely declined by Carrington, the PF withdrew into obdurate silence, punctuated by press conferences restating their original demands or making threats. Carrington persisted and finally on 24 September the PF accepted the idea of a whites-only 20% block of seats in Parliament.

This was a major concession on Robert Mugabe’s part because he recognised the whites could cast themselves in the role of “kingmaker” in any independence government; Nkomo was comparatively untroubled seeing potential allies in a coalition after elections.

The PF refused to budge after this gesture and plenary sessions only resumed on 2 October.

Was this stalemate?

Carrington used the time to allow his team to refine the draft Constitution and to have private talks with the principles on either side.

On 3 October, he presented the final draft of the Constitution and gave both sides five days to make a decision. The draft revealed that while the PF had been debating grand policy with the British, the Salisbury delegation had pressed for further advantage. For example – and importantly – it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights that any compensation received for property would be freely remittable out of the country.

Property was defined to include pensions, converting them from a reward for services rendered to a “right”. In addition to this, the Bill of Rights prohibited government from preventing anyone establishing a private school or sending their children to a school of their choice.

In addition, the Constitution entrenched white seats for seven years and the Bill of Rights for 10. These advantages may explain why, on 5 October, Muzorewa’s delegation announced their acceptance.

In addition, they may have been gambling that the PF would withdraw, leaving the way open for the “second-class” solution.

What was the sticking point?

The PF raised objections to the provisions made on the army, police, public service, judicature and – most importantly – land development and settlement.

They were worried about the fact that civil servants were being overly-protected which would make it difficult to replace them as well as saddling them with a huge fiscal burden in the form of generous pensions.

They were also concerned about the loyalties of the civil service and armed forces – police and army – to any new government and wanted everyone to retake an oath of allegiance after Independence.

The main sticking point proved to be land reform. The draft constitution contained a standard clause on property, which was a guarantee against the deprivation of property without the payment of prompt and adequate compensation.

It was what was in the tenets of international governance, also used in United Nations conventions, but what it signalled to Mugabe and Nkomo was the British working at maintaining the status quo on land.

Anything said about land reform?

Carrington acknowledged PF concerns and proposed that the British government would “pay for settlement schemes and development projects”. He also proposed that the British Government obtain international assistance for land purchase projects through an Agricultural Development Bank.

A Whitehall official later said the land fund was ‘an olive branch the PF chose not to accept.’

The next day, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, expressed solidarity with the PF over their delay in acceptance of the constitution because of the land issue and the non-committal British approach.

Nkomo repeated the main stumbling block was the land issue and compensation for the whites to which Carrington replied that the UK would be happy to donate to a fund to take “under-utilised land” from whites. He undercut this offer with the announcement that the talks would continue on a bilateral basis until the PF accepted the final British draft – which of course made no mention of who was to pay for land reform projects and the amounts involved.

Who actually promised to pay for the land – and how much?

At an emergency meeting of the Frontline States on 16 October, Nyerere said: “The only real problem is the issue of who provides the money for compensation to the settler farmers when their land is redistributed by a future Zimbabwe government. This is not a constitutional question but a simple policy question.”

As the Frontline leaders saw it, the British insisted the future Zimbabwe government would pay compensation while the PF insisted the UK be responsible. They could not offer any solutions though – or contribute money of their own, given the parlous state of their economies at the time.

Fortunately, that day, the US said it would be willing to contribute to an international fund aimed at agricultural and economic development in an independent Zimbabwe.

No actual figures would ever be stipulated by the powers during the Lancaster House Conference.

Surely some amount must have been mentioned?

On 18 October the Herald carried a story on discussions the previous day and reported: “Informed sources said the fund would have a target of £1000 mln, funded by Britain, the US, EEC and Commonwealth countries. America is expected to contribute 60% of the cash.” By the tone of this article, it is clear that this was an anticipated amount.

Indeed, the next day, Under-Secretary in the British Foreign Office, Robin Byatt claimed these reports were incorrect and that Britain would only contribute an initial (unspecified) amount to an agricultural development scheme.

Years later, when asked in an interview whether this lack of detail was not a cause for concern, Sonny Ramphal, then secretary-general of the Commonwealth replied:

“No, I don’t think so. You are dealing with the government of the United States, the government of Britain. Solid assurances were recorded in the documents of the conference and notified to all Commonwealth countries. It wasn’t a little thing. It didn’t specify a sum, but specifying a sum would have been very difficult in the context of Zimbabwe. What farms? How many of them? What cost?”

He also confirmed that there was never any mention of the Zimbabwean government being expected to contribute money towards any necessary compensation.

The alleged billion-pound target was probably overly-generous given that a similar fund for Kenya had needed only £33 million.

Why would the US become involved in funding?

From the Kissinger days, the US had developed an interest in seeing the “Rhodesian problem” resolved – both as a face-saver after their disastrous interventions in Angola and as a means of halting the spread of Soviet influence in the region. In the week of 22 October, Time Magazine carried a report stating US President Carter was considering developing an aid programme of between US$1-2 bln for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and neighbouring countries.

The State Department insisted, however that the money was for a broad-based agriculture and development fund and not a “buy-out-the-whites” scheme.

Other details of the intended beneficiaries were sketchy but considering the article contained a quote on land reform in Zimbabwe from Joshua Nkomo it is nevertheless possible the bulk of this money would have gone towards purchasing land.

Would the PF accept this “fog of half-promises”?

As Davidow said, the PF “were compelled to accept undoubtedly sincere but still vague” promises regarding funding. Nevertheless, the PF drew up a statement, on the basis of which they would go back into the conference, publicly recording the personal assurances on funding for land reform that they had received. They met with the Foreign Office and showed them the statement that Nkomo would read out the next morning when the conference resumed. Then they distributed the statement to the members of the Southern Africa Committee because they wanted there to be no doubt, in anybody’s mind, that this was the basis on which they were going back. This they did on 18 October and the following day acceptance of the Independence Constitution was announced. Evidence of their remaining suspicions about the alleged forthcoming money was expressed by Eddison Zvobgo when he said they would seize land without paying compensation from State coffers if they won the elections.

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