British authorities have been accused of downplaying the killing of thousands of dissidents in Zimbabwe in the 1980s to protect the U.K.’s political and economic interests in the south African nation.
According to documents obtained by Scottish university lecturer Dr. Hazel Cameron — under the Freedom of Information Act — British officials in London and Zimbabwe were well aware of the killings committed by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe but consistently downplayed their magnitude, reports the Guardian.
“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,” Dr. Cameron said.
Protecting Strategic Interests
Dr. Cameron says she obtained thousands of documents, including hundreds of cables exchanged between British officials in Zimbabwe and London all throughout the period of the killings.
She also says the documents reveal the attitude of Robin Byatt, the then-British high commissioner in Harare, toward Zimbabwe in the initial months of the massacre.
In one cable, which was sent on June 24, 1983, Byatt explained how Zimbabwe was important to Britain largely because of major British and Western economic and strategic interests in southern Africa.
“Other important interests are investment and trade…prestige, and the need to avoid a mass White exodus. Zimbabwe… [also] is a bulwark against Soviet inroads,” Byatt said.
The report further accuses Byatt of negatively interfering with the work of Jeremy Paxman, a BBC journalist who had traveled to Zimbabwe in 1983 to make a documentary on the killings.
Byatt is said to have complained to then-Foreign Secretary Geffrey Howe, saying that the journalist had taken an unreservedly gloomy and sensational view of the events in Zimbabwe.
He further complained that the reporter had a “reputation for sensational reporting.”
Mass Slaughter of Opposition
Shortly after President Mugabe took power in 1980, following a brutal guerrilla struggle against White minority rule, he embarked on a massive security crackdown against his political opponents, spearheaded by the Fifth Brigade, a special branch of the Zimbabwean national army created to deal with bandits.
For nine months, the Fifth Brigade reportedly killed, tortured, and raped tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. Historians believe that close to 20,000 people died in the massacres, and many more suffered severe physical and psychological damage.
The special unit, which was fanatically loyal to Mugabe, had been trained by North Korean military specialists to help Mugabe retain power.
Most killings happened in Matabeleland, which is predominantly occupied by the Ndebele ethnic minority and was a stronghold of the then-opposition leader Joshua Nkomo.
Mugabe reportedly accused Nkomo’s followers of killing government supporters and destroying their properties in the region and used the allegations to justify the atrocities.