Zimbabwe became an independent republic 34 years ago on this day in 1980, eliminating the longstanding British colonial rule that existed between 1888 and 1965 in addition to the brutal civil war that ended in 1979. Canaan Sodindo Banana (pictured) would become the nation’s first president, although his career would be upended by scandal.
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Banana was born on March 5, 1936, in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia. Banana’s father was from Malawi, while his Zimbabwean mother was part of the Northern Ndebele people. Taught by missionaries and later studying to become a teacher, Banana found ministry to be his calling and was ordained in 1966. Liberation theology was the hallmark of Banana’s beliefs, but he was also seen as a unifier.
When Rhodesia put forth its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), which split the nation from the United Kingdom, the White prime minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith (pictured at right) stood as the nation’s ruler. Banana became politicized and openly critical of Smith’s policies. Consequently, he joined the Black liberation battles that had erupted across the continent. When Black council members and other officials began getting arrested, though, he fled the country.
After fleeing his country to live in the United States, Banana returned to Rhodesia in 1976. Banana aligned two of the country’s political parties, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which was led but future prime minister and President Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
The battle between Smith’s White-minority government and the uprising nationalist forces left 27,000 dead after seven years of battles.
Eventually, British Authorities officially granted independence, with Mugabe getting elected to the post of prime minister as part of a multi-party alliance. Banana was mostly seen as a figurehead in the country, with many claiming Mugabe had more influence than he did. Mugabe took over the role in 1987 and continues to hold that post to this day.
Banana was arrested on charges of sodomy based on testimony delivered during the murder trial of his bodyguard, Jefta Dube, in 1997. The following year, he was convicted on 11 charges of sodomy, attempted sodomy, and indecent assault. Banana called the charges baseless but his wife seemed supportive of her husband’s alleged sexuality.
Banana fled to South Africa before facing trial and prison but was urged to return by Nelson Mandela. He returned to the nation in December 1998. In January 1999, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison but only served one year.
Banana reportedly died of cancer in 2003. President Mugabe spoke at Banana’s funeral and used his passing as an opportunity to say that he does not support the gay community.
Listen to President Mugabe’s speech here:
The Zimbabwean day of Independence is typically celebrated with marches throughout the nation, which honor the country’s liberation fighters.