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Zimbabwe: Lancaster House - the US Perspective
Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

By Jeffrey Davidow
December 22, 2009 - The Herald

This is the second in a series of eight articles on the events of late 1979 and early 1980, the last stages leading to independence of Zimbabwe. Davidow is a retired US diplomat.

FOR more than three months in late 1979, British Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington chaired a conference at Lancaster House in London that the British government had convened to find, once and for all, a solution to "the Rhodesian problem".

At the outset and through most of its course, few observers or participants gave the conference much chance of success.

Most doubted that a settlement acceptable to all of the parties gathered there could be devised, that would bring an end to the war in Rhodesia and guide the country from minority white domination to majority African rule.

The pessimism was understandable.

For 15 years, successive British governments had failed in efforts to convince Ian Smith, the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia, to relinquish the control that he and approximately 200 000 white settlers maintained over Rhodesia's government and its black population, which by 1979 numbered approximately seven million ...

Nevertheless, the conference did succeed. On December 21, the head of the Salisbury delegation, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the leaders of the Patriotic Front, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, and Lord Carrington signed an agreement that contained a constitution for the independent state of Zimbabwe, ceasefire provisions to end the war, and transitional arrangements to guide the country through a brief period of British interim administration ...

The Lancaster House Conference was a three-act play, or, better put, a one-act play performed three times, but with enough variety and tension so as not to rob each performance of its drama.

Each dealt with a distinct area of the settlement - the constitution, the transitional arrangements, and the ceasefire - and lasted about one month.

Most of the performance was enacted outside of the conference hall.

At each stage the British were able to obtain early Muzorewa approval of their proposals and couple that with Lord Carrington's perceived willingness to pursue a second-class solution, to obtain the Patriotic Front's acquiescence.

In retrospect, the three acts take on an almost formalised predictability, but at the time few could be sanguine of success ...

On 7 June 1979, US President Jimmy Carter had issued a congressionally mandated report in which he stated that the conditions were not yet appropriate for the United States to lift sanctions against Rhodesia, which was technically still a colony in rebellion against Britain.

The US president's decision was not a popular one among many on Capitol Hill, where support for the Rhodesian regime of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who had six weeks earlier replaced Ian Smith as Prime Minister, was increasing ...

Perhaps the most significant involvement of a supporting actor was that of US Ambassador Kingman Brewster. Responding to separate requests from [Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny] Ramphal and Carrington, President Carter authorised Brewster to convey to the British, the Front Line States, and the Patriotic Front a pledge of US assistance should Lancaster House result in a success.

The wording of the US commitment was convoluted and cautious, reflecting the Carter administration's concern that it might face congressional criticism for participating in a "buyout" of white landlords or for opening the US.treasury to land-hungry peasants ...

In a statement to a plenary of October 18, Nkomo noted that the British and US assurances on land issues "go a long way in allaying the great concern we have over the whole land question".

Another factor that may have played a role in acceptance was the knowledge, leaked to the Press and discussed in general terms with Nkomo and Mugabe, of British intentions to take an active role in the transitional period, thus limiting, to some degree, their continued concern about Rhodesian regime control during the interim period.

Carrington's negotiating position was markedly strengthened by the situational factors surrounding the conference: its London venue and the wide panoply of tools - intelligence gathering, Press manipulation, tactic bargaining played out in Parliament - that he put to use.

The keystone of the British conference tactics, the step-by-step approach, generated momentum as intended, kept the parties engaged, and conveyed the impression of conference progress necessary for Carrington to maintain the support of Mrs Thatcher and interested onlookers such as the Front Line States and the US government.

A principle function of the supporting players was to reinforce Britain's credibility ... "One of our most important contributions throughout the Lancaster House Conference," writes [then US Secretary of State] Cyrus Vance, "was to vouch for British sincerity and impartiality with the suspicious Africans."

The categorical difficulty lies not entirely in the multiplicity of Carrington's roles [as negotiator, mediator, arbitrator]. It is also prompted by the blurring of distinctions that were once thought to neatly exist ... Certain subjects seem quite clear as long as we leave them alone.

The ideal mediator was once thought to be an impartial third party, with no particular stake in the outcome, able to elucidate the conflictive issues, promote co-operation among the parties, and generate compromise agreements.

Most mediators still perform these functions. In international relations, however ... many mediators represent entities that are not disinterested and have the capability of influencing participants by the use of threats and promises.

"Dominant third-party" mediation, in all its variations, will be a recurring feature of the diplomacy of the United States as well as other countries. It might help to know a bit more about it.

The author was US Diplomatic Observer in Rhodesia from July 1979 and stayed for three years until 1982. He was the senior US diplomat in Zimbabwe after independence in April 1980 and opened the US embassy. This article is from his book, A Peace in Southern Africa: The Lancaster House Conference on Rhodesia, 1979 published by Westview in 1984.

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