Bishop Abel Muzorewa: Cleric and politician who served as prime minister of Zimbabwe

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Abel Muzorewa was a churchman and politician who for a brief moment in 1979 seemed set to play an important and lasting part in the unfortunate and often violent history of his native Zimbabwe.

But his moment came and went, so that he spent only a few months as prime minister before circumstances changed rapidly. In quick succession he was first propelled into prominence and then into obscurity.

But if his political career brought him little in the way of honour and glory, either at home or abroad, he distinguished himself by resolutely preaching peace during the eras of dictatorships he lived through. He was an advocate of compromise but was ill-suited to the politics of Africa, moving too far and too fast in what was then Rhodesia. In his attempts to make an arrangement with the regime of Ian Smith most of his countrymen decided he had settled for too little, too late, and swept him aside. He was displaced by the government of Robert Mugabe, whose character he forecast with grim prescience: "Any talk of democracy, freedom, and independence will be turned into an impossible dream. This country will find itself wallowing in the dust of poverty, misery, and starvation."

The eldest child of a lay preacher's eight children, Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa was born at Umtali in eastern Rhodesia in 1925. He always said he owed his life to a Swedish nurse who helped deliver him in a mud hut. He explained: "I probably would have been just sand or mud – nothing – if she had not been there, because I was born a premature baby. In those days, with all due respect to my African ancestors, people did not know what to do with a premature baby, except to just put it in a pot and throw it away. But because she was there I was saved."

Encouraged by his father, who was a schoolmaster and a Methodist pastor, Muzorewa became first a schoolteacher and later a lay preacher. He studied at various Methodist colleges in the US, returning to Rhodesia with a string of degrees. He went on to hold a variety of positions, including director of the Christian Youth Movement, before becoming the first African bishop of the United Methodist Church in Central Africa in 1968.

His rise within the church was accompanied by his increasing protests against white rule, which brought him to the attention of the authorities. As a result he was banned from a number of tribal areas. For him, religion and political activity went hand in hand. "If religion just means to go to church and pray, then it is a scandal," he declared. "The gospel is concerned about where a man sleeps, what a man earns, how he is treated by the government."

In the early 1970s he and others formed the United African National Council, which took its place among a number of groups opposed to Ian Smith, who in 1965 had declared Rhodesian independence from Britain. The fact that the UANC was moderate and against violence differentiated it from groups led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo: they spoke of armed struggle, Muzorewa of liberation struggle. Part of his prominence at the time was due to the fact that other leaders were imprisoned or in exile.

He, too, went into exile for a time, in Mozambique, receiving a huge and enthusiastic welcome when he returned home for a British-sponsored conference. That was one of a number of initiatives which were either aimed at achieving majority rule or making some advance towards it.

It was in the late 1970s that Muzorewa seized what he thought was a historic opportunity. He reached a deal with Smith for new interim arrangements under which blacks could vote but whites would remain in charge of the civil service and armed forces. In a subsequent election he became prime minister, winning a majority of the black vote. He said of his rivals: "They can say what they like, do what they like. They have brought only suffering. I have brought black rule."

This attempt at a settlement had fundamental flaws, however, since Mugabe and Nkomo were not involved in the talks and boycotted the polls. They remained committed to an armed struggle which claimed thousands of lives, insisting on full majority rule and scorning Muzorewa's idea of transitional arrangements.

The general consensus was that Smith had made concessions as part of a desperate rearguard action, and that Muzorewa had inadvertently become his puppet. Muzorewa was scoffed at as "prime minister by name only." His more militant opponents, calling him a traitor, murdered some of his supporters.

Internationally, meanwhile, the new "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia", as it was called, failed to gain support or even recognition from important countries or at the United Nations. It quickly became clear it would not work.

Within months Britain convened fresh talks in London, this time with Mugabe and Nkomo represented. The Lancaster House agreement, signed in December 1979, provided for black majority rule. When new elections were held Muzorewa won only a couple of seats while Mugabe swept to power with more than 60 per cent of the vote.

Thus began the Mugabe regime which has lasted until the present day; thus also ended the effective political career of Abel Muzorewa. He made a number of half-hearted attempts to stage a comeback but failed. In 1983 Mugabe had him locked up, Muzorewa saying incredulously that it was alleged "that I had an army in Israel, South Africa and other countries." It was the ultimate confirmation of Muzorewa's charge that under Mugabe democracy and freedom would be "turned into an impossible dream."

In his later years the Bishop concentrated on his religious work. He remained an outspoken critic of Mugabe, denouncing his government as "one of the worst around, with corruption, mismanagement of funds and deprivation of the freedoms of speech, assembly and association."

Explaining why he had made his deal with Smith, Muzorewa once said: "I tried to do what Mandela did but we were not understood. I did not believe that we should continue to throw guns at each other, destroying ourselves, black and white. We could talk with the enemy and, in spite of all the criticism against us, I went to talk with Smith. I want to believe that shortened the bloodbath and the armed struggle in Zimbabwe. Really, if I had not cared about the bloodshed, we could have gone on but we stopped the bloodshed through negotiation."

Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, churchman and politician: born Umtali, Rhodesia 14 April 1925; married 1951 Maggie Chigodora (deceased; three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died 8 April 2010.