Civil War: Zimbabwe (1972-1979)

Cullen S Hendrix & Idean Salehyan. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Between 1972 and 1979, black African nationalists fought the white-ruled Rhodesian government for control of the country now known as Zimbabwe. The Rhodesian/Zimbabwean civil war could be variously described as an ethnic conflict (white Africans versus black Africans), an ideological battle for control of the state (procapitalist government versus socialist rebels), or a war against a repressive regime. Yet to reduce this conflict to any one of these paradigms would be to obscure a complex reality that touched on all these themes and others; for example, the importance of geography, transnationalization of conflict, foreign intervention, mediation, and international attempts at conflict management.

Ultimately, the nationalists were successful in bringing about majority rule and ending the reign of an oppressive regime that had become an international pariah. However, the legacy of the conflict would include an armed, organized, and ethnically divided African society that would fall back into conflict four years later, and the entrenchment of a one-party state under President Robert Mugabe that would become increasingly authoritarian over time. That a civil war fought along ethnic lines would lead to renewed ethnic conflict within the victorious coalition highlights the complexity and danger of activating ethnicity as an organizational strategy and a source of political identity.

Country Background

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa situated between South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia. Before the colonial period, two main ethnic groups resided in the country: the Shona, who make up roughly 82 percent of the population, and the Ndebele, who constitute another 14 percent. The Ndebele, who are concentrated in the southwestern regions of the country, migrated up from South Africa during the 1830s, conquered the Shona, and established a kingdom across much of the area of modern-day Zimbabwe.

Geographically, Zimbabwe is relatively flat in the west and mountainous in the east, near the border with Mozambique. The Zambezi River marks the border with Zambia, and the Limpopo River defines the southern frontier with South Africa. Most people are employed in agriculture, with the main cash crops being tobacco and cotton, although mining activity (gold, coal, copper, nickel) makes up a significant share of the economy.

Although Robert Moffatt was the first British citizen to reach the country in 1854, he was followed by his son-in-law, the famous explorer David Livingstone. Christian missionaries soon began to arrive, and news of the natural and mineral wealth of Zimbabwe reached England. Cecil Rhodes (see sidebar, “Cecil Rhodes”), who had made a fortune in South Africa’s Kimberly mines, soon became interested in Zimbabwe for economic reasons, and under the British South African Company took the country in the name of the British Empire in 1890, after which it was named Southern Rhodesia (Zambia was called Northern Rhodesia). Although it soon became apparent that mining prospects were limited, hundreds of British settlers took residence in Rhodesia after the colonial government made generous land offers.

The conflict in Zimbabwe pitted the white settler government against black African guerrilla fighters. Before the conflict, black Africans had been systematically disenfranchised by the minority white government through strict requirements on voter eligibility that barred all but a handful of black citizens from the polls. The expropriation of land resources by settlers also limited black economic prospects. At the end of the war, universal franchise was granted with significant power-sharing guarantees for the white population, and in 1980 Robert Mugabe, head of the Zimbabwe African National Union, became the country’s first black African head of state. However, despite the euphoria that followed the first election, Mugabe quickly moved to impose one-party rule and silence his opponents, including Africans who had fought with him during the civil war. During the most intense phase of the conflict, from 1976 to 1979, thousands of white settlers emigrated from Zimbabwe, taking much of their wealth and expertise with them, causing GDP (gross domestic product) to fall substantially. Since 1980, frequent attacks on white farms and mismanagement of redistributed lands have led to food shortages and famine.

The legacy of the war continues to shape Zimbabwean politics. Most important, although the conflict succeeded in putting an end to a discriminatory system that denied black Africans their basic human rights, ethnic relations have never fully healed. To this day, black African resentment over decades of ill treatment and the continued economic dominance of the white minority sporadically boils over into violence. Moreover, relations between the Shona and the Ndebele minority are often strained.

Conflict Background

Dissatisfaction with white settler rule and the acquisition of the most productive agricultural lands by British settlers led to a mass uprising by both the Ndebele and the Shona in 1896. This conflict, known as the First Chimurenga, or uprising, would inspire the Second Chimurenga, from the mid-1960s through the end of white rule in 1980. The unequal distribution of land was perhaps the most contentious issue during both chimurengas and remains a hot political issue to this day. Whites, who made up a small fraction of the population, owned most of the land and settled in the most agriculturally productive regions of the country.

Not only did the white settlers dominate in agriculture, mining, and urban enterprises, they also dominated the colonial government, despite their status as a small minority. By the early 1960s, black nationalist parties demanding majority rule and land redistribution began to turn to violent tactics, beginning with acts of sabotage and rioting. Although Great Britain was growing sympathetic to the idea of independence and greater African representation, the white settler government, led by the Rhodesian Front (RF) prime minister, Ian Smith, was not willing to compromise. In 1965, the Rhodesian government made a unilateral declaration of independence, freeing itself from British rule but retaining white dominance over the government.

From the mid- to late 1960s, two main rebel factions, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), fought against the Rhodesian government. ZANU was concentrated in the north and east of the country and made extensive use of bases in neighboring Mozambique. ZAPU fought from bases in Zambia and Botswana and concentrated its efforts in the southwestern parts of Zimbabwe. The rebel factions were split along ethnic lines, with ZAPU drawing its support mainly from Ndebele regions and ZANU being a largely Shona party. Although there were attempts to unify the parties in later stages of the conflict, these efforts were short lived and of limited success.

The first shots were fired on April 28, 1966, when a small group of guerrillas crossed the Zambia-Rhodesia border and engaged the Rhodesian Security Forces (RSF) in the town of Sinoia. However, major guerrilla offensives did not begin until late 1972, when ZANU conducted a number of strikes in the northeast. The fighting escalated over the next few years, with the most intense fighting occurring during the final years of the conflict. The rebels were not successful in taking control of significant parts of Zimbabwe, but they were able to cause serious disruption across the country, eventually forcing the government to grant most of their demands as embodied in the Lancaster House Agreement of 1980.

Norma Kriger (1992) estimates that by the end of the war, there were roughly 20,000 ZANU and 8,000 ZAPU guerrillas. She also writes that between December 1972 and early 1979, more than 6,000 rebels had been killed, along with 760 Rhodesian security personnel, 3,845 black civilians, and 310 white civilians. In addition to the dead, the conflict caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to nearby countries, where refugee camps became a source of rebel supplies, recruits, and subsequent targets for RSF cross-border offensives.

Sources: Heston, Summers, and Aten 2006; Polity IV Project 2006.
War: ZAPU and ZANU rebels vs. government
Dates: December 1972-December 1979
Casualties: 27,000
Regime type prior to war: 4 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 5 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $1,481 (constant 1990)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $1,466 (constant 1990)
Insurgents: ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union)
Issue: Ideological/ethnic struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Soviet and Chinese aid, revolutionary taxation
Role of geography: Safe havens in bordering countries (Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana)
Role of resources: Conflict over distribution of farmland
Immediate outcome: UK-brokered peace settlement leading to 1980 elections, ZANU leader Robert Mugabe elected president
Outcome after 5 years: Renewed conflict between ZAPU and ZANU partisans
Role of UN: Facilitated peace talks; no peacekeepers
Role of regional organization: None; frontline states participated in multilateral talks.
Refugees: 198,000
Prospects for peace: Unfavorable
Table 1: Civil War in Zimbabwe

There were efforts at peace before the implementation of a final agreement. In 1978, the white regime signed an agreement to form a coalition government with the United African National Congress (UANC), with Bishop Abel Muzorewa as the new Prime Minister. However, this agreement was rejected by ZANU and ZAPU, who saw Muzorewa’s “black” government as a front, with real political power still in the hands of whites. The war officially ended in a negotiated settlement of December 21, 1979. Under pressure from neighboring states, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the parties to the conflict came to an agreement that granted universal suffrage, in effect ending white settler rule. However, substantial constitutional guarantees were given to ensure the protection of white economic and political interests, along with their physical safety.

The Insurgents

The primary rebel organizations were the military wings of ZAPU and ZANU: the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), respectively. Following the banning of ZAPU as a legitimate civic organization in 1962, the party moved to more militant tactics, and ZIPRA was founded in Zambia under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo was born in 1918, was educated at missionary schools, and attended the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Studying at the first university open to black Africans on the continent, Nkomo was part of a cohort that included many of the most significant figures in the various African independence movements, among them Kenneth Kaunda (later president of Zambia), Nelson Mandela (later president of South Africa), Seretse Khama (later president of Botswana), and Julius Nyerere (later president of Tanzania), as well as two individuals who would form the core leadership of the Zimbabwean nationalist movement, Herbert Chitepo and Robert Mugabe.

In 1963, ZANU split from ZAPU under the political leadership of Ndabiningi Sithole. Although the split may be attributed to personal animosities within the leadership, over time the split has come to be understood as motivated by ethnic cleavages within ZAPU. Although ethnic lines of division were never absolutely clear in practice, ZAPU was mostly composed of ethnic Ndebele, and ZANU was predominantly Shona. Another group, the largely nonviolent United African National Congress, led by Archbishop Abel Muzorewa, was much more moderate than the radical ZANU and ZAPU. Before the final peace agreement, Muzorewa would be asked to head the Rhodesian government, although most black Africans dismissed this government as merely a black façade of the white regime.

1975 1976 1977 1978 1979
Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Data for earlier periods not available.
Botswana 80 1,100 4,000 17,760 22,530
Mozambique 14,500 30,000 42,400 100,000 150,000
Zambia N/A 120 30,000 45,320 25,000
Table 2: Refugees from Zimbabwe in the Frontline States

In the early years (1964-1977), rebels relied upon a mixture of popular mobilization and coercive recruitment. Political rallies espousing socialism and black nationalism drew several thousand people into the cause. Press-ganging and abductions were also common recruitment tactics employed by both ZIPRA and ZANLA forces (Kriger 1992). However, large-scale coercive recruitment had been largely abandoned by 1977. To begin with, there was international outrage over the practice, and it failed to generate loyal soldiers. Specifically, Preston (2004) argues that international media portrayal of two events— ZANLAs abduction of hundreds of children from a Catholic missionary school in 1973 and ZIPRAs similar raid on the Manama secondary school in 1977—brought international condemnation. Once under arms, unwilling soldiers would often desert at the first opportunity, in many instances providing intelligence to the RSF about their former captors. Several of these “turned” rebels wound up in the RSF, including in the elite counterinsurgency force, the Selous Scouts (see sidebar, “The Selous Scouts”).

Another reason coercive recruiting tactics were abandoned is that the deteriorating economic situation in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe—the product of the ongoing insurgency and international sanctions against Rhodesia—made joining rebel forces more attractive to young Zimbabweans. Preston notes also that between 1975 and 1978, real GDP decreased by 12 percent, with an even larger drop (20 percent) in real wages. Further, by 1976 Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was graduating 50,000 black African students per year with no job prospects and no access to farmable land. Indeed, an Economist report on the Manama incident demonstrates that the alleged “kidnappings” may have been facilitated by this economic logic:

The Rhodesian government says they [the recruits] were forced to go at gunpoint: the Botswana government says that 384 youngsters who arrived all claimed to have left Rhodesia willingly. The Rhodesian argument is strengthened by the fact that 10 children, together with two teachers, returned home saying they had escaped. The Botswanan argument is strengthened by the fact that so few managed to get away. It would be hard for four armed men to conduct nearly 400 young people between the ages of 12 and 21 through 12 miles of bush at night if most of them had not been willing to go (Economist, 1977a).

The article then goes on to quote several teachers at the academy who reported that students were planning to join the insurgency anyway, due to a lack of employment opportunities. Moreover, constant attacks on rural infrastructure, especially the educational, health care, and freshwater supply systems were generating as many as 50,000 refugees a year (Preston 2004). These highly politicized populations were fertile ground for rebel recruiting efforts.

Outside support was crucial to both ZIPRA and ZANLA and fit patterns representative of the broader struggles of the Cold War and the independence movement in Africa. Self-avowedly socialist (or Marxist, depending on the perspective of the foreign observer) and anticolonial, both ZIPRA and ZANLA benefited from support from communist countries and other African states. ZIPRA benefited from training and financial support from newly independent African states (e.g., Algeria, Tanzania, Ghana), as well as the Soviet Union and Cuba. Reflecting the competition over leadership of the Communist revolution in the developing world, China offered support to ZANLA in the form of training, weaponry, and operating finances. These ideological differences were also evident in the forces’ strategic doctrines. Following the Soviet line on national liberation, ZIPRA focused its energies more on arming and training a fighting force to engage the RSF in large-scale, conventional battles. ZANLA, influenced by the Maoist doctrine of sustained peasant rebellion, focused its efforts on undermining the institutions of the state through guerrilla tactics. Operationally, this difference led to a striking asymmetry of force within the country: As of 1977, ZIPRA had some 500 fighters in country; ZANLA counted 3,500 (Economist, 1977b).

For the government, South Africa would become a key ally upon which it relied for resources and support. South African police and security forces began operating within Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1967, reinforcing Rhodesian forces. Moreover, South African economic aid accounted for 50 percent of the Rhodesian state defense budget. Undoubtedly, the aid of neighboring states served to prolong the war by bolstering the resources of both sides.

“Revolutionary taxation,” or the confiscation of goods from rural villages, was common to both ZIPRA and ZANLA and was another key source of finances. In the case of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, there is some debate over the degree to which these rebel groups enjoyed popular support in rural areas and whether or not material support for the rebels was voluntary or amounted to little more than extortion. Kriger (1992) has argued at length that ZIPRA and ZANLA were successful despite their general inability to develop popular support. Partly, this lack of mass support stemmed from the belief that peaceful compromise was preferable to an armed confrontation; also, however, many tribal chiefs who had considerable influence over ordinary people had been bought off by the government. This latter issue led both ZANLA and ZIPRA forces to target the traditional chiefs, who were seen as cooperating with an oppressive regime.


The geography of Zimbabwe is dominated by two biomes: Moving from west to east, semiarid and sparsely populated savannah gives way to a more densely populated subtropical climate that follows a monsoon pattern, with dense forests and dry months occurring in the winter (summer in the northern Hemisphere). Zimbabwe is largely flat; its most mountainous region is the Eastern Highlands, a range that makes up Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s natural border with Mozambique.

The effects of waging guerrilla war in dense forests were evident. First, Zimbabwe’s geography, in addition to patterns of land tenure, created a highly dispersed rural population. With the rural population spread rather thinly over the countryside, Rhodesian state forces were unable to keep remote villages from interacting with rebels. Local knowledge of rural areas clearly favored the indigenous African population over the white settlers as well. Second, the presence of dense forests mitigated many of the advantages in heavy arms and vehicles enjoyed by Rhodesian state forces. This was especially the case during the monsoon season, when rebels were able to take advantage of reduced visibility and diminished state capacity for aerial reconnaissance.

Rhodesian state forces responded in two ways. The first was to concentrate rural populations in protected villages (PVs), ostensibly to separate local populations from rebel forces and better “protect” remote communities from rebel forces. By January 1978, between 350,000 and 700,000 rural Africans had been relocated to some 234 PVs (Beckett 2001). In effect, the PVs were a means of keeping the rural population under control. The second was to develop and train special units in bush fighting and tracking. In 1973, the Rhodesian state formed the Selous Scouts, a mixed-race force composed of highly trained volunteers. For a variety of reasons to be discussed shortly, their tactics were often counterproductive to the goal of building political support for the Rhodesian state, although they were highly effective from a military perspective (see sidebar, “The Selous Scouts”).

More salient to the conflict was Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe’s immediate neighborhood. Bordered to the north, east, and west by newly independent, black African-ruled states and to the south by white-dominated South Africa, both the Rhodesian state and rebel groups benefited from foreign intervention. For ZANU and ZAPU rebels, the benefits came in the form of access to safe havens across the Zambezi River in Zambia (for ZIPRA) and the Mozambican border (for ZANLA). Mozambique would become especially important after the Portuguese government ceded control to Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) in 1974. These borders had the added benefit of being composed of natural boundaries (the Zambezi River and mountains near Mozambique) that impeded the mobility of counterinsurgency forces in these areas. To a lesser extent, ZIPRA forces made use of Botswanan territory to avoid the cordon sanitaire, an 864-kilometer corridor of heavily mined territory along the Zambian and Mozambican borders. Despite massive cost to the Rhodesian state (estimated at more than $2 billion), the cordon sanitaire never managed to halt the flow of rebels into Rhodesian/Zimbabwean territory. Rebel camps across the border proved invaluable to the insurgency, as rebel units could escape the full force of state repression efforts.

To characterize these havens as entirely safe, however, would be inaccurate. Rebel operations in neighboring countries invited cross-border attacks by Rhodesian security forces and brought about political complications with host governments. Initially, there were limited attacks on external bases by the Selous Scouts, who worked to infiltrate rebel units. But by 1978, attacks on Mozambican and Zambian soil were more extensive, with raids extending as far as Harare. In one infamous incident, the RSF attacked the Nyadzonia refugee camp in Mozambique, claiming that the camp was sheltering insurgents. However, reports of mass civilian casualties prompted an international outcry and condemnation of the action as violating Mozambican sovereignty.

Moreover, operations in neighboring countries brought rebel groups into political quarrels with host governments. The clearest example of this was Kaunda’s 1975 expulsion of the Sithole-led ZANU rebels from Zambia following the assassination of ZANU war council chairman Herbert Chitepo. Chitepo’s assassination followed brutal infighting between the ZANU leadership and rank-and-file field cadres. The infighting, which involved bloody purges of cadres dominated by the Karanga (a clan within the Shona tribe), resulted in a split within ZANU and the rise of Robert Mugabe to a position of leadership. The frontline states (Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, and Tanzania) also had a big role in shaping political developments within the rebel movement. Importantly, these sanctuary governments used the threat of expulsion to force the ZANU and ZAPU factions into a united cause known as the Popular Front (PF). In practice, however, the ZANU and ZAPU components never fully integrated, and internal bickering within the PF meant that it never became a coherent organization. Although the ZANU-PF and ZAPU-PF were formally united and negotiated with the government together, rivalries within the PF prevented a unified black movement. The frontline states would also become instrumental in the peace process as they grew weary of continued fighting along their borders and pushed for compromise.

On balance, access to these cross-border havens was crucial to the rebel war effort, which likely would have been unsuccessful in their absence. Up until the time of the Lancaster House Agreement, rebel forces were still unable to prevent Rhodesian security forces from moving freely across the country; moreover, the rebels had been largely unsuccessful at securing support and protection from rural populations (Kriger 1992). Unable to project conventional military authority on Rhodesian/Zimbabwean territory, the rebels’ only lifeline was their access to these havens. This reliance on foreign support, however, had the drawback of limiting the rebel’s autonomy from external influence on their tactics and operations.


From a tactical perspective, the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean civil war can be broken into three phases: 1972-1975, 1976-1977, and 1978-1979. In many respects, these phases are more similar than different: Rebel forces employed guerrilla tactics and sabotage throughout, whereas the RSF continuously pursued a policy of isolating rebels from rural populations and using pseudoinsurgent infiltrators to compromise rebel units. However, the three phases can be distinguished according to: (a) the dominant form of insurgent activity, and (b) the geographic extent of penetration into Rhodesian/ Zimbabwean territory.

For the black African nationalists, their tactics were based on undermining the Rhodesian economy and minimizing direct engagement of the RSF until the final stages of the war. From the perspective of the white settler government, the civil war demonstrated several of the axioms that are foundational to modern counterinsurgency policy: the importance of accurate intelligence and bush fighting capabilities, the necessity of controlling border regions, and most importantly, the centrality of winning the “hearts and minds” of local populations. Unfortunately for the white settler state, this final lesson was learned through failure.

The first phase of the war, 1972-1975, consisted primarily of ZIPRA and ZANLA forces engaging in attacks on isolated communities and intimidation of local black African authorities, particularly tribal chiefs who had been co-opted by the white government. During this period, ZANLA guerrilla forces were responsible for the majority of rebel offensives. Usually organized in groups of fourteen to twenty, ZANLA infiltrators would target remote farms and ranches, often killing black African farmhands (to intimidate others from working with whites) and destroying irrigation and cattle dip systems. Comparatively, violence against white farmers was rare, with rebels focusing their attention on economic infrastructure.

The widening of the second front along the Mozambican border and the diminished role of South African defense forces in 1976-1977 defined the second phase of the war. Although ZANLA forces had been active in Mozambique since 1972, this offensive did not intensify until Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal and the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF was expelled from Zambia in 1975. This had two effects. First, it intensified the war in Mashonaland and Manikaland, drawing the attention of security forces away from the Zambian border. Also, the move into more densely populated areas allowed the rebels to intensify attacks on the transportation system, with the primary targets being rural buses and private vehicles (Beckett 2001).

The final phase of the war, 1978-1979, was defined by the widening of the rebel offensive and the employment of regular, armored rebel forces on the part of ZIPRA, and heavier engagement of the RSF on Rhodesian/Zimbabwean soil. As mentioned earlier, ZIPRA had made a decision to develop regular forces (as opposed to guerrilla units) in the belief that the war would eventually be won on a conventional battlefield. Prior to the third phase, nationalist guerrillas depended on small arms supplied by the Soviet Union (in the case of ZIPRA) and China (ZANLA), including automatic rifles (AK-47, AK-74) and smaller sidearms (9mm Makarov pistols) (Sibanda 2005). Improvised gasoline bombs and Soviet and Chinese antipersonnel mines constituted the majority of rebel ordnance. In contrast to these earlier phases, during the later years the rebels began utilizing Soviet field artillery (105mm guns) and heavy 82mm mortars, as well as regular infantry units, in attacks on RSF garrisons and white-controlled towns (Brickhill 1995). At the same time, irregular (i.e., guerrilla) forces were for the first time protected from aerial bombings by antiaircraft guns and mobile surface-to-air missiles.

The experience of the RSF highlights the problem of basing counterinsurgency policy on military, rather than political, concerns. Militarily, the RSF was able to repulse large-scale rebel operations and racked up large body counts and highly favorable kill ratios (between six and fourteen rebel casualties for every one RSF casualty). Most military personnel were deployed defending static positions such as government installations, railways, PVs, and white-owned farms. This meant that only a small fraction of the RSF was involved in frequent armed encounters. To overcome the deficiencies of manpower that arose from this defensive posture, the RSF developed two primary offensive instruments: the Selous Scouts, who were tasked primarily with intelligence gathering but were utilized as strike forces in the later stages of conflict, and airborne, tactical response units known as Fire Forces. The Fire Forces were elite units consisting of light bombers and helicopter-borne troops. Once intelligence on rebel locations was received, these units could be deployed quickly and enjoyed aerial superiority up until the last phase of the war. The Selous Scouts and the Fire Forces were responsible for 75 percent of all rebel casualties (Beckett 2001).

Though the RSF was well-trained and enjoyed a superiority of firepower and numbers, its ultimate failing as a counterinsurgency force lay in its incorrect assessment that the rebel movement was primarily a military problem rather than a political one for the Rhodesian government. This emphasis can be illustrated with two examples. First, the PV (protected village) strategy for separating the rebels from the local population also had the effect of separating black Africans from their agricultural livelihoods and restricting their movements. Moreover, conditions in the PVs were not unlike those in refugee camps, with chronic supply shortages and sanitation problems. For these reasons, PVs became fertile ground for rebel recruitment and in some instances became rebel sanctuaries (Sibanda 2005). The second example was the fact that, although the counterinsurgency campaign was being waged in the countryside, the Rhodesian government emphasized increased political representation for black Africans without addressing the issue of land reform, in which ordinary rural dwellers had a clearer interest. Ultimately, the RSF found that the counterinsurgency campaign could not be won militarily without concrete attempts to address the underlying political and economic sources of support for rebel forces.

Causes of the War

Disentangling the causes of the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean civil war requires separating the conflict from its overlapping anticolonial and Cold War contexts. As has been discussed in previous sections, the civil war was motivated by three principal factors: (1) the economic and political domination of a sizable black African majority by the white African settler minority, (2) an anticolonial conflict between perceived agents of European domination and wrongfully subjugated peoples, and finally (3) a conflict between the market-oriented Rhodesian government and Marxist nationalist groups. In fact, these three explanations are not in tension. Rather, the first cause explains the nature of grievances among the rebel population and its basis of popular support, whereas the second and third causes help to explain the timing of the conflict and the nature and extent of international involvement.

Land and political representation were at the heart of the struggle in Zimbabwe, as they constituted the primary grievances over which the rebels fought. The Land Tenure Act of 1930 granted the minority white settlers 49 million acres of land and the majority African population just 21 million acres. White settler lands, moreover, were in the most productive and fertile regions of the country. Politically, Africans were greatly underrepresented in government as well. Although the white settler government formally espoused the principle of “racial partnership,” barriers to political participation by blacks, particularly voter eligibility requirements based upon education and income, ensured that most Blacks could not vote and that the legislature consisted of no more than a handful of black representatives. As if economic and political discrimination were not enough, discriminatory policies similar to those in place in South Africa riled ordinary Africans. As one observer remarked,

Whites in Southern Rhodesia saw themselves as gods. To protect themselves from being desecrated by Africans, so they thought, they put in place rigid separatism in hospitals, hotels, schools, swimming pools, restaurants, toilets and buses. Africans were always served in stores after Whites. At Post Offices, entrances and counters were separate and were not allowed to partake of European alcoholic drinks or beer, even wine for that matter (Quoted in Sibanda 2005, 40).

After World War II, pressure for decolonization and national self-determination mounted— both within Africa and in the colonial centers—which explains the timing of demands for majority rule. Although the United Kingdom formally ruled Southern Rhodesia, the white settler government had considerable autonomy in governing the country. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC), which was headed by a former trade unionist, Joshua Nkomo, pressed for greater rights for the black majority and eventually took up the cause of universal adult suffrage, which meant an end to white rule. The party demanded that the British colonial government grant majority rule before full independence, although the white minority government was adamantly against the idea. In principle, the British government was sympathetic to the cause of black self-rule, although in practice, implementing expanded rights for the majority population was extremely difficult because of the objections of the settlers.

Widespread protests during Febuary 1959 led to the banning of the SRANC and the tightening of security in Rhodesia. The following year, SRANC members reorganized under the banner of the National Democratic Party (NDP). Peaceful demonstrations organized by the NDP provoked a police backlash and widespread rioting in July 1960, followed by a larger clampdown on dissent. Then, in December 1961, the government banned the NDP as well, causing many in the African nationalist movement to question the efficacy of nonviolent protest. Leaders began to contemplate a war. Within ten days of the banning of the NDP, Nkomo and his followers established the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), which would subsequently become a major actor in the guerrilla campaign against the Rhodesian security forces. Although ZAPU was banned soon after its founding, its leaders simply went underground or into exile. In preparation for an insurgency, the party began to seek out small arms and send fighters to the Soviet Union for military training; recruitment drives also began in neighboring Zambia. Thereafter, the party began to gravitate more and more toward Marxist ideals, and it drew inspiration from successful models of revolution in Russia, Cuba, and China.

The white settlers were becoming uneasy about stirring African nationalist sentiment, both within Rhodesia as well as across the African continent. In the elections of December 1962, an almost entirely white electorate voted for the ultraconservative party, the Rhodesian Front (RF), to form the government. Headed by Ian Smith, the Rhodesian Front demanded that Britain grant independence to Rhodesia under the current constitution, which guaranteed minority rule. The British, however, were opposed to granting independence without substantial constitutional reforms designed to grant greater political rights to black Africans. The issue came to a head in 1965, when the Smith government issued a unilateral declaration of independence, thereby freeing Rhodesia from British rule and preempting meaningful constitutional reform. Although Britain rejected the declaration, the Rhodesian government viewed itself as ruling an independent nation.

Black Zimbabweans and newly independent African governments across the continent were outraged by the move, and support for a violent struggle mounted. Neighboring Zambia agreed to host rebel factions on its soil to dislodge the minority government. ZANU’s military wing, ZANLA, instigated the first clashes with the RSF at Sinoia on April 28, 1966, a day that is still commemorated as Chimurenga Day in Zimbabwe.


Conflict Status

There were several failed attempts to end the civil war in Zimbabwe. Three negotiated settlements failed in talks before a final deal was struck. Despite the rhetoric of the black nationalists and the uncompromising public declarations of the Rhodesian Front, negotiations began early in the conflict, demonstrating both sides’ willingness to find a peaceful solution to the war. The first negotiations were held at Victoria Falls in 1975 but failed quickly, as Smith was still confident of a military victory. The U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, brokered the second round of negotiations and submitted a settlement plan, but the rebels rejected it on the grounds that it allowed whites to maintain control of key military posts. The next attempt at peace, the Anglo-American initiative, came to an end when Smith struck a side deal with the UANC to allow new elections with black participation. Although Bishop Abel Muzorewa won these elections in 1978 and officially became prime minister, the military was still controlled by whites, and so ZANU-PF and ZAPU-PF rejected the deal.

The civil war in Zimbabwe officially ended with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement on December 21, 1979. The agreement was signed by the leaders of the Popular Front factions, with Robert Mugabe representing ZANU-PF and Joshua Nkomo representing ZAPU-PF. On the government side, Bishop Muzorewa was the official representative of the Zimbabwean state, although Ian Smith played an active role in the negotiations. With Margaret Thatcher as the new British prime minister, the UK played a much more active role in these final negotiations.

The Lancaster House Agreement was brokered by the British government, who appointed an interim governor, Lord Christopher Soames, to direct the transition period. It was agreed that elections would be held the following year under the principle of majority rule. However, to get them to agree to the plan, whites would retain 20 seats in the 100-member parliament. It was also agreed that land reform would eventually take place, but the protection of white property would be guaranteed, and fair compensation would be given. Furthermore, during the implementation of the agreement and the 1980 elections, British Commonwealth forces would be on the ground to smooth the transition process and prevent the reignition of fighting.

The elections gave Mugabe and the ZANU a landslide victory. However, to assuage the concerns of the other parties, Mugabe appointed whites to cabinet positions and gave ZAPU leaders, including Nkomo, positions in the administration as well. This “honeymoon” would be short-lived. During the mid-1980s, Mugabe moved to purge his rivals, including his former allies in the ZAPU. Former ZAPU fighters again took up arms, along with other opposition parties, but this uprising was short-lived, and several thousand ethnic Ndebele were slaughtered in Matabeleland. With ZAPU out of the way, Mugabe turned his attention to white farmers. Having held power for more than twenty-five years, Mugabe has periodically encouraged attacks on white farms and the confiscation of farmland for redistribution, mainly to his own supporters.

Duration Tactics

The war lasted from 1972 to late 1979, although rebel forces had engaged in low-level fighting since at least 1966. As mentioned previously, the ability of rebel forces to maintain bases in neighboring countries from which they recruited and trained soldiers was critical to their longevity. Without the protection of the frontline states, the vastly superior RSF would have militarily defeated the rebel movement in its initial phases. Although the rebels enjoyed some sympathy within the local population, the Rhodesian state was adept at co-opting local leaders, gathering intelligence, and disrupting rebel activities. The RSF’s ability to directly engage rebels with its superior military forces, however, was largely confined to its own territory. Limited strikes did occur across the border, especially in Zambia and Mozambique, but the RSF was neither willing nor able to invade these countries with the bulk of its military forces.

The war certainly took a heavy toll on the white government and the settlers. White residents fled the country as the war escalated. Furthermore, international condemnation and sanctions severely harmed the Zimbabwean economy. The assistance of South Africa was critical to the continued functioning of the government—it could not have held out until 1980 without military support from South Africa and access to its markets. Whites certainly viewed black rebel forces as a threat to their livelihoods and even their continued existence in Africa; therefore, they were quite resolute in protecting their interests.

Pressure from the frontline states and from South Africa was critical in pushing the warring parties to the negotiating table. Zambia and Mozambique were hit especially hard by the fighting. Cross-border strikes threatened local citizens in these countries, and the war was an economic disaster for them, particularly for landlocked Zambia, which had lost access to ports on the Indian Ocean. South Africa put pressure on Ian Smith to negotiate as well, fearing that Soviet, Cuban, and Chinese influence in the region would increase the longer the war continued. For similar reasons, the United States also became interested in a quick resolution to the conflict.

However, as Walter (2002, Ch 6) notes, although international pressure was important in forcing both sides to the negotiating table, it was by no means sufficient in getting them to come to an agreement. The government and the rebels attempted negotiations several times since at least 1975, although a final peace would not be agreed to until Lancaster House. Walter (2002) argues that both sides were concerned about their physical safety during and after the implementation of the peace agreement, and that British commitment to protect both sides was critical. The PF factions feared that if they gave up their external bases and arms, they would be vulnerable to attack by the government. White settlers feared that, were blacks to gain control of the military after a peace accord, they would be subject to reprisals. Therefore, negotiations failed repeatedly until there was a firm commitment on the part of the British to guarantee the security of both demobilized rebels and white Zimbabweans. The British showed their resolve to maintain the peace by their positioning of troops in Zimbabwe and the appointment of Soames as governor.

External Military Intervention

For ZANU-ZANLA and ZAPU-ZIPRA, external support was critical in two respects. First, Soviet and Chinese aid provided them with weapons and training that allowed them a fighting chance against the better-equipped RSF. Second, the assistance of neighboring governments was critical for defensive reasons, as it allowed the rebels a relatively safe place to regroup. For the Rhodesian government, international ostracism coupled with economic sanctions made it clear that the regime could not survive for long. The support of South Africa, also dominated by whites, was critical to the long-term viability of the government. However, for both the rebels and the government, reliance on external support had its costs as well. It meant that external actors with their own agendas easily manipulated them. For example, the frontline states reluctantly pushed ZANU and ZAPU into an agreement to form the PF; pressure from these states also forced the rebels into negotiations with the government despite their ambivalence about doing so. Furthermore, the government’s reliance on South Africa for economic and military assistance made it vulnerable to pressure to negotiate on terms that were not entirely its own.

Conflict Management Efforts

Just as external actors were critical to the initiation and continuation of the war, they were also key to negotiation success. External patrons demanded an end to the war for their own reasons and were able to bring both sides to the table to discuss peace. The United States also pressed for peace and facilitated negotiations, but its role in the final settlement was relatively limited. The UK clearly facilitated the final peace negotiation. The British mediated the Lancaster House Agreement, assumed control over Zimbabwe during the transition period, and provided extensive security guarantees to both sides during the transfer of power.


The civil war in Zimbabwe draws attention to the legacy of colonialism in Africa. Zimbabwe was one of the last outposts of European dominance over African populations, and the white government drew considerable fire from the international community for its racial intolerance. However, the sad irony of the war is that, although black Zimbabweans loathed the white government for its racist policies, the liberation movement was itself divided along ethnic lines. Early on in the conflict, the Ndebele and the Shona formed rival factions, and after the war the Shona-led ZANU established a one-party state.

The war also highlights the importance of external actors to “civil” conflicts. In Zimbabwe, as in several other wars, both the government and the rebels relied heavily upon external patrons for support. Furthermore, the rebels, lacking territory of their own, benefited from external bases in neighboring countries into which the government could not extend its reach. Also important were international sanctions and opprobrium, which imposed heavy costs on the government. However, external support also meant that the warring parties were never completely free from interference by outside actors; although they gained important resources, both the Rhodesian government and the rebels lost a degree of autonomy in directing their own policies. External influences were also important in prompting both sides to negotiate, and the UK was vital to the success of the final peace deal.

Although Zimbabwe and its neighbor, South Africa, are unique in that a small minority of European settlers dominated a largely black African state, the lessons learned in these conflicts are applicable to conflicts elsewhere. In many multiethnic countries, a particular ethnic group dominates the central government. When political power and economic opportunities are distributed according to ethnic characteristics, disadvantaged groups have strong incentives to rebel. Therefore, efforts to grant political representation and economic opportunities to broad segments of society are vital to ensuring lasting peace.