Choosing Mugabe

How the religious Left betrayed a Methodist Bishop for a dictator.

Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister recently died, amid little fanfare.  Abel Muzorewa was a United Methodist bishop who replaced the Rhodesian white minority regime, only to be undermined by the Carter Administration and the Religious Left, who ultimately forced new elections that enthroned Robert Mugabe as dictator for three decades.   Later, Mugabe would imprison Muzorewa, among his other crimes, about which most of the Religious Left was silent.

Throughout the 1970’s, Bishop Muzorewa opposed the white minority government while advocating a peaceful transition to democratic, majority rule.  At one point, he was exiled to Mozambique and then returned home to a welcome by 100,000 well wishers.  In the late 1970’s, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith negotiated with Muzorewa and other black moderates for an end to white control, while guaranteeing a minority of legislative and cabinet seats to whites.  Muzorewa, a lifelong Methodist who was educated in the U.S., became prime minister in 1979 in the first election of his nation to offer full franchise to blacks. Of course, Mugabe’s Patriotic Front guerrillas continued their armed struggle in their quest for power.

Of Mugabe and others who persisted in warfare, Muzorewa remarked:   "They can say what they like, do what they like. They have brought only suffering. I have brought black rule."  The Carter Administration, urged on by the Religious Left, refused U.S. recognition for Muzorewa, continued sanctions against him, and demanded new elections predestined to discredit him and empower Mugabe.  Zimbabweans consequently have endured a spiral of poverty and tyranny.  Muzorewa reputedly aspired to do "what Mandela did in South Africa – achieve a political resolution of his country's problems without bloodshed.”  But thanks partly to the international Religious Left, he was defeated by Mugabe, who preferred bloodshed.

The Swiss-based World Council of Churches (WCC) had funded black oppositionists in Zimbabwe during the 1970’s, including Muzorewa.  WCC support for Muzorewa ended when he negotiated with the white regime, while WCC support for Mugabe’s Marxist guerrillas accelerated.   In 1978, the WCC gifted $85,000 to Mugabe’s Patriotic Front, despite its alleged murder of missionaries, among other terror.  Editorialized Britain’s Daily Telegraph:  “In a way one could respect them more [the WCC] if they went to Africa themselves to murder missionaries and children rather than hired a pack of savages to do it for them.”

After Mugabe was elected to power in 1980, the WCC felt vindicated, with one WCC official vowing the WCC would “not be bullied by those who attack us for giving our attention to controversial political issues.”  Predictably, Mugabe soon abandoned most pretenses of democracy and resorted to virtual one-party rule, to which the WCC never really objected, even when Bishop Muzorewa was imprisoned in 1983 for alleged conspiracy with Israel and South Africa.  Muzorewa had visited and urged diplomatic relations with Israel. In the aftermath of other repressions and atrocities, the WCC finally explained that “not all situations are necessarily dealt with by making public statements,” a form of restraint the WCC did not exercise against its usual Western targets, especially the U.S. and Israel.

Working in sync with the WCC was the National Council of Churches (NCC), which in 1977 hailed Mugabe’s guerrillas as “co-workers with God.”  After the 1979 vote that elected Muzorewa as Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s first black leader, the NCC condemned the result because of “conditions of martial law in about 90 percent of the country.”  Of course, martial law existed thanks to Mugabe’s election boycott and continued warfare.

The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, like the WCC and NCC, remarkably severed support for Muzorewa, even though a bishop of their church, and instead supported Mugabe’s Marxist guerrillas after the 1978 peace agreement leading to Muzorewa’s election.  Famously, Bishop Muzorwe exclaimed then:  “We just can’t understand why the American church sides with our enemies.  Doesn’t it seem strange to you that our brothers and sisters…would support people who want to close our churches?”

Little of this appeared in the official United Methodist coverage of Muzorewa’s death.  Muzorewa “was one of the 20th century’s great champions for the liberation of people in Africa, especially his homeland of Zimbabwe,” insisted a General Board of Global Ministries executive, forgetting his agency’s exertions against they bishop 30 years ago.  “His struggle to loose the chains of colonialism distinguishes him in a special way,” the executive told  the United Methodist News Service.  “He served both the church and his emerging nation with a sense of purpose and determination at a time of transition and uncertainty.”

The church’s news service briefly noted that Muzorewa had been a “leading figure” in Zimbabwe’s “struggle for majority rule.”  During a “time of violence and tension,” the bishop was “involved in peace talks with Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s prime minister.”  In 1979, “as the country transitioned to majority rule,” Muzorewa became prime minister for less than one year, but “civil war raged,” and new elections, resulting from “peace negotiations,” elevated Mugabe to power.  The church news service cryptically admitted:  “In 1983, Muzorewa was detained for 10 months without trial by the government, but later said he had forgiven those responsible.”

No doubt Muzorewa had a noble Christian character that allowed for forgiveness of his enemies in the Mugabe regime.  What must he have thought of the Religious Left, including officials of his own church, which helped to force him from power in favor of the anti-democratic Mugabe, and then remained largely silent when Mugabe imprisoned him?  Presumably, he forgave them too.  But on Muzorewa’s behalf, we should not forget the Religious Left’s betrayal of him and its role in the suffering of Zimbabweans today under Mugabe’s despotism.