Obituary: Bishop Abel Muzorewa

Bishop Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Born: 14 April, 1925, in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Died: 8 April, 2010, in Harare, Zimbabwe, aged 84.

THE first black prime minister of what is now Zimbabwe, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, died at his Harare home on Thursday, ten days before Zimbabweans were due to celebrate 30 years of independence. He was 85 and had been suffering from cancer, and had recently learned of the death in America of his brother Farai David.

Muzorewa, head of the United African National Congress party (UANC), was prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia's interim, white-dominated government that led up to majority rule and the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980.

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Muzorewa, a bishop in the United Methodist Church, joined the short-lived government following the Internal Settlement deal with Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, in 1978. The UANC was elected following a poll that excluded both Robert Mugabe's Zanu and Joshua Nkomo's Zapu parties, and – as the interim country's newly designed flag was hoisted – the war continued.

One year later, following the Lancaster House Agreement, which involved British foreign minister Lord Carrington holding talks with Muzorewa, Mugabe and Nkomo (the latter two having formed an alliance, presenting themselves as the Zanu Patriotic Front), the president agreed to fresh elections.

These took place in 1980. Muzorewa's UANC won just three of the 80 parliamentary seats against a landslide victory by Mugabe. Seen by some as a moderate black leader able to stem Mugabe's dominance in the fight for independence, Muzorewa opposed the armed conflict. Black militants saw him as a puppet of white politicians.

Abel Muzorewa came from a large and deeply religious family in the town of Mutare (then called Umtali), close to the border with Mozambique in the east of Zimbabwe. The region was the scene of some of the most fierce battles between Rhodesian forces and freedom fighters in the 1970s. Muzorewa's father was a lay preacher and he and his siblings went to the local methodist school.

He spent half of his twenties as a school teacher, then became a full-time preacher, studying theology and becoming ordained in 1953.

His religious studies took him to America, where he got a masters from the Christian Education Scarritt College in Tennesee, then an MA in philosophy and religion from the Central Methodist College in Missouri.

On his return to his home country, he met Reverend Canaan Banana, who had strongly held moral objections to the armed conflict, and together they formed the UANC to campaign for majority rule. Banana went on to become president of Zimbabwe – it was then more of a figurehead role – while Mugabe was prime minister. Mugabe would later push Banana aside following an ugly row over homosexuality and take on the president's role himself – with greatly enhanced powers.

Three years after independence, while Muzorewa still had his parliamentary seat, Mugabe accused him of plotting with a group of South Africans, white Zimbabweans and Israelis to overthrow the government, and had him put in prison for almost a year. Along with his will to remain actively involved in politics, the bishop lost his seat in the 1985 elections.

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Since then he largely focused his energies on preaching at weddings and funerals. But two years ago Muzorewa re-emerged briefly amid rumours that he had been asked to run as president against Mugabe.

Considering the president had by now developed a violent intolerance of critics, the bishop had been surprisingly vocal against the Zanu PF regime, and even went as far as to say the country was "bleeding, economically and socially".

But it also emerged that around the same time he had accepted a farm – seized from the white farmer who owned it – as a gift from the state security and land resettlement minister. Lodewyk van Rensburg, the Christian farmer whose land was given to Muzorewa, said: "Ultimately, the Lord will judge what has happened. But it does make a mockery of his position as a man of the cloth."

Muzorewa said the move was a "correction of injustice".

Muzorewa retired from politics in 2001, and four years later set up the Bishop Abel T Muzorewa Evangelism Foundation to help those studying theology. His wife, Maggie, died in 2009. The couple had five children and five grandchildren.

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