This is the History of Zimbabwe. See also the History of Africa and History of present-day nations and states.

Table of contents
1 Ancient civilizations
2 Arrival of the Portuguese
3 British Conquest
4 Self-government
5 Illegal independence
6 Guerrilla warfare
7 Legal independence
8 Constitution and parliamentary system
9 More guerrilla warfare
10 Robert Mugabe
11 Forced, uncompensated land expropriation
12 Human rights abuses and rigged elections
13 International criticism and reactions

Ancient civilizations

There have been many civilizations in Zimbabwe as is shown by the ancient stone structures at Khami, Great Zimbabwe and Dhlo-Dhlo. The first major civilization to become established was the Mwene Mutapa (or Monomatapas), who were said to have built Great Zimbabwe, in the ruins of which was found the soapstone bird that features on the Zimbabwean flag. By the mid 1440s, King Mutota's empire included almost all of the Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) plateau and extensive parts of what is now Mozambique. The wealth of this empire was based on small-scale industries, for example iron smelting, textiles, gold and copper, along with agriculture. The regular inhabitants of the empire's trading towns were the Arab and Swahili merchants with whom trade was conducted.

The Gokomere people, a Bantu-speaking group of migrant farmers, inhabited the Great Zimbabwe site from about 500, displacing earlier Khoisan people. From about 1000 the fortress took shape, reaching its peak by the fifteenth century. These were the ancestors of the Mashona (or Shona) people, who make up about 80% of modern Zimbabwe's population. Later they formed the Rozwi Empire, which continued until the nineteenth century. In fact, the strict Shona name is Zimbabhwe.

Arrival of the Portuguese

In the early 16th century the Portuguese arrived and destroyed this trade and began a series of wars which left the empire so weakened that it entered the 17th century in serious decline. Several Shona states came together to form the Rozwi Empire which covered more than half of present day Zimbabwe. By 1690 the Portuguese had been forced off the plateau and the Rozwi controlled much of the land formerly under Mwene Mutapa. Peace and prosperity reigned over the next two centuries and the centres of Dhlo-Dhlo, Khami, and Great Zimbabwe reached their peaks. As a result of the mid-19th century turmoil in Transvaal and Natal, the Rozwi Empire came to an end.

British Conquest

The minority Matabele (Ndebele) people in the south arrived there in historically recent times (1834). British occupation began in the 1890s, under the leadership of Cecil Rhodes, for whom the area was renamed Rhodesia. A treaty was signed with the British South Africa Company in 1888 allowing them to mine gold in the kingdom and to use force to enforce the terms of the treaty, now under Matabele rule. The increasing influx of settlers as a result of this treaty led to war with Lobengula, King of Matabeleland in 1893. Lobengula died while fleeing north, and the Ndebele were defeated and European immigration began in earnest.


Rhodesia became a self-governing colony with responsible Government in 1923. What this meant was that there was a local parliament although some powers (notably relating to African political advancement) was retained by London. Southern Rhodesia (as it was called then) was ruled via the Dominions Office (and not the Colonial Office) although strictly speaking the country was not a Dominion (like Canada, Australia, South Africa etc.). This was a unique case.

The formation of a number of political parties along with sporadic acts of sabotage came as a result of African impatience. At the forefront of this move was the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), mostly Ndebele, led by Joshua Nkomo. It was shortly joined by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), mostly Shona, a breakaway group under Ndabaningi Sithole. After the collapse of the federation in 1963, both ZAPU and ZANU were banned and the majority of their leaders imprisoned.

Illegal independence

Britain adopted a policy known as NIBMAR (No Independence Before Majority African Rule), but in 1965 Ian Smith's hardline Rhodesian Front (RF) party won every one of the 50 seats in the Legislative Assembly, which was controlled by the white minority. On November 11, 1965, Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Initially, Smith protested loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, although he refused to recognise the authority of her Governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, and declared Rhodesia a republic in 1970.

Britain declared Smith's actions illegal, and the Commonwealth imposed economic sanctions. The UDI was not recognised by any other country, even by the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1968 the UN voted to make the sanctions mandatory but they were largely ineffective. The measures taken by the British government to force Smith to revoke UDI seemed useless, as the economic sanctions imposed actually saw Rhodesia's economy grow. Most of the infrastructure still in the country today was developed.

Guerrilla warfare

Both ZAPU and ZANU began campaigns of guerrilla warfare around 1966, and guerrilla raids led to escalation in white emigration from Rhodesia. The coming of independence in Angola and Mozambique in 1975 altered the power balance within Rhodesia greatly as it forced South Africa and the USA to rethink their attitudes to the area, in order that they could protect their economic and political interests. Attempts were made by both countries to pressure Smith into accepting majority rule. With Kenneth Kaunda's Zambian support the nationalist groups were convinced to come together under the united front of Abel Muzorewa's African National Council. The imprisoned nationalist leaders were released.

Continuing talks failed to bring the two sides to an agreement, despite changes to the nationalist "line-up", now called the Patriotic Front (PF), a union of ZANU and ZAPU. Muzorewa had since formed a new party, the United African National Council (UANC), as had Sithole, who had formed a breakaway party from ZANU, called ZANU Ndonga. In the face of a white exodus, Ian Smith made an agreement with Muzorewa and Sithole, known as the Internal Settlement. This led to the holding of new elections in 1979 in which black Africans would be in the majority for the first time. The country was renamed Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979, with Muzorewa as Prime Minister.

However, the new state was not recognised by the international community, which continued to press for a settlement involvinng the Patriotic Front. Finally in 1979 under the Lancaster House agreement, its legal status as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia was restored, in preparation for free elections and independence as Zimbabwe.

Legal independence

In elections in March 1980, Robert Mugabe's ZANU party won the election, with 53 out of 80 seats reserved for black voters, with Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU gaining 27, and Muzorewa's UANC only three. The Republic of Zimbabwe came into being on April 18, 1980, in a ceremony attended by Britain's Prince Charles. A song was written and sung by Bob Marley to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe also called 'Zimbabwe'. He was invited to perform a concert at the country's independence festivities, and this song, was, of course, included.

As well as changing the name of the country, the new government changed numerous place names in 1982, starting with the capital, Salisbury, which was renamed Harare. The main street in the capital, Jameson Avenue, was renamed in honour of Samora Machel, President of Mozambique.

Constitution and parliamentary system

The new Constitution provided for a non-executive President as Head of State with a Prime Minister as Head of Government. The first President was Rev. Canaan Banana with Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister. In 1987, the Constitution was amended to provide for an Executive President and the office of Prime Minister was abolished. The constitutional changes came into effect on 1 January 1988 with Robert Mugabe as President.

The Parliament was bicameral, with the House of Assembly being directly elected and the Senate consisting of indirectly elected and nominated members, including tribal chiefs. Under the Constitution, there were two separate voters rolls, one for the black African majority, who had 80 per cent of the seats in Parliament and the other for whites and other ethnic minorities, such as Coloureds (people of mixed race) and Asians, who held a 20 per cent.

This gave whites disproportionate representation, and in 1986 the Constitution was amended to scrap this, replacing the white seats in with seats filled by nominated members. Many white MPs joined ZANU PF, which then reappointed them. In 1990, the Senate was abolished, and the House of Assembly's membership was increased to include members nominated by the President.

More guerrilla warfare

Following indepedence, there was increasingly bitter rivalry between ZAPU and ZANU, with guerrilla activity starting again, in Matabeleland (south-western Zimbabwe). Nkomo (ZAPU) left for exile in Britain, and did not return until Mugabe guaranteed his safety. However, talks led to the merger of the two rival parties as ZANU-PF in 1988.

From 1982 to 1983, the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade was sent by the government, composed of ethnic Shonas, massacred between 2000 and 8000 Ndebele civillians in Matabeleland, according to a 2001 investigative report of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe. The mass murders were assisted by Shona militias like the militias now organized by ZANU-PF. The crimes included mass murder of whole villages, mass rape, and widespread torture. The victims were often forced to sing Shona songs before being beaten and killed. No one has ever been prosecuted for these massacres, and commanders who perpetrated them are now at high levels of the Zimbabwe armed forces.

Robert Mugabe

However, Robert Mugabe, the nation's first Prime Minister, has been the country's only ruler (as President since 1987) and has dominated the country's political system since independence for a period of over 20 years. Mugabe has moved to increase his grip on power, and eliminate any political opposition to himself, at times bordering on paranoia. For example, Mugabe would not go out without a bodyguards and a presidential motorcade, whereas the reviled white leader Ian Smith would walk or drive around the capital unescorted, even when he was Prime Minister. Mugabe had become increasingly notorious in Southern Africa for his flagrant freedom of speech and human rights abuses, the near-destruction of his country's economy and for the way in which he has gone about eliminating the opposition to his rule. His government did not hesitate to jail political opponents and independent journalists.

In February 2000, Mugabe once again tried to change the constitution by holding a constitutional referendum, in a move that would have given him more sweeping powers. He would have been allowed to serve two more terms (another 10 years) as president, and would have been given authority to dissolve Parliament without cause. However, the victory for the No vote in Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum stunned the ruling party and threw it into chaos. The government's many vested interests, that had grown up under 20 years of virtual one-party rule made an easy and democratic transition far from certain.

Forced, uncompensated land expropriation

In 1997 Mugabe was panicked by demonstrations by Zanla ex-combatants (war veterans), who had been the heart of the liberation struggle 20 years before. He agreed to pay them large gratuities and pensions, which proved to be a wholly unproductive and unbudgeted financial commitment. He also raised the issue of land ownership by white farmers. While most white people had left Zimbabwe after independence, mainly for neighbouring South Africa, they continued to wield disproportionate control of some sectors of the economy, especially agriculture. In a populist move, Mugabe raised the spectre of land expropriation without compensation. Both steps brought the government into headlong conflict with the International Monetary Fund, for it was difficult to see how Zimbabwe could ever attract investors if it confiscated the assets of existing investors who had put their money into creating productive farms.

Zimbabwe had also declined economically, after Mugabe's misrule. In 1999, facing declining support, he orchestrated the invasion of white-owned farms for redistribution to his supporters by the war veterans and youth militia (green bombers), despite severe drought in the region. The police and military were instructed not to protect the farmers or their workers against violence. This lead to the destruction of much of Zimbabwe's agricultural base and over 100,000 farmers, farm workers and their families lost their homes and jobs through the often violent seizing of farms throughout 1999 and to date resulting in the decimation of the Zimbabwean economy. The political situation made it unlikely that the western countries would be inclined to do much more than provide sustenance assistance. Certain African leaders were also reluctant to criticise Mugabe for fear of helping the former colonial powers.

Human rights abuses and rigged elections

Some of the white farmers were murdered. Also, the same activists who had taken over the white farms spread out to kill, rape and maim supporters of the political opposition Movement for Democratic Change. It has been claimed that black members of the opposition were the real target of the takeovers.

Arguably by terrorising the opposition into submission, Mugabe achieved a parliamentary majority for ZANU-PF (he was also able to appoint 30 of the Members of Parliament). The presidential elections held in March 2002 were of critical importance to the entire Southern African region. An important concern was that if the elections were not free and fair it would have a destabilizing effect on the region, causing more economic turmoil in countries like South Africa and Botswana. Mugabe faced Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, and won a controversial victory. It is alleged that violence was used in anti-Mugabe strongholds to prevent citizens from voting.

International criticism and reactions

As a result of Mugabe's alleged election tampering and human rights abuses, there has been a strong international backlash. Amnesty International has accused the leader of committing human rights abuses against his political opponents, minority groups such as homosexuals, and white landowning families. The European Union imposed travel sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle of ZANU-PF elite, while the United States imposed economic sanctions which froze his assets and made any business dealings with him illegal. US President George W. Bush's spokesperson said that "the situation in Zimbabwe endangers the southern African region and threatens to undermine efforts to foster good governance and respect for the rule of law throughout the continent."

In 2002, as a result of its claimed human rights abuses and election rigging, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. This suspension was extended at the 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Soon afterward, Mugabe withdrew his country from the Commonwealth, after refusing to accept the Commonwealth's position.