Lancaster House Agreement – 1979

The 1960s was a decade in which Britain was busy divesting itself of its colonies in Africa. In most cases this process was smooth and free from conflict; Southern Rhodesia, however, proved an exception and by 1968 it was the sole remaining British colony on the continent. In discussions some years earlier about the transition to independence, the country’s white settlers – a minority group which exercised political and economic control – refused to countenance any move to majority rule, fearing that Rhodesia’s black population would be incapable of effective self-government.

In 1965 the white Rhodesian government of Ian Smith defied Britain and declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). Britain did not of course accept this and won UN backing for a program of economic sanctions which lasted for the next 15 years. External pressures were exacerbated internally by a debilitating civil war against the guerrilla forces of Robert Mugabe and his black Patriotic Front. As the 1970s wore on, popular support for the Patriotic Front grew until Smith was forced in 1979 to agree to multi-racial parliamentary elections. When these proved inconclusive Britain, in one of the first major acts of Margaret Thatcher’s new Conservative government, persuaded the principal parties to participate in talks held at Lancaster House, London.

Under the chairmanship of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, the Constitutional Conference met for three months in autumn 1979. The resulting Agreement, signed on December 21, gave Rhodesia (soon to be renamed Zimbabwe) a new constitution and guaranteed a peaceful transition to full independence. Although hailed as a success at the time, the Lancaster House Agreement’s failure to resolve underlying problems, such as the key issue of land ownership, has left a country which today is in a state of near-total collapse with tensions between blacks and whites as high as ever.

When: September to December 1979

Where: Lancaster House, London, UK

Death toll: The Agreement brought an end to the extended guerrilla war in Rhodesia which caused thousands of military and civilian deaths.

You should know: The Agreement gave white Rhodesians certain ‘protective rights’, including a guaranteed 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. This quota was abolished by Mugabe in 1987.

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