What is Zimbabwe?

The Republic of Zimbabwe is a landlocked state in the south of the African continent and was formerly the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

Once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, Zimbabwe has experienced a turbulent history in the second half of the 20th Century, and since 2000 has descended even further into repression, disorder, economic decline and famine. Today, Zimbabwe is something of an international pariah.

The country is headed by President Robert Mugabe, leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).


The British South Africa Company (BSA) colonised what became Southern Rhodesia in 1889. The colony was annexed by the UK in 1923.

In 1953 Britain created the Central African Federation (CAF), consisting of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). The CAF dissolved when Zambia and Malawi were given independence from Britain in 1963.

While seeking independence, Southern Rhodesia's white minority was strongly opposed to black participation in government. Unable to reach agreement, the Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 and instituted white rule.

The UK refused to recognise the Declaration and the country – now called Rhodesia – was subjected to economic sanctions. These sanctions, pressure from the UK and the international community, and a campaign of guerrilla warfare, finally led to a constitutional conference and free elections in 1979. The country became a recognised independent state, as Zimbabwe, in 1980. It was the last of the UK's African colonies to gain its independence.

Robert Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first Prime Minister in 1980, following the victory of his Marxist-nationalist ZANU-PF party. He has dominated the politics of the country ever since, becoming President and Chief of State in 1987.


Zimbabwe was once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, but today it is wracked by economic chaos with an annual inflation rate estimated at 231 million per cent in January 2009 and over 80 per cent unemployment.

Much of this was caused by the country's involvement in the war in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1998 to 2002, and budgetary mismanagement that led to the International Monetary Fund withdrawing aid in 2002.

Furthermore, the country has a visible convergence of class and race division. Land distribution from whites to blacks had been an avowed aim of ZANU-PF from the beginning, but progress was slow, despite receiving £44 million in aid from the UK since the 'Lancaster House' agreement.

In order to help sustain his regime, in 2000, President Mugabe embarked upon a 'fast track' programme of land reforms, in contravention of international agreements, and caused the UK to withdraw its aid.

The result – to the horror of the international community – was a reign of terror, as gangs of 'war veterans' attacked and dispossessed white farmers and their black workers.

The same veterans, and the government's security forces, also increasingly harassed members and supporters of opposition parties, and the press was subjected to ever greater controls and threats. Despite numerous attacks and killings, parliamentary elections in 2002 saw ZANU-PF win only a slim majority.

However, electoral irregularities and intimidation led Commonwealth observers to declare that "the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors" and the country was suspended from the Commonwealth later that year – a decision renewed in December 2003. Zimbabwe then decided to withdraw from the Commonwealth.

The main opposition is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. He has twice been accused of treason, following allegations that he tried to overthrow the government. He was acquitted of both charges.

A general election took place in March 2005, resulting in ZANU-PF winning 78 seats to the MDC's 41. One seat went to an independent candidate. The MDC had only reluctantly agreed to take part, saying the election would not be free or fair but insisting it wanted to "keep the flames of hope of change alive". British foreign secretary Jack Straw said afterwards that there was "strong evidence that they [the results] do not reflect the free, democratic will of the Zimbabwean people".

Parliamentary elections held three years later saw Zanu-PF lose it majority for the first time in 28 years and in September 2008 a power-sharing agreement was signed with the opposition. Under the deal President Mugabe remains head of state, the cabinet and the armed services and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai assumes the role of prime minister.

However, by January 2009 the deal had still not been finalised due to continued disagreements over the distribution of key ministries.

Concerns about poverty, HIV/AIDS, human rights and violence in Zimbabwe are a particular cause for worry in the UK, as the former colonial power, not least because it is the preferred destination of many people fleeing the country. President Mugabe often blames the country's current situation on British imperialism and interference. Worldwide, many blame it on the president's determination to stay in power at any cost.

There is growing international concern over rising levels of famine and disease in Zimbabwe. According to the UN, more than two-thirds of Zimbabweans are now existing on one meal or less per day. By the end of 2008 those in need of emergency food aid had risen to 5.5 million with an alarming rise in child malnutrition. Added to this a cholera epidemic, exacerbated by a disintegrating healthcare system, spread across the country claiming hundreds of lives.

In February 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that the EU had decided to continue the 'Zimbabwe Restrictive and Appropriate Measures' in light of the fact that essential reforms to promote the rule of law, human rights and democracy, as agreed under the Global Political Agreement, had not yet been implemented.

Mr Hague said the EU was "particularly concerned" about the upsurge in political violence and intimidation in recent weeks. He added that EU and UK bilateral development aid would continue to be channelled directly to the people of Zimbabwe through the UN and Non State Actors, rather than through the Government of Zimbabwe.

The Department for International Development confirmed in May 2012 that Zimbabwe remained “a high priority country” for the UK.

The next elections in Zimbabwe are expected to take place in the spring or summer of 2013 and the DFID Operational Plan for Zimbabwe for 2011-2015 envisages a two stage process:

A pre-election programme of £80 -90 million (for 2011/12; 2012/13) which will increasingly align to the reform plans of the Government.

Thereafter, assuming the election of a government “which reflects the will of the people and is prepared to govern in the interests of all Zimbabweans,”  DIFID expected there would be “a significant scale up of support.”

However, the department emphasised that, in a highly volatile political situation, it was very difficult to be precise about how the development programme would evolve.

The Foreign Office saw the 2012 Olympics as “an important opportunity to reaffirm the close friendship between the UK and the Zimbabwean people.” Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, joined Zimbabwean Minister for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, David Coltart, to watch Zimbabwean two time gold medallist swimmer Kirsty Coventry compete in the 200m.

Despite the slow pace of political reform in Zimbabwe, Mr Bellingham remained hopeful that there would be “a peaceful and credible Constitutional reform” in the autumn.


Zimbabwe profile.

Capital: Harare

Population: 12,619,600 (July 2012 est.)
Age structure: 0-14 years: 40.6% (male 2,585,086/ female 2,532,927) 15-64 years: 55.7% (male 3,374,546/ female 3,659,339) 65 years and over: 3.7% (male 193,148/ female 274,554) (2012 est.)

HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate: 14.3%

Ethnic groups: African 98% (Shona 82%, Ndebele 14%, other 2%), mixed and Asian 1%, white less than 1%

Religions: syncretic (part Christian, part indigenous beliefs) 50%, Christian 25%, indigenous beliefs 24%, Muslim and other 1%

Source: CIA World Factbook – 2012

After years of misgovernment, the economy in Zimbabwe was brought to its knees and development indicators fell dramatically.

The establishment of the Inclusive Government in 2009 began the process of recovery, but access to basic services is still limited:

20% of Zimbabweans need support to meet their basic food requirements;
1.6 million people in Zimbabwe are living with HIV/AIDS;
84 of every 1,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday;
960 mothers out of every 100,000 die from complications in childbirth;
80% of Zimbabweans do not have formal jobs.

Source: DFID – 2012


“As long as political circumstances allow, DFID will continue to expand support to the provision of basic services; will increase the focus on wealth creation; and will complement support with technical advice to the reformers in Government in preparation for transition to a more stable government.”

DFID; Zimbabwe Operational Plan 2011-2015 – update May 2012

“The motto of the London 2012 Olympics is “inspire a generation” and Kirsty Coventry embodies this spirit for young Zimbabweans."

FCO – 2012