Eddison Zvobgo, a Zimbabwean nationalist leader and Harvard-trained lawyer who won a reputation for his acerbic wit in negotiations to secure his country’s independence from Britain, died in Harare, the capital, last Sunday. He was 69.
His death in St. Anne’s hospital after a long illness was announced by ZANU-PF, the country’s governing party. No cause was given.
Mr. Zvobgo was one of a handful of surviving nationalists who had led the Zimbabwe African National Union, a forerunner of ZANU-PF, since its founding in 1963, when Zimbabwe was still white-run Rhodesia.
But while other stalwarts of the struggle against the white minority rule became subservient to the increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe, Mr. Zvobgo steered a more independent line, challenging Mr. Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned farms and his crackdown on newspapers.
In some ways Mr. Zvobgo’s legacy was ambiguous. Viewed as one of the country’s sharpest lawyers, he played a crucial role in drafting legislation in the late 1980’s that enabled Mr. Mugabe to concentrate power in his own hands. But, in the late 1990’s, Mr. Zvobgo pressed for constitutional reform and, in 2002, criticized new press restrictions as ”the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”
He also faced censure from Mugabe loyalists for his refusal to campaign for the president’s victory in elections in 2002, which outside observers judged to be rigged.
Throughout his career, political analysts said, Mr. Zvobgo harbored ambitions to become president himself. But as it became apparent that Mr. Mugabe had no intention of stepping down, Mr. Zvobgo’s star waned.
He was given ever more junior roles in the government and left the cabinet in 2000 after almost 20 years as a minister. He remained a legislator in the Masvingo area of southern Zimbabwe until his death.
Writing in Business Day, a South African newspaper, Dumisani Muleya, the newspaper’s Harare correspondent, said Mr. Zvobgo was ”described by some as ‘the president Zimbabwe never had,’ while others said he was a ‘brilliant political failure.”’
Although he was seen as potential rival to Mr. Mugabe, he was never formally found to be disloyal. After his death, Mr. Mugabe called him ”a true nationalist who faithfully espoused the principles and objectives of our liberation struggle and upheld them to the end.”
”Neither imprisonment, detention nor political harassment could destroy his faith in them,” Mr. Mugabe added.
Mr. Zvobgo was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1935 and was educated in missionary schools before he won a scholarship to study at Tufts University, near Boston. He returned home after the creation of the Zimbabwe African National Union in 1963 but was arrested by the white authorities on political charges in 1964. He was freed in 1971 and went to Harvard University to study law. He taught criminal law as an associate professor at Lewis University in Illinois.
For much of the 1970’s, Rhodesia was convulsed by warfare pitting nationalist guerrillas against the white minority government. Mr. Zvobgo returned from the United States to join Mr. Mugabe in Mozambique, one of the bases for the nationalist war effort.
At negotiations in London in 1979, and during the subsequent transition to majority rule in 1980, Mr. Zvobgo acquired a reputation as witty and urbane public spokesman for the nationalist negotiators, taking evident delight in verbal sparring with British officials.
He once presented a British diplomat with a recording of fiery revolutionary songs from the guerrilla war inscribed with the words ”To the British who made all this possible.”
His wife, Julia, died in February. Mr. Zvobgo is survived by seven children, according to The Daily Herald, the government-controlled newspaper.