HOW QUEEN ELIZABETH FLEW INTO ZAMBIA IN 1979 AMID GRAVE CONCERNS OF A MISSILE STRIKE ON HER AIRCRAFT
By Muloboka Albert Phiri
Since her death a few days ago, much, with varying sentiment, has been said about Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, the recently interred Queen of England.
Whatever the sentiment, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was a woman of exceptional courage. Documents from the British Premier’s office declassified a few years ago, highlight how in spite of serious security risks, she was determined to attend the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka. The documents also give rare insight into the risks and security considerations that preceded her 1979 visit to Lusaka.
DECLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS FROM PRIME MINISTER THATCHERS OFFICE
A June 15 1979 confidential note from the office of Mrs Thatcher’s Private Secretary, (available on Margaret Thatcher Foundation platforms) reveal details of a 40 minute meeting that took place that day at 10 Downing Street, between the British Prime Minister, and Zambia’s 35-year-old envoy to the United Kingdom.
Lombe Phyllis Chibesakunda, in her capacity as Zambia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom at the time, called on the recently elected 54-year-old first female Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, to deliver a message from President Kenneth Kaunda, on Rhodesia -now Zimbabwe.
As the August 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGM) being hosted by Zambia was only weeks away, and the Queen was travelling to Lusaka in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth, it was only inevitable that the subject of her security was broached.
The record of the meeting between the British Prime Minister and Zambia’s High Commissioner highlights “one or two problems” the British government had in connection with the Queen’s visit to Lusaka.
Chief among these concerns was the possibility of a surface-to-air missile attack on the Queen’s aircraft.
There was very good reason to be concerned.
BACKGROUND: THE RHODESIAN BUSH WAR
The Southern African region was at the time engulfed in a protracted liberation bush war” that pitted indigenous liberation movements such as Robert Mugabe’s ZANU and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, against the racist white settler regime of Ian Douglas Smith in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia were also waging armed struggles against the apartheid regime which had entrenched itself in their respective territories. The Zambian people led by Kaunda provided bases and refuge for the liberation movements of these countries.
In February 1978, ZAPU guerillas shot down an Air Rhodesia Viscount airliner over Kariba, killing all 59 white persons on board. In September the previous year, ZAPU forces had shot down another Viscount – Air Rhodesia Flight 825 resulting in the death of 48 white people.
Air Rhodesia was largely viewed by the indigenous black people and the Patriotic Front guerilla alliance of Mugabe’s ZANU and Nkomo’s ZAPU, as an icon of racial segregation promoted by the minority white settler community.
Numerous military incursions and air raids into Zambia were conducted by the hostile regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa. Multitudes of Zambians together with their Zimbabwean, Namibian and South African comrades in Lusaka, Chikumbi, and Nampundwe Mkushi Kavalamanja among numerous other places were killed on Zambian soil.
In response, multitudes of University of Zambia (UNZA) students filled the streets marching from their Great East Road campus to the British High Commission, in Long acres, where they protested and condemned Britain’s apparent support of the Rhodesian and Apartheid South Africa regimes. The students while chanting anti-Smith and anti -“Imperialist Britain” slogans, also reportedly burnt a union jack flag at the British High Commission, after which they walked the short distance to State House where they were addressed by President Kaunda, to whom they presented their request for arms to fight Rhodesian forces and defend Zambia against aggression.
CONCERNS ABOUT THE QUEENS SAFETY IN LUSAKA
The airspace in Southern Africa was a sporadic arena of war.
It was against this backdrop that the Queen’s visit was imminent.
The declassified documents also reveal how in June 1979 Robert Muldoon the outspoken Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time, privately called on Thatcher, to express his concern for the Queen’s safety in Zambia and persuade her to dissuade the Queen from travelling to Lusaka. Muldoon, eventually shared his concerns with the British and Commonwealth press, and this gave impetus to a wave of negative sentiment regarding the safety of the Queen in Lusaka.
Thatcher was by now inundated with a number of questions in the House of Commons – with mounting suggestions that the conference should be moved from Lusaka to an alternative and “safer venue”.
The British government continued to engage in “quite enquiries” relating to the Queen’s security and British intelligence and security agents stationed themselves in Lusaka to monitor the situation.
Thatcher maintained in the British Parliament that the Queen wished to go to Lusaka, and that she herself wished the Queen to go to Lusaka in any case. She further asserted that the Queen’s safety was paramount and that her government were thus doing everything they could to ensure the safety of the queen’s aircraft, both on its inward and on its outward flights, although she recognised that there could be no guarantees.
As The British Prime Minister insisted in her 15th June 1979 meeting with the Zambian envoy, “the final assurance” could only come from President Kaunda “ if he were to ensure that all missiles were removed from the guerilla forces in Zambia, and that no maverick fired one”.
Responding to Thatcher’s concerns, Chibesakunda maintained that President Kaunda appreciated the British government’s concerns, and that the Zambian government was aware of the problem and had done all in their power to ensure the queens safety. Zambia’s High Commissioner further pointed out that the incidents which had given rise to concerns in the UK had all happened outside Zambian territory and that she had every confidence so far as the territory under President Kaunda’s control was concerned, within Zambia’s own borders, the Zambian government could give the necessary guarantees.
Given the unstable nature of the racist regime south of Zambia’s border, the Zambian representative went on to suggest that the British Prime Minister might use the British Governments influence with the Rhodesian forces as well. “They, too, were undisciplined and the UK should exert leverage on them”.
THE BRITISH CROWN EVENTUALLY LANDS IN ZAMBIA
Her Majesty the Queen of England eventually came to Zambia as scheduled. Her aircraft entered and exited Lusaka without incident. Derek Ingram a veteran Journalist with the Commonwealth office was later to report:
“The twelve days that began the moment Queen Elizabeth’s VC 10 appeared like a lonely white dove in the blue Lusaka sky on June 27 (1979) until Mrs Margaret Thatcher spoke movingly at the close of the 22nd Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on August 7th and was kissed on the cheek by President Kaunda, must rank among the most surprising periods in the history of the Commonwealth”.
The Lusaka CHGM attended by 39 countries and opened by the Queen was such a success that it paved way for the Lancaster House talks which brought to the table all the warring parties in Rhodesia. The August 1979 Lusaka Accord on Racism which set out the Commonwealth’s duty to tackle discrimination and apartheid was signed.
As a result, racially segregated Rhodesia was no more, and an all-inclusive Zimbabwe was born on April 18, 1980, with Robert Mugabe as head of State. Further pressure was also exerted on the South African Regime of Pieter Willem Botha.
FOOTNOTE : LINGERING QUESTIONS…
By the time Smith was declaring UDI from Britain on 11 November1965, Elizabeth had been queen of England for some 13 years.
Many have thus asserted that the bloody Liberation War in Rhodesia was a needless and direct consequence of Britain (and ultimately its Crown) mishandling UDI; and their tacit support of the resultant racist regime of white settlers led by Ian Smith.
Towards the end of 1965, the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, led a mission to Rhodesia in a desperate final bid to avert a unilateral declaration of independence UDI by the government of Ian Smith. The visit ended on 30 October with a press conference at which Wilson warned:
“If there are those in this country who are thinking in terms of a thunderbolt hurtling through the sky and destroying the enemy, a thunderbolt will not be coming, and to continue in this delusion wastes valuable time and misdirects valuable energies”
The statement by the Queens government surprised and perplexed many contemporary observers just as it continues to puzzle historians today.
In his 1989 memoirs, Denis Healy who was Britain’s Defense Minister in 1965, described Prime Minister Wilson’s statement as a ‘Classic blunder’, suggesting that it “gave the green light to UDI.” (Denis Healy, The Time of My Life-1989. Page 132)
Whether the late Queen Elizabeth as head of the British Government and head of the Royal Armed forces went to her grave bearing on her head the crown of culpability for the cause of and ensuing carnage in the Rhodesian bush war, and the general repression and pillage that occurred during her reign over the broader British colonial empire, is now a matter between the deceased head of the Church of England and her creator.
It will no doubt, for surviving mortals, remain a matter of debate for generations to come.
One thing, though, is clear: It took more than just the assurances of Prime Minister Thatcher and British Intelligence, for Queen Elizabeth to fly in and out of Lusaka in 1979.
It also took more than firm guarantees from Kaunda and his security network for the British Crown to fly into the volatile Southern African atmosphere of the time.
It took guts. A lot of guts.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was a Queen with the most Royal of guts!
Hamba Khale Gogo Elizabeth.