Liberia: Dr. Elwood Dunn Reflects on Life of Late Zimbabwean President


MONROVIA – News of the recent death at age 95 of former Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe led me to my Zimbabwe file. You see, I (and delegation) served as the first special envoy of Liberia to incoming Prime Minister Mugabe in early April 1980. As history turned, mine was among the last diplomatic missions of the First Republic. Nine days after taking leave in Monrovia of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. the president was assassinated and his government overthrown in a military coup d’état.

Report by D. Elwood Dunn, Contributor

I was serving in the administration of President Tolbert as minister of state for presidential affairs when called upon to lead the delegation of two that included the late Ambassador Christopher Minikon then serving as assistant minister of foreign affairs for Afro-Asian affairs. I kept a file of that service to Liberia, and it is to that file that I have turned to refresh my memory of that eventful mission.

I took leave of President Tolbert on a sunny afternoon on April 3, 1980. He was in the presidential quarters on the 8th floor of the Executive Mansion in Monrovia.  We had had a full day of work during which we drafted and he signed a letter addressed to Premier Mugabe. 

Having hosted in Liberia the 16th Summit of the OAU in July 1979 Tolbert was serving as the pan-African organization’s Current Chairman. In that capacity he was intimately involved in the Lancaster House Talks that negotiated the independence of Zimbabwe, engaging on the sidelines of the talks with both liberation leaders Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo during a December 1979 visit to London. Tolbert even posted Deputy Foreign Minister T. Siafa Sherman as his special representative to the Talks. So, with the talks successfully concluded, elections held and won by Mugabe’s ZANU/PF Party, independence was slated for April 18, 1980.

We received at the Executive Mansion a telegram from our Embassy in Paris suggesting the appropriateness of the OAU Current Chairman sending an envoy to establish initial contact with the newly elected Zimbabwean Premier and his government. It is highly likely that the telegram was the work of Foreign Minister C. Cecil Dennis Jr. who was at that time attending in Paris the Foreign Ministerial Conference that preceded the 1980 Franco-African Summit.  Dennis had flown in a few days earlier from a mission to Iraq. I took the telegram to the president in his office. As he read it with me standing over him, he looked up at me, noting that Minister Dennis was abroad, and wondered whom he might send instead. He soon settled on me as he instructed that I begin working on travel logistics. The Foreign Ministry determined that Ambassador Minikon would join me on the mission in his capacity as head of that Ministry’s Afro-Asian Bureau.

Ending the day’s work in the presidential office on April 3, 1980, I left the 4th floor offices and went to the president’s living quarters on the 8th floor to bid him goodbye and receive any last instructions. Minikon and I left the Roberts International Airport (RIA) that evening for Zimbabwe via Nairobi by a Pan-Am flight. Traveling on the same flight was former secretary of state J. Rudolph Grimes who was headed to Addis on an OAU consultative project. Grimes was seated near me and soon struck a conversation that focused on the state of affairs in the country. He was clearly not a fan of President Tolbert, the two having disagreed when they served the Tubman administration as secretary of state and vice president, respectively. We parted in Nairobi.

Both the Kenyan government and our Embassy in Nairobi extended courtesies and facilitated our transit through Nairobi. We arrived Salisbury, Zimbabwe April 5, 1980 at about 8:30am. Zimbabwe protocol informed us that the Prime Minister would receive us at 10:30am,two hours upon our arrival. We arrived at the heavily guarded Prime Minister’s residence precisely at 10:30am and were ushered in, meeting Mr. Mugabe in the presence of deputy foreign minister, Dr. Witness Mangwende and a protocol officer. After briefly explaining the purpose of our mission, the Prime Minister responded by expressing gratitude for the Liberian gesture, recalled Liberia’s solid support for the liberation struggle, underscoring President Tolbert’s presence and personal engagements in London during the Lancaster House Talks. I then presented President Tolbert’s letter to Prime Minister Mugabe. It reads in part:

“We have followed with interest and a deep sense of involvement the evolution of your valiant struggle for independence, and we here renew our commendation to you, the Patriotic Front and the gallant people of your great nation for the courage, perseverance and supreme sacrifices made to win independence for Zimbabwe. This is why we were so joyful that in the free exercise of their franchise, the people of Zimbabwe have chosen a Government, under your leadership, to shape their destiny – an action that is indeed a fitting tribute to you for the significant role you played in this heroic undertaking.”

President Tolbert continued: “ Indeed, we are heartened by your statesmanlike pronouncements promotive of national reconciliation, reconstruction and good neighborliness. Ours remain the fervent hope that amidst the inevitable difficulties of transition and adjustments at this juncture of your history, the WILL of the people of Zimbabwe to national self-fulfillment will triumph as it has in the revolutionary struggle for independence.”

The President assured the Prime Minister of the Liberian government’s disposition to work with him and his government “in all matters of mutual interest, and in the furtherance of African Unity and solidarity.” The President looked forward to his “personal presence in Salisbury for the Independence Ceremonies.” The letter concluded:

“I am intrusting this message in the care of my Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, and it would please me, dear Brother, were you to receive him and accord full faith and credence to all he shall communicate to you in my name, especially when he shall renew to you our best wishes for your personal well-being, and for the gallant people of Zimbabwe peace, unity, solidarity and progress.”

As the audience lasted for a full hour, we had the opportunity to elaborate on some of the points of the letter, but also to listen to the Prime Minister’s intimation of the leadership task that lay ahead. He wanted to allay white fears and appeal for black patience. White rebel leader Ian Smith had told him bluntly that he would have preferred Joshua Nkomo to Mugabe. The task, however, was nothing short of reconstructing a present and future by a united people. We indicated that President Tolbert and delegation, to include the minister of information, would arrive Salisbury April 16, 1980. The Prime Minister then asked for another meeting with us before departure for lunch or supper, hoping that First Lady, Mrs. Sarah “Sally” Hayfron Mugabe would have returned from a trip to her native Ghana.

As we took leave of the Prime Minister we visited briefly the office of my counterpart, the minister of state in the office of the Prime Minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa. His role was actually larger than my own as he was also advisor for political and security affairs in addition to involvement with the Prime Minister’s other function as defense minister. I did not find him as engaging as the Prime Minister, though he may have been in a mood of deferring to his leader. A profile of ministers that made its way into our file describes Mnangagwa as “the most capable administrator in the Party and a man to watch in the future.”  It added: “A man of exceptional intelligence” and a Zambian trained lawyer.

Our delegation asked to see Home Affairs Minister Joshua Nkomo and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Simon Muzenda. We saw Muzenda on April 9th and extended greetings from his Liberian counterpart, C. Cecil Dennis, Jr. The Zimbabwean minister indicated that the major problem facing them was that of coordination of services. In any case, he added that following the Lancaster House Talks and before they came to Zimbabwe for the elections, they knew where they would be successful and where they would fail. They knew they would not do well in Bulawayo, an Nkomo stronghold. 

We met with Nkomo on April 10th during which time the minister expressed gratitude to Liberia for its positive role in the long liberation struggle, and even more recently in the London talks which eventuated in independence. He pointedly mentioned an extremely helpful telegram jointly sent by Presidents Tolbert, Shehu Shagari of Nigeria and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to the British Prime Minister during a crucial phase of the Talks. The task before the new government was to reconcile, right the wrongs and “push forward together.”

A second meeting with the Prime Minister materialized on the evening of April 9th. Unfortunately, Mrs. Mugabe had still not returned from her travel. At 7:30pm on the 9th we arrived at the Prime Minister’s residence and found Minister Mnangagwa waiting for us. The discussion soon turned on the organization and function of the office of the Liberian minister of state for presidential affairs. Clearly there was a search for models and I was quizzed on the Liberian model. (Minikon took copious notes on what I said as reflected in our Report). As the Prime Minister came into the parlors where we were seated, he insisted we put away protocol and relax with him as friends and brothers. This was the atmosphere that pervaded for the next three hours of conversation and supper. The Zimbabwean leaders intimated that having inherited a white bureaucracy, they were seeking ideas regarding the role of the chief of staff/ minister of state in the office of the president of Liberia as they worked on establishing a similar office. They even expressed to us their anxieties in integrating, as the Lancaster House Talks had mandated, three heretofore-rival armies – the 40,000 strong of the Ian Smith/”internal settlement” regime, some 9,000 from ZANU/PF or the Mugabe forces, and 6,500 from Nkomo’s ZAPU forces.

As we finally took leave of the Prime Minister we have this line recorded in our Report: “A deeply-felt warm embrace ensued at the door as we took leave of this great and genuine African leader.”

Mugabe’s reply letter to Tolbert reads in part:

“I thought I should drop you a line in a more informal manner firstly, to thank you for having sent the Minister of State in your office, Dr. Dunn, to bring me a special message from you, and secondly, for having accepted my invitation to attend our Independence Celebrations. Dr.Dunn’s visit has naturally offered me and some of my colleagues in Government a favourable opportunity to hold with him informal discussions on matters of common interest. I think we have fully utilized him.”

We made detailed arrangements for President Tolbert’s visit to Zimbabwe slated for April 16, 1980. We then departed Salisbury April 10th for the return journey home via Nairobi, Kenya. Ambassador Minikon and I used the couple of layover days in Nairobi to put finishing touches to the Report on our mission.

We were at the residence of Ambassador James Freeman awaiting our flight home by Pan Am the evening of April 12, 1980. On the morning of April 12, however, Ambassador Freeman received a call from the American Ambassador to Kenya informing him that President Tolbert had been assassinated and the Liberian Government overthrown. The news brought a profound pause as we struggled to digest it.

Somewhat regaining our composure we decided to take our flight from Nairobi that evening, spend an evening in Lagos, Nigeria, and then continue to Freetown, Sierra Leone, reasoning that we would from that vantage point receive more direct information about what had transpired in our country, including when the closed RIA would reopen. As it turned out, we spent ten anxious days in Freetown, returning home to face our fate on April 22, 1980. What we learned upon landing at RIA from which we had departed on April 3, 1980 was that 13 officials of the overthrown regime had been publicly executed by firing squad, apparently as we were landing.

Such are the revelations of my Zimbabwe file. Such may be useful notes in the diplomatic history of Liberia – the genesis of Liberian-Zimbabwean relations, the first Liberian officials to visit an imminent independent Zimbabwe, and perhaps among the last emissaries of the First Republic.