Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, Rhodesia's leader on a peaceful path

Prime minister of a short-lived coalition government in what was the Republic of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979, he was soon eclipsed by Robert Mugabe.

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Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, a Methodist bishop and nationalist leader, was prime minister of a short-lived coalition government in what was the Republic of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979. He held office for only a few months in a state that gained no international recognition and was soon eclipsed by Robert Mugabe. It was a turbulent period as nationalist factions battled to negotiate an identity independent of British influence. Muzorewa had grand aspirations of achieving political balance without bloodshed: he fell some way short of realising his ideals.

The eldest of nine children, educated at the United Methodist Church near Mutare, Muzorewa worked as a teacher from 1943 and was ordained in 1953. By the 1950s, he channelled his ministry into political activity. As director of the Christian Youth Movement in 1964, he led protests against the deportation of Bishop Ralph Dodge, an outspoken critic of the Ian Smith government which had unilaterally proclaimed the independent white-ruled nation of Rhodesia.

In 1968, Muzorewa replaced the exiled Dodge to become the first African head of a major church in Rhodesia. He subsequently came into conflict with the Smith regime, which banned him in 1970 from the tribal trust lands where most black Methodists lived. The next year, he and an inexperienced cleric, the Rev Canaan Banana, formed the United African National Council (UANC) to oppose a joint proposal by Smith and the British government for a gradual transition to majority rule and the ending of sanctions against Rhodesia. They campaigned under the acronym Nibmar: No Independence Before Majority Rule.

Various liberation movements were at play in Rhodesia, including the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) of the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) of Joshua Nkomo. Though both under the UANC umbrella, the methods they favoured - conducting a guerrilla campaign from outside the country - contradicted Muzurewa's desire to pursue a political settlement. War began in 1972 and Smith came under increasing pressure to find black leaders to effect an "internal settlement". That same year, Britain sent the Pearce Commission to Rhodesia to sample opinion on whether the black population would accept independence without majority rule. Muzorewa, giving evidence to the commission in London, warned of the deep undercurrent of bitterness among the African population. On his return to Rhodesia his passport was seized.

Muzorewa began to find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the different political tendencies within the UANC. His willingness to converse with the Smith government led to accusations that he was merely a stooge. When Mozambique gained its independence in 1975, it gave literal and psychological support to the guerrillas, leaving Sithole and Nkomo liberated from all checks on their actions. Muzorewa left Rhodesia for a year and returned to find Nkomo setting up the Patriotic Front (PF) with Robert Mugabe, who had taken control of Zanu from Sithole. As power among the anti-government forces focused around the PF, Muzorewa and Sithole entered into talks with Smith.

Their 1978 agreement included the setting up of a democratic government within a year but with seats in parliament and cabinet reserved for whites. Though Muzorewa was appointed prime minister in 1979, his government failed to rouse support. Persuaded to accept fresh elections in 1980, Muzorewa lost, retaining only three out of 80 seats. He stood against Mugabe in the presidential election of 1995, but once again was defeated.

Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa was born on April 14, 1925, and died on April 8. He is survived by four children. His wife, Maggie, and a son predeceased him.