Gukurahundi era diplomat dies

Sir Martin Ewans, one of Britain’s best known and most highly respected diplomats, has died at the age of 83. Between joining the Commonwealth Office in 1952 and his retire ment almost four decades later, he served in eight posts, seven of them in Commonwealth countries.

Sir Martin Ewans: we were trying to build a nation.
Sir Martin Ewans: we were trying to build a nation.

Many African experts say he was one of Britain’s most outstanding representatives.When he left the diplomatic arena, he went on to write a series of distinguished books about African and Asian issues.

Martin Kenneth Ewans was born in 1928, educated at St Paul’s School in London and later at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

After serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery during his national service, he joined the Commonwealth Relations Office in 1952 and served first in Pakistan and then in Canada, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Tanzania.

In 1973 he was appointed head of the East African Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where he served for four years before his appointment as Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi.

These were tumultuous times in India where the still young Ewans cut his teeth as a diplomat forced to gather information about massacres in a country which was not only friendly to Britain but one essential to Britain’s economic interests.

He had some of his toughest, and most personally painful experiences in Robert Mugabe’s three-year-old Zimbabwe, experiences which, former colleagues of his say, disturbed him for the rest of his life.

Regarded at the time by most Commonwealth leaders as a moderate man bent only on national development after seven years of war, President Mugabe had launched an ethnic and political cleansing campaign in Matabeleland called by local people Gukuruhundi.

High Commissioner Ewans and his staff were well informed about the atrocities taking place on a horrendous scale.

Years later, during a TV programme called The Price of Silence (transmitted by BBC 1 on 19 March 2002), the well-respected reporter Fergal Keane asked Sir Martin if he had protested to Mugabe about what was going on.

“I think,” Sir Martin replied, “to have protested to Mugabe, or to have gone on record as not liking what was going on down there, would not have been helpful. Mugabe would have resented it very acutely. I think it might have been even counter-productive, it might have damaged the policies we were trying to follow of helping Zimbabwe to build up as a nation.”

Keane then asked the former diplomat if he personally regretted not protesting to Mugabe (reports say as many as 5,000 men, women and children were massacred between 1983-1987).

Sir Martin replied: “No, I think this business has really been rather blown up. It wasn’t pleasant and people were being killed but as I said, I don’t think anything was to be gained by protesting to Mugabe about it.”

He completed a book on his experiences in Zimbabwe between 1983 -1985 but it has yet to be published.What Sir Martin had to say (if anything at all) about the pressure brought on him not to antagonise Mugabe so soon after the birth of Zimbabwe in 1980 would be of great interest to historians and journalists who remain hungry for first-hand accounts of what went on behind the scenes during Gukuruhundi.

In the course of his long retirement, Sir Martin acted as Vice-President of the British-Nigeria Association. He was also a fellow of the Royal Geographi- cal Society and at the age of 83 enrolled for a postgraduate degree in philosophy.

In 1953 he married Mary (nee Tooke) and she and their son and daughter survive him.

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