Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who has died aged 84, became the first black prime minister of the country now known as Zimbabwe without winning a place in the roll call of anti-colonial icons. Instead, he was dogged by a reputation for being a puppet of those more politically astute than himself.

Muzorewa led the ill-fated government which emerged from the “internal settlement” between Ian Smith, the late last leader of white Rhodesia, and moderate black nationalists in 1978. This agreement, denounced by Robert Mugabe, then leader of the Zanu guerrilla army, left the essential levers of power in white hands. Smith would later describe the deal as his last bid to retain control, with Muzorewa filling the role of convenient frontman for the white minority’s continued dominance of a country which was briefly renamed “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia”.

Muzorewa became prime minister after winning a multi-racial election in 1979 that was boycotted by Mr Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, the leaders of the largest liberation movements. He enjoyed a brief heyday, mingling with world leaders, touring capitals, meeting Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister, and dealing with Lord Carrington, her foreign secretary.

But the British came to be almost as scornful of Muzorewa as the black hardliners. Like Mr Mugabe, they viewed the diminutive Methodist bishop as Smith’s puppet, declining to recognise his government or grant “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” legal independence. Muzorewa, exuding an unfortunate self-importance and vanity, did not help his cause.

Lord Carrington would remark on the bishop’s Gucci shoes equipped with platform heels; many thought Muzorewa a shallow, pliant and intellectually limited man with a shaky grasp of reality.

Muzorewa joined Mr Mugabe, Nkomo and Smith in London for the Lancaster House conference in September 1979. These talks led to the birth of independent Zimbabwe and Mr Mugabe’s accession to power at the elections of March 1980.

After an exasperating day with this collection of leaders, Lord Carrington remarked to Peter Walls, the Rhodesian army commander, that he had never dealt with such a “group of murderers” in his life. The foreign secretary added: “The exception, I suppose, is the bishop.”

“The bishop!” replied Walls in mock surprise. “He’s the worst of the lot!” This was unfair – Muzorewa had no blood on his hands – but it betrayed the low esteem in which he was held. When the 1980 election came, Muzorewa campaigned on the slogan “The Winner” before crashing to defeat with only three out of 80 black seats. After handing over the premiership to Mr Mugabe, who swept 57 seats, Muzorewa was thrust to the margins of politics.

Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa was born in what is now Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe on April 14 1925. He attended a mission school before working as a teacher and being ordained. He took a masters degree at Scarritt College in Nashville, Tennessee, and was consecrated Bishop of Rhodesia in the United Methodist Church in 1968.

Muzorewa’s real contribution to Zimbabwe’s independence struggle came in 1972 when Alec Douglas-Home, then British foreign secretary, reached an agreement with Smith that fell far short of majority rule. The only safeguard was a requirement that the deal had to be acceptable to the black population. A commission under Lord Pearce was duly dispatched to ascertain the views of the black majority – and a campaign led by Muzorewa delivered a resoundingly negative answer. Muzorewa can justly claim credit for scuppering the Smith-Home proposals.

Muzorewa died on April 8. He married Maggie Chigodora in 1951, with whom he had five children. She and one child predeceased him; he is survived by three sons and a daughter.

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