Operation Oxide

International Operation Name: Commonwealth Election Commission Observer Group

International Operation Dates: 

Mandating Organization: Commonwealth

Region Name:  Africa

Location:  Rhodesia / Zimbabwe

Canadian Operation Name: Oxide

Canadian Operation Dates: 1980/02/02 – 1980/03/13

Mission Mandate:

To provide transportation assistance to Commonwealth Election Observers in the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe elections of February 1980

Mission Notes:

In 1922, white settlers in Southern Rhodesia voted to become a self-governing colony under the British Crown. By the 1960s, Britain was granting independence to most of its colonies in Africa, using the principle of majority rule. This was unacceptable to the minority white government of Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, as it was known by then. On 11 November 1965, he proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence. Britain and the international community refused to accept this declaration, with the United Nations instituting sanctions against the country.

With no prospect of majority rule, two nationalist organizations were formed and began to conduct guerrilla campaigns against the Rhodesian government: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe and operating from Mozambique, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo and operating from Zambia. The two groups were based on tribal lines, with the Mashona being represented by Mugabe and the Matabele by Nkomo. From 1965 to 1979, a war raged that was overshadowed by the Vietnam War, thereby keeping the bloody and brutal conflict from the international spotlight.

Under pressure, Smith negotiated an internal settlement with three black leaders within Rhodesia in March 1978. A white-only referendum in 1979 approved a new constitution and a name change to Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. In the subsequent April 1979 elections, Bishop Abel Muzorewa was elected in a poll that included 63 percent of eligible voters. Despite the fact that the voting had been declared fair by British observers, Mugabe and Nkomo were not happy and they put pressure on the presidents of Mozambique and Zambia to have new elections that included both the ZANU and ZAPU. Bishop Muzorewa was eventually persuaded to allow new elections, a result of the Lancaster House Agreement and negotiations that came to fruition on 23 December 1979.

As part of the elections agreement, both ZANU and ZAPU agreed to a cease-fire that became effective on 28 December 1979 and to send their troops to assembly points for the election. A Commonwealth Cease-fire Monitoring Force supplied by Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kenya was created to observe the assembly of (and count) the insurgents. A Commonwealth Observer Group from eleven countries (including Canada) was also created to monitor the elections. Supporting them, and actually observing the activities at the polls and in the various administrative regions of Rhodesia before the election were over 100 official and unofficial observers and support staff, including English police officers. Mugabe won the election.

Canadian participation in the Commonwealth Election Commission Observer Group began with a request from the United Kingdom. A reconnaissance team travelled to Rhodesia-Zimbabwe in January 1980, providing three options for Canadian participation. Operation OXIDE was authorized on 22 January 1980. A team of about seventy personnel with three Caribou aircraft would deploy to Rhodesia-Zimbabwe on 2 February and return no later than 4 March.

The role of the Canadian transportation unit was to provide air transport for the Commonwealth and other election observers, and for the Election Commissioner and his staff. If space permitted other election staff and members of the press could be carried. No members of the Commonwealth Cease-fire Monitoring Force could be carried.

The three Caribou from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron left Trenton on 2 February, while one Boeing from 437 Transport Squadron and three Hercules from 426 Transport Training and 436 Transport Squadrons delivered personnel and equipment between 8 and 12 February.

Once in theatre, the short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities of the Caribous made their value apparent. They flew 370 hours, flying into small, semi-prepared landing strips. Their duties consisted of flying ballot boxes and polling booths to remote locations, and transporting the observers who would oversee the elections. For their daily taskings, they received instructions from the Office of the Election Commissioner, although they remained under Canadian command. Members of the Rhodesian Security Forces provided ground security.

With the completion of the election, the team from 424 Squadron began redeploying to Canada. The first to leave were the three Caribous, as they would take the longest time. The last Caribou made it back to Canada on 13 March. A Boeing and several Hercules aircraft deployed to Rhodesia-Zimbabwe on 28 February, returning to Canada with the remaining personnel on 4 March.

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