On April 17, 1980, Robert Mugabe was sworn in as Prime Minister of the new and independent Zimbabwe.

Thirty-seven years later, he is resigning after a week of immense pressure from the military, the ruling party and the people.

But even in 1980 the main challenge Mugabe faced was clear.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honour during the official opening of the second session of the seventh parliament of Zimbabwe. Photo / AP
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honour during the official opening of the second session of the seventh parliament of Zimbabwe. Photo / AP

Rhodesia, Britain's last African colony, became the independent black-ruled nation of Zimbabwe at midnight Thursday, born in the blood of civil war and the hope of a hard-won peace.

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Under the brilliant floodlights of the Rufaro soccer stadium, the British Union Jack, first planted in the territory nine decades ago at the height of Victorian expansion, was ceremoniously lowered for the last time.

In its place, Comrade Kambeu, a former black nationalist guerrilla, raised the new Zimbabwean flag, a multi-coloured banner representing the land's races and riches.

Wild cheers erupted at midnight, from the 40,000 mainly black guests at the stadium. Four presidents, seven prime ministers and envoys from some 100 countries were also on hand.

Prince Charles shares a word with Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. Photo / AP
Prince Charles shares a word with Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. Photo / AP

Prince Charles handed over power - in the form of a scrolled act of the British Parliament granting independence - to the titular president of the southern African country, Canaan Banana.

Banana, as constitutional head of state, then swore in Robert Mugabe as prime minister.

Mugabe, the former black guerrilla chief who is now Zimbabwe's top political leader, paid tribute to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in replying to a pledge of aid to Zimbabwe read by British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.

"It is universally acknowledged that the initiative which led to the achievement of our final goal was made possible through her determined efforts," Mugabe said amid cheers.

He welcomed offers of British aid, saying: "We ... will strive for the closest possible ties."

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In a national broadcast on independence eve, Mugabe reached out to his white countrymen: "If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you."

Mugabe faced a daunting task: patching up an economy and a society shattered by a seven-year war that cost 20,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Keeping the 250,000-member white minority from abandoning the effort and leaving Zimbabwe would be a key to his success.

Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe is sworn in as Zimbabwe's first executive president by former president Canaan Banana. Photo / AP
Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe is sworn in as Zimbabwe's first executive president by former president Canaan Banana. Photo / AP

The ceremony was a striking blend of British pomp and African tradition - a 21-gun salute from weapons used in the long and bitter bush war, tribal dancing by young women who had fought as guerrillas, brass bands and talking drums.

The delegation representing the United States included elder statesman W Averell Harriman, former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Absent was Ian Smith, the former prime minister who led Rhodesia's whites to their unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 and symbolised their defiant stand against black-majority rule for 14 years. He was in South Africa on what aides said was a speaking tour.

Guerrillas loyal to the 56-year-old Mugabe and to black nationalist Joshua Nkomo waged their war first against Smith's white government and then against an interim administration headed by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the country's first black prime minister. Muzorewa watched the ceremony on television at home, friends said.

The guerrilla leaders signed a peace treaty and constitutional agreement with Muzorewa, restoring British rule on December 12, 1979 and climaxing years of failed attempts at negotiation. Mugabe then won a landslide victory in British-supervised elections.

Lord Christopher Soames, the burly 59-year-old governor who brought back British control of the mutinous colony for four months, returned to England,leaving the country independent and fully in the hands of its seven million blacks for the first time.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lights up the independence flame, during the country's 29th Independence celebrations, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lights up the independence flame, during the country's 29th Independence celebrations, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP

"I was one of those who originally never trusted him," Mugabe said of Soames in his radio-television talk.

"And yet I have now ended up not only implicitly trusting but fondly loving him as well."

Addressing the white minority that held power in Rhodesia for nine decades, Mugabe struck a chord of conciliation: "If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you."

He asserted that the "wrongs of the past now stand forgiven and forgotten" and vowed that past white oppression must not be replaced with black oppression.

"An evil remains an evil whether practised by white against black or by black against white."

Mugabe played down the Marxist image that won him arms from communist nations in the war, and pursued a policy mixing socialism with capitalism in a bid to prevent a flight of moneyed, skilled whites.

He sought to establish a national-unity government, taking two whites and several opposition blacks into his Cabinet.

Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigned in Harare. Photo / AP
Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigned in Harare. Photo / AP

Nkomo, his ally and rival in the nationalist movement, was the Home Affairs Minister, in charge of police.

The new administration had to resettle up to a million victims of the conflict and follow through on pre-election promises of free health care and education, more jobs and better homes.

Mugabe said one of his first goals was to help blacks achieve greater parity with whites in pay and job opportunities, but private ownership of land, homes and businesses was guaranteed.

The economy was badly damaged by the costs of war and by more than a decade of punitive trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Mugabe had already won pledges of more than US$200 million in aid, mostly from Britain, the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

The new nation's name, Zimbabwe, stemmed from an ancient African kingdom that flourished in the region.

The green of its flag represented the land, the yellow its mineral riches, the red the blood spilt in the war, the black its native people and the white its one-time colonists.

- AP