Canaan Banana – Biography, Presidency, Death & Other Notable Facts

Canaan Banana (1936-2003)

Who was Canaan Banana?

In 2003, when Canaan Banana, Zimbabwe’s first president, passed away, then-Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe described him as a “rare gift” to Zimbabwe. In reality, Banana and Robert Mugabe, who was Banana’s successor, did not always see eye to eye although both men were key in the fight for Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

A Esigodini-born Methodist minister and theologian, President Banana served as the ceremonial president of the Southern African country from 1980 until 1987, when he was in a way removed from office by his then-prime minister Robert Mugabe. The former statesman would later serve six months in jail after he was found guilty by a Zimbabwean court on the charge of being a homosexual. The trial and conviction, which Banana claimed to be nothing but politically motivated, further put a strain on the relationship between Banana and Mugabe.

Aside from being the first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana is praised for his efforts in helping Zimbabwe become a majority-rule independent country. His legacy also lies in the fact that he was instrumental in setting up a union between the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the two major revolutionary groups that fought for independence.

Methodist Minister and Theologian

Banana, after training at the Epworth Theological College, worked as a United Methodist Minister in 1962 and a school administrator from 1963 – 1966. He also served as the Chairman of the Bulawayo Council of Churches for two years. In the early 1970s, he worked with the All Africa Conference of Churches. He was also part of the Advisory Committee of the World Council of Churches from 1971 to 1973.

Political Activity and Fight for a Majority-Rule Zimbabwe

Banana’s political career was one marked by frequent turbulence and agitations. During the 1960s and 1970s, he became an active participant in anti-colonial politics, promoting the black liberation doctrine and vehemently opposing Rhodesia’s white-minority rule government led by Ian Smith. Born in what was then-Rhodesia, Ian Douglas Smith and his government unilaterally declared independence from Britain in November 1965. Banana and his anti-colonial fighters strongly opposed any kind of independence that maintained white-minority rule in the country.

Robert Mugabe (left) and Canaan Banana

The United African National Council

The reverend and politician formed the United African National Council (UANC) party with Methodist minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa in 1971 to oppose the referendum which sought to exchange majority rule for a withdrawal of sanctions against Rhodesia. The party triumphed and the referendum was canceled, leading the UANC to become a well-known national political party. It became the only black legitimate political party in Rhodesia as it abhorred violence unlike both the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Time in exile

During the late 1960s, the UANC began facing opposition from the government and most of its leaders were arrested, forcing Banana to flee to Botswana with his wife and children. He later settled in Japan before moving to the United States, Washington, D.C. from 1973 to 1975 where he served as the UANC representative to the United States and the United Nations. Banana served as the party’s Vice President from 1971 to 1973.

Lancaster House Agreement and Zimbabwe’s independence

Banana later joined the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party with Robert Mugabe while Ian Smith was President of Rhodesia. His involvement with the ZANU party led to his arrest in 1976. In spite of his incarceration, he continued to serve as the face of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, all the while the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) raged on. Tensions did not abate until members from ZANU, ZAPU and Ian Smith’s government met in London to secure the famous Lancaster House Agreement on December 21, 1979. The agreement nullified Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence of 1965. It was agreed an election would take place under the supervision of Britain and the international community. The state of Zimbabwe Rhodesia was subsequently dissolved as well.


In 1980, Rhodesia gained independence from British rule and became known as Zimbabwe. Banana became the country’s first President under Zimbabwe’s new constitution with Robert Mugabe serving as Prime Minister. He served as the ceremonial president of the nation from 1980 until 1987 when Mugabe took over as executive president.

Some people thought of Banana as an intolerant and controversial leader due to the passage of a law in 1982 which prohibited citizens from making fun of his surname.

Upon his succession of power to Mugabe, Banana served as a diplomat for the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) and the leader of the religious division of the University of Zimbabwe.


Banana contributed immensely to the merging of the two main political/revolutionary parties – ZANU and ZAPU –  that fought for Zimbabwe’s independence. The merged party became known as the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in 1988.

He also played an instrumental role in bringing the four-year ethnic conflict which targeted the people of Matabeleland between January 1983 and December 1987 to an end.

The Fall of Banana

Having served as president of Zimbabwe for seven years, Banana’s name was brought into disrepute when charges of sodomy and sexual harassment were leveled against the former president in 1997, ten years after leaving office. Although he denied the charges and absconded to South Africa under the guise that Mugabe attempted to kill him, he returned to Zimbabwe in December 1998 and faced trial. The politician was found guilty of the allegations and received a ten-year jail sentence. He was also stripped off his clerical position on January 18, 1999. He was fortunate to have nine years of the sentence suspended, spending only six months in prison and being released in January 2001.


Banana suffered cancer which killed him in 2003. The Guardian reported that he had died at Charing Cross Hospital, Hammersmith in London, United Kingdom.


His published the book “The Gospel According to the Ghetto” in 1981. It included his version of the Lord’s Prayer.

Canaan Banana: Fast Facts

Born: 5th March, 1936, Esigodini (formerly Essexvale)

Spouse: Janet Mbuyazwe

Children: Michael Thabo, Nathan Sipho, Martin Mhambi Salaam, and Nobuhle Beauty.

Education: Mzinyathi Mission School, Tegwani High School, Epworth Theological College in Salisbury, Harare, Kansai University in Osaka, and Wesley Theological Seminary (Master of Theology), United States (1975).

Death date: November 10, 2003, aged 63.

Presidency: 1980-1987

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