FROM his home in Dibden, exiled Wilf Mbanga is exposing the grim reality of life in his homeland, Zimbabwe. On the 25th anniversary of Robert Mugabe's accession to power, he speaks to Karenza Morton...

"POWER corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Think about your closest friends and how you laugh together, sharing personal anecdotes.

Now imagine that person 25 years later as one of the most despised leaders in world history.

That is the position Wilf Mbanga finds himself in.

For more than 20 years, Mbanga was more than a friend to Robert Mugabe - they were confidants.

They used each other to further their careers. Mbanga's reputation as an ambitious reporter was enhanced because of his access to Mugabe while thanks to Mbanga, political campaigner Mugabe, fighting for a racially unified Zimbabwe, had an outlet for his views.

However, rooted at the centre of everything was an enduring friendship.

It is a friendship that seems almost incomprehensible today.

Once they shared the same dream of blacks and whites living together in a country that had been divided on racial grounds for as long as they had known.

Today, a quarter of a decade after Mugabe's ascendancy to power, Zimbabwe is devastated by poverty while mass murder, rape and racial hatred are considered commonplace.

Mbanga, meanwhile, is living in exile in Southampton, knowing he faces 20 years in jail if he returns home.

Unquenchably jovial, 57-year-old Mbanga is almost at a loss to pinpoint exactly how Mugabe became loathed the world over.

"I wouldn't believe he was capable of being cruel," Mbanga implores. "The man I knew and shared jokes with was a nice man, a Catholic. He adored my wife and it didn't make sense to me he could send troops to kill people.

"Even when things were bad I always had residual goodwill towards him because he was still my friend. I'd make allowances and think, 'OK, he's slipped but he'll change because essentially he's a good person.' I didn't realise he was rotten through and through."

The pair met in 1974 when Mbanga was sent to compile profiles of political detainees imprisoned for speaking out against the authorities.

At the time, Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was still, was under white rule where blacks and whites were segregated at school, in towns, hospitals and even cemeteries.

Mugabe had been hailed the father of freedom - the man who would unify the country. Mbanga genuinely believed he would do it.

They met at Mugabe's house in Highfields, Salisbury (now Harare).

It was to be the first of many visits for Mbanga.

"When I was interviewing all these people, one of them stood out and that was Mugabe. He was very articulate, clear in his thinking on the future, had no grudges, despite the fact he'd been jailed and was still talking about a racially united country.

"I knew this was the man who was going to be a future leader of the country and had no doubt he had the interests of Zimbabwe at heart."

As well as politics the two men quickly discovered they had a lot in common.

They had attended the same school, Kutama, a Jesuit boys' boarding school 45 miles outside the capital, while Mbanga laughs as he recalls the nights they sat at each other's houses singing along to Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Pat Boone.

The warmth between the men was captured perfectly at Indira Gandhi's funeral in 1984, when Mbanga had cracked what could be perceived as being a bit of an inappropriate joke and Mugabe reacted with a mix of shock and hysteria.

In 1981, a year after being elected Zimbabwe's first black prime minister, Mugabe invited Mbanga to head the National News Agency and for the first few years the Zimbabwean economy flourished as the country became the bread-basket of southern Africa.

Mbanga, a father of three, thrived in his new role.

The horrors, however, that would later come to be synonymous with Mugabe's rule were already beginning to unfold outside of the cities.

Yet, when Mbanga confronted Mugabe about incidents such as the rumoured massacre of 20,000 people in Matabeleland, something later revealed to be his friend's doing, Mugabe simply denied any wrongdoing.

"The signs were there but I never wanted to see them. He put on his charm and I walked out a happy person, I believed him."

Mbanga could only ignore the signs for so long and the 1995 elections, with the economy in freefall and political discussion banned in newspapers, proved the turning point.

And in 1998, having seen Mugabe change from someone he would pick up if he saw him sat at the bus stop to a man who drove around in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz surrounded by bodyguards, Mbanga got out.

He was just three years away from collecting a lucrative pension.

"I couldn't go on, my conscience was killing me. I could see Mugabe was frightened and just wanted to consolidate power.

"I had to tell the people what was going on in their country."

Mbanga launched his own newspaper, the Daily News to "tell it as it was".

Among other horrific stories, the paper exposed Mugabe's brutal youth camps, where it was alleged that boys as young as 14 were encouraged to rape and beat up relatives.

Within six months, the Daily News had quadrupled its circulation, selling 120,000 copies a day.

People buying and selling the paper were beaten and arrested and in November 2001 Mbanga spent a night in jail - despite having already left the paper - after being charged with giving false investment information.

The case was thrown out by magistrates and latterly the High Court.

Mbanga was nonetheless a marked man, regularly followed by government officials.

His phone was tapped and he would spend hours awake every night as intruders persistently broke into his garden.

There was no decisive moment in his split from Mugabe - the two men simply drifted apart as Mugabe's descent into megalomania deepened.

Mbanga was eventually advised to leave Zimbabwe and spent a year in Holland at a safehouse for journalists and writers persecuted in their own countries where he continued to expose Mugabe's rule via an Internet column.

He is now continuing the fight from Dibden where he and wife Trish have lived since December.

He is here because he wanted to live by the sea.

Last month, the couple launched the Zimbabwean - a weekly paper published in London and Johannesburg and distributed in Zimbabwe to provide "a voice for the voiceless".

Its aim is to provide unbiased information in a country where propaganda predominates.

Just hours after its launch, Zimbabwe's Media and Information Commission had issued a statement condemning the Zimbabwean.

Mbanga remains defiant. He has seen too much to give up now.

He added: "I was at a press conference sitting in the front row listening to Mugabe across the table.

"He looked everywhere else but at me. He didn't even acknowledge my presence.

"Venom was coming out of his mouth about whites being the enemy and I couldn't help but cast my mind back to what he used to say.

"The Robert Mugabe I knew would be shocked about what his country has become."

Godfrey Majwenzi, spokesman for the Zimbabwean embassy said: "There is no truth in the allegations Wilf Mbanga makes and he is recycling information that has already been discredited."