Joshua Nkomo, 82, a co-vice president of Zimbabwe and an independence fighter who helped shake off colonial rule in his southern African country, died of prostate cancer at a hospital here July 1.

Mr. Nkomo was a central player in the drama of Zimbabwean nationalism, which evolved from mild civil resistance in the 1950s and 1960s to a bloody guerrilla war in the 1970s that left 40,000 dead.

White rule in the former British colony of Rhodesia ended in 1980. Over four decades, Mr. Nkomo spent 11 years in jail and seven years in exile.

While he nurtured the image of a nationalist godfather, he failed to achieve his goal of becoming the first black leader. An arch rival and former lieutenant in the nationalist movement, Robert Mugabe, came to power when his Zimbabwe African National Union party swept to victory in 1980 in the first democratic elections.

Their uneasy alliance collapsed when Mugabe expelled Mr. Nkomo from his cabinet in 1982, accusing him of plotting a military coup, a charge the latter denied. The move triggered a rebellion by Mr. Nkomo's former guerrilla fighters, and a bloody civil conflict ensued.

Mugabe's government once classified Mr. Nkomo an enemy of the state, confining him to the country, confiscating his passport and monitoring his movements. But he managed to flee the country and spent five months in self-exile in Britain.

Mr. Nkomo signed a unity accord with then-Prime Minister Mugabe in 1987 that pushed his party, made up largely of the minority Ndebele tribe, into extinction. Many applauded the move for halting fighting that was said to have caused thousands of civilians to be killed in Mr. Nkomo's Matabeleland stronghold. Mr. Nkomo was reinstated in Mugabe's cabinet and later was named to a largely symbolic role as one of the two vice presidents.

Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo was a mission school graduate who worked as a truck driver and carpenter to raise money for his education in South Africa. On returning to Rhodesia, he was a welfare officer with Rhodesia Railways, later becoming secretary of the African railway workers union. He rose through the ranks to form and lead the African National Congress, the nation's first black nationalist political party, in 1952.

In 1957, the African National Youth League merged with Mr. Nkomo's ANC, and the new group, named the National Democratic Party, elected him president. Colonial authorities banned the NDP five years later.

Mr. Nkomo reformed it as ZAPU, which was also immediately banned. Mugabe, Mr. Nkomo's former press secretary, defected from the party to form the more militant ZANU in 1963.

Along with Mugabe, Mr. Nkomo was jailed by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1964 after rivalries in the black nationalist movement erupted into violence. Rival guerrilla groups forced Smith to release all black leaders for peace talks in 1974.

A cunning and sometimes devious politician but a consummate diplomat, Mr. Nkomo traveled widely to secure outside help and won military support from Moscow and the political respect of Western nations during the bush war that ended white rule.

At the peak of the liberation war, his party's armed wing operated mainly from Zambia. Mugabe's forces were based in Mozambique, with backing mostly from China.

Forced to abandon his previously moderate stance in the liberation struggle, Mr. Nkomo courted controversy. When he was asked what weapon had felled a civilian aircraft his guerrillas had downed, killing 40 white people, he answered, with a hint of laughter, that it had been brought down with stones.

"Clearly, I could not say it was a SAM-7 [Surface to Air Missile]. It was a secret that we had such things," he sought to explain later in his autobiography.

In 1996, Mr. Nkomo became the first public figure in Zimbabwe to acknowledge the loss of a family member to AIDS when his second son, Ernest, died of complications from the disease. The gesture was significant in a country with one of the world's highest HIV infection rates.

Survivors include his wife, Johanna, and three children.

CAPTION: Joshua Nkomo served as co-vice president of Zimbabwe.