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The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, Blessing Miles-Tend

One of my earliest recollection of General Solomon Mujuru, the mystified hero, was when we played ‘fake’ guerrillas with my cousins around the yard in rural Zimbabwe, and blissfully singing the following:

‘Hona Mukoma Nhongo bereka sabhu tiende chauya chauya’

‘Comrade Nhongo carry the sub-machine gun, Lets Go, whatever comes comes’

In our youthful minds growing up as ‘born frees’, after liberation, meant that we were also fed the prevailing euphoria of the victory of the liberation movement and we were swept into the promise that de-colonisation presented. For many families it also meant the painful arduous search for answers, for those who never returned, many not yet answered, about the fate of those who are memorialised by the 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' at the National Heroes Acre. The book is an ambitious project that weaves the diverse and contradictory threads of a very complex, multi-layered and ever-changing political biography digging into the life of a character who played an immense role in the liberation of the country and the trajectory of the post-colonial state.

Blessing-Miles Tendi, an Associate Professor of African Politics at Oxford University, has written an intellectually exceptional political biography of Zimbabwe’s first army commander, General Solomon Mujuru. Popularly known by his Chimurenga nom de Guerre, Rex Nhongo, tracing his life from birth to the fateful night in which he was reported to have died in a mysterious fire. Very few believe the state narrative. In an era in which the University of Zimbabwe (or the university in general) is now a fast receding pale shadow of its past glory, this biography will rank as a towering engagement of Zimbabwe’s tortured political trajectory. Reading through the narrative one gets the enormous difficulty that the writer had to go through in deftly leaving some material out.

For example, Leon Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deustcher, had to do a trilogy: The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963) to capture the towering figure of Len Trotsky. After almost a decade of interest, research, analysis and writing, the author has placed the biography of General Solomon Mujuru on the shelf of other great army generals globally. That is a brilliant scholarly feat. One can grab and read the biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, or that of Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, add that of General Olusegun Obasanjo and to this shelf has been added that of General Solomon Mujuru.

Written with material accessed from several sources, archives, oral interviews across the nation, into the region and globally, the author has managed to post onto the national landscape a tour de force standing out in the intellectual projects of the post-colony. There are only two other biographies on that level; Wilfred Mhanda, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (Harare: Weaver, 2011) and Fay Chung: Re-Living the Second Chimurenga: Memories of the Liberation Struggle for Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2006).

Beyond this, there is a dearth of well researched political biographies that meticulously dig into the evolution of the liberation movements. We don’t have a definitive biography of Joshua Nkomo (apart from The Story of My Life) and a few rather hyperbolic take on Robert Gabriel Mugabe who straddled the national landscape for over half a century. Unfortunately, there are no definitive biographies of pivotal liberation veterans like Hebert Wiltshire Hamandishe Chitepo, Josiah Magama Tongogara, of Alfred Nikita Mangena and Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole. Before his death, Dubiso Dabengwa was not happy that ZIPRA and ZAPU's archives, raided by Mugabe in the 1980s, have not been returned or have the liberation movement archives been handed over the national archives.

Guerrilla Politics, Factional Contests and Dead Generals

Firstly, the research and build of the narrative from extensive sources is an impressive 'instruction' to other intellectuals engaging in researching political biographies in Africa and world history. In the course of reading the biography there is a set background, a narration of the life of the general and then a broader analysis that uses the general’s life as a window to grasp the evolution of the liberation movement from the youthful activism on the streets of Zimbabwe, through the liberation days and to the present contests within the leadership of the political class. Having spent over two decades writing and researching on military and political contests in Zimbabwe the author’s analytic power becomes helpful to put context and have a grasp of the political forces at play.

Secondly, in each chapter and narrative, the author does give an engaging context, situating the life of the general, in the mammoth movements of history. What emerges is the very complex way in which family, friendships and comradeship weave in and out of national, regional and international political contests, chief of which was the liberation war itself. Often Zimbabwe's political economy crisis, especially after 2000, has been written and analysed devoid of history and with a thin outlook of the way regional and global forces have consistently influenced the lines of the political contest even as these are chiefly played out by local players.

Thirdly, the biography offers a critical (warts and all) look, at the murky waters of the liberation struggle. On one hand, the guerrilla is faced with the Ian Smith hordes, on another, the guerrilla is trying to convince the peasants of the war, on another plane the guerrilla has to contend with the ever-present factional fights within the movement. On another level, the guerrilla has to contend with regional and global political contests at play, from apartheid South Africa, the politics of 'détente', the ideological fissures between Russia and China and the western influence at play.

The leadership contests, the internal rebellions, the lack of arms for fighting – and all this in the context of war highlights the capacity of Solomon Mujuru to scheme and jive while keeping the forces of intra-movement shenanigans at bay. Mujuru was also a schemer of note including when he ‘hid arms without the knowledge of Tongogara' (p.76) when he deceived his ZIPA comrades and ended with them arrested and detained but was also able to keep them alive well into independence. But Solomon Mujuru could also shelve the hard outlook of a military man as he also ‘radiated vigour and charisma’ (p.153) to work through the crowds of restless ‘comrades’ who did not trust the independence agreement.

Fourthly, with his access to the family, friends, allies and Rex’s admirers Miles Tendi could have written a hagiography but far from it, he writes about the General's life, warts and all. From his scheming ability, his ‘doing masculinity’, his break with the Leadership Code, and finally his ever-present ambition to ‘make Kings’. Mujuru was clear that he would not abide by the Leadership Code which was supposed to be a pillar of the socialist ideals of the liberation movement and he is reported to have said ‘I want to make money’ (p.225). The biography follows General Mujuru as he uses his influence, a legend like status and political gravitas to build a vast economic empire and in that he didn't hesitate to collaborate with anyone including the white Rhodesian who hunted him 'for five years' (p.95).

Fifthly, the biography has also dug into the corruption networks that started seeping into the army as the commissioned officers became acquisitive. This wealth accumulation was inherited by the command element of the military and they have marshalled the state apparatus to get very rich. From the rich mineral fields of the DRC, the diamond fields of Eastern Zimbabwe, the opaque webs of companies with Chinese and military generals as directors and the billions parlayed within command agriculture program – the military now seats dangerously unhinged from the constitutional fabric of the 40 year old republic. The Command Agriculture program, with billions in budget and off-budget resources, has become a pillar of what opposition, MDC Alliance Vice President Tendai Biti called the ‘Commanding Heights of Corruption’.

Degeneration of Nationalism & Revenge of the Militarists

In an interview (with Newzwire, March 2020) the author says he has set his eyes on writing about the coup of the November days in 2017. This will be a great service. Apart from a Hollywood script called ‘Two Weeks in November’ written by journalist Douglas Rogers and two other texts, there is a gap of analysing the context, different players, contests and the hidden hands (including global powers) that goaded (funded ?) the military into the coup of November 2017. Looked at from a vantage point; the unravelling threads in the General’s political, military and personal relationships; the contests over power within the army; the lines of acrimony at the centre of succeeding Mugabe; the singular drive for a liberated Zimbabwe; all these factors continued weaving until the fateful day of the General’s death in a fire. Yet some of these limitations were foretold here;

The nationalist movement is hamstrung by disunity, competition and instability within the nationalist organisations themselves. These weaknesses stem from the nature of the nationalist movement itself which is conservative and narrow in its approach to the struggle. The confused situation within the nationalist movement does not bode well for the future and holds gloomy prospects for the national liberation struggle and is potentially fraught with serious political consequences for the people of Zimbabwe (Wilfred Mhanda, A Treatise on Zimbabwe’s National Liberation Struggle: Some Theoretical Problems, [ROAPE])

While Tendi’s book does not point a finger at who murdered the General one is left with a plausible conclusion: it was in the interest of both factions (the Mugabe/G40 faction and the Lacoste/military faction) to get the General off the deck. Perhaps Rex Nhongo played his cards too openly, his swagger entrenched in the military establishment, his direct access to Mugabe and his unchallenged status as the hero who survived the liberation war might have led him to let his guard down, but his nemesis were bidding their time and when he blinked they struck him down without mercy.

The apparatus needed to carry out such a clandestine and devastating operation could only have been within the state and with the General out of the political landscape and a faction that could not win an election the country was plunged into a putsch to settle the factional battles, and naked militarists won the day. Naked militarism has so far degenerated into a looting spree. The 'new dispensation', a 'new republic' and the 'blooming jacarandas' that President Emerson Mnangagwa wrote about in The Guardian (Sept. 2018) have all melted into legendary incompetence, corruption, authoritarianism and a political economy on the verge of the heightened contest – and the 'enablers' (some who claimed to be only intellectual advisors) can do little to clothe the emperor.

Long after the official inquest and after Mugabe is gone and in the aftermath of the coup of 2017 the shadow of Rex will loom large on Zimbabwe’s national political life. What could have happened had the General succeeded in his succession plans in ZANU PF? What could have happened had the General succeeded in combining forces within a degenerating ZANU PF and the opposition? All these questions are mere speculative considerations. Like the author puts it, in the preamble ‘Every country has its war heroes. Zimbabwe’s last great hero died on 15 August 2011’ (p.10). It was always going to be a herculean feat to fully bring the General’s life into one volume, and perhaps others will pick up from where Professor Tendi has valiantly chipped.

The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, Blessing Miles-Tendi (2020, OUP) can be bought via this link.

Tinashe L. Chimedza is a co-editor of Gravitas.

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