article comment count is: 0

Book Review: The conflicted legacy of Solomon Mujuru

Blessing-Miles Tendi writes with thorough commitment. The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe came out of approximately 150 in-depth interviews with Solomon Mujuru’s military and political associates in five countries. Tendi does not hold back Mujuru’s flowers, somewhat commemoratively views him as “Zimbabwe’s last great hero,” and humanly indulges his failings. If you should feel less celebratory about Mujuru after reading the biography, it’s because there is no skipping or glossing either.

A fire caught the sack he foetally rolled into for bedding every night during an impoverished Chikomba childhood. As a field commander who led from the front, the guerrilla years were one long existential dance with fire. During peace talks in Geneva, a hotel fire he started caused significant damage. He had to replace wife Joice’s sheets after ruining them from a cigarette fire. Finally, fire was put down as the official cause of his death on August 15, 2011. Between these fires, political scientist and Oxford professor Blessing-Miles Tendi, recovers the life of Zimbabwe’s liberation war hero and Zanu-PF kingmaker Solomon Mujuru (alias Rex Nhongo) from the ashes and silences of official history. 

Few years after his death, Mujuru and the band of loyal comrades who outlived him, were “fallen” in the Orwellian sense. State media insiders confessed cut him out of the all-too-aggressive patriotic history reminders churned out by their platforms, sometimes outright vilifying him.  One artist on the ZANU PF jingle circuit said, in confidence, that his video had been returned for editing by the Ministry of Information because it had featured Mujuru among other war heroes. Tendi wraps a wet blanket around the last fire. His detailed investigation in the last chapter expands on popular unbelief that fire killed the guerrilla leader on August 15, 2011. The outcome of the rushed inquest has long been seen as an implausible state alibi for Mujuru’s death by other means. If the Beatrice farmhouse fire did not kill Mujuru physically, though, it did symbolically, with powerful adversaries licking Mujuru’s legacy clean in Orwellian arson. 

Blessing-Miles Tendi reignites the life of Zimbabwe’s liberation war hero and Zanu-PF kingmaker Solomon Mujuru from the ashes and silences of official history

The book title, The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, begins with a social abstraction followed by the biographical subject, where one might expect the reverse. This doubles the author’s obligation to establish broader connections between Mujuru’s life and his country’s history. As it turns out, events in Mujuru’s life, and scrutiny of his character at those various points, easily give into the broader horizon of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa before and after independence. As a Bulawayo youth and ZIPRA cadre, his early biography counter-balances the Harare-centrism of patriotic history. Later on, we follow him as a calculating peacetime army general, an acquisitive post-independence leader who breaks the Socialist “leader’s code,” determined to get something out of his wartime sacrifices, and a friend with a memory when Mozambique’s Samora Machel, whom he had earlier persuaded to open up his country for ZANLA, comes back for military favours.

The end of Robert Mugabe’s rule was greeted with momentous national celebration.
GCIS

In their understandable desperation for saints – forgiving Zimbabweans went from missing dictator Robert Mugabe barely a year into Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration to now memorialising racist Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith as a better leader than Mnangagwa – compatriots remember Mujuru as something of a martyr. He could be credited with democratic assertiveness on few accounts – his question to Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, as a new ZANU PF politburo member, on when the two old ones were planning to retire, his feeling that he was the kingmaker who could stand up to Mugabe, and his supposed support for Simba Makoni’s rebellion in 2008. As for his kingmaker cred, Mugabe was not as remembering as he thought. Did he take moral exception to Gukurahundi, so that his name has been generally left out among the architects of Zimbabwe’s “original sin?” In fact, Tendi implicates him in “the human rights violations of the early 1980s.” 

There are consequential takeaways from the book. Mujuru is portrayed as the power behind Mugabe’s rise to power. Tendi thinks highly of the discipline conventionally trained ZIPRA soldiers had over ZANLA. Originally ZIPRA, Mujuru might simply have had a healthy respect for party leadership, whereas other ZANU actors were not quite above ethnicity and mutiny. When Mugabe came to Mozambique as the new president of the party, Mujuru only had to stick with protocol.

The second reason almost contradicts the first. It turns out that Mugabe was Mujuru’s nephew, and Mugabe strategically milked this homework of his, going against the ZANLA code which placed adopted war names and communist equality over filial and tribal claims. Mugabe would have needed Rex Nhongo (Mujuru)’s influence in his corner, stepping in at the point of existential crisis in Zanu. At that time, ZANU leaders were detained by Kaunda and ousted party president Ndabaningi Sithole had seemed either insecure for himself or lethargic to the demands of the office at this time. Eloquent populist and cold pragmatist Mugabe marked out enemies for isolation and powerful allies – Nhongo was the effective commander during General Josiah Tongogara’s incarceration – for his consolidation of power. 

Described as a functioning alcoholic, Mujuru does not immediately seem to be touched by other remarkable passions. “He respected scientific training and technical expertise in and outside the military – a trait he acquired during conventional army training in ZAPU and with FRELIMO,” Tendi notes. “After independence, he embraced the spirit of reconciliation, forging at times suspect business ties with whites as well as seeking to benefit from their conventional army training.” He reasonably oversaw the integration of three rival armies into the Zimbabwe National Army, where old rivalries still simmered in the background. During the war, he stood aloof of the indigenous spiritual practices tied to the war effort, but also tolerated them. 

Mujuru commits himself to primitive accumulation, seeking to reverse the racial wealth hierarchy. He sees financial security as a reward for his war effort and as a guarantee of life outside office

After the war, his taste for the good life and women’s comforts gives him out as a creature of tradition. His patriarchal convictions come out as jokes or counter-insults. Where making money in new Zimbabwe is concerned, he has a sense of restorative justice, somewhat twisted to the point of elitism and abuse. He commits himself to primitive accumulation, seeking to reverse the racial wealth hierarchy. Having his hands on so many enterprises, and throwing his political weight in the way of business competitors, he sees financial security as a reward for his war effort and as a guarantee of life outside office. 

One did not have to dig too far for Mujuru’s open-zip policy

At one of her dubious ubuntuism/womanism talks, his fellow accumulator and widow, Joice Mujuru exclaimed, “Ndiani anga ane musikanzwa saSolomon?” (Who was naughtier than Solomon?). Not everyone was as indulging. Chiwenga believed that Mujuru had cuckolded him, holding out the latter’s jacket in his wardrobe as an exhibit. Mujuru had apparently handed down Chiwenga a girlfriend to divert him from his wife. If Chiwenga had exaggerated the matter, it was because one did not have to dig too far for Mujuru’s open-zip policy. In one scenario, he sent a subordinate away on duty, and enjoyed the intimate hospitality of his wife during his absence. When Chiwenga took over as army commander against Mujuru’s calculations, the wartime commander bottled down his foreboding all night. 

“Solomon received military and political instruction in Communist Russia, Bulgaria and China. As a leading commander in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), ZANU PF’s liberation army, from 1971 to 1979 Solomon interacted with a range of important African liberation struggle actors in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. African independence struggle leaders like Solomon journeyed across multiple borders and confronted colonialism,” Blessing-Miles Tendi.

When Mujuru died in 2011, geopolitical intelligence publication, Stratfor Systems, proclaimed: “Solomon Mujuru is dead; Long live Emmerson Mnangagwa.” The two men had been seen as the consequential kingmakers in the race to succeed Mugabe. Interest in their comparative qualities go back to the independence struggle. Tendi puts Mujuru is a more central light, while Mnangagwa is confined to a small but vindictive role as Mugabe’s informer, creator of gossips and ruthless enforcer. In one instance, Tendi notes, “it was in fact Solomon who led the ZANLA group that went to Rhodesia for the ceasefire in 1979. Mnangagwa was not a member of that 1979 group, nor did he take part in the ceasefire’s management.” Tendi chronicles the two men’s post-independence rivalry, mostly by use of ZANU PF proxies. In one case, Mujuru, as leader of a parliamentary committee, tries to expose Mnangagwa’s bungling of business at a state firm. At the height of their rivalry, Mujuru influences wife Joice’s appointment as vice president in 2004, standing in the way way of Mnangagwa’s claim to the office.

Tendi writes with thorough commitment. The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe came out of approximately150 in-depth interviews with Solomon Mujuru’s military and political associates in five countries. Tendi does not hold back Mujuru’s flowers, somewhat commemoratively views him as “Zimbabwe’s last great hero,” and humanly indulges his failings. If you should feel less celebratory about Mujuru after reading the biography, it’s because there is no skipping or glossing either. 

Follow This Is Africa on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.

Tell us what you think