“Operation Restore Mugabe Legacy”: The Catholic Way

By Tendai Chabvuta

When Robert Mugabe, a staunch Catholic finally resigned after 37 years in power as the Head of State in Zimbabwe, it was with a sigh of relief not just for Zimbabweans but for the whole world. What has been confusing though is the way Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwean war veterans and the rest of the military in Zimbabwe have been insisting that Mugabe’s legacy needs to be kept intact.

Father Fidelis Mukonori
Father Fidelis Mukonori

The government has reportedly proposed that Mugabe’s birthday “21 February” be declared a national holiday. In all this hullaballoo, one figure stands out so much not only for his body size but in the manner that he has been defending and sanitizing Mugabe’s resignation as a voluntary process done through Mugabe’s own volition.

It is rather interesting that this man, Father Fidelis Mukonori in interviews with the BBC and local media is telling a narrative that seeks to protect Mugabe’s legacy in a positive way when the truth is harkening him the other way. Father Mukonori noted in the interview with the BBC that “Mugabe’s face glowed and … was not weeping unless there were some angels weeping elsewhere …“ after signing the resignation papers on 21 November 2017.

What could be the interests in peddling such a narrative which amounts to some sort of nonsensical religious propaganda whitewashing the fact that Robert Mugabe was forced out of office?

Self-serving interests to feed VIP status ego

First, it seems the interests for Father Fidelis Mukonori to continue peddling a narrative that Mugabe finally capitulated on his own accord is purely personal and individualistic. Fidelis Mukonori has played a prominent role in Robert Mugabe’s life as his spiritual leader having met each other in the 1970s.

Former Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono, Catholic Priest Father Fidelis Mukonori, Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba seen here with Robert Mugabe and Grace Mugabe  who are seated.
Former Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono, Catholic Priest Father Fidelis Mukonori, Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba seen here with Robert Mugabe and Grace Mugabe  who are seated.

There is no doubt that Fidelis Mukonori is an important figure in his church and his relationship with the Mugabes makes him a Very Important Person (#VIP) in Zimbabwe and among his social circles. Not so many people knew this man until the day he was first in the pictures standing behind Mugabe.

To continue denying what reportedly happened during the time Mugabe resigned keeps Fidelis Mukonori in the driving seat of this narrative. In a society full of people who want to be seen to be “important and relevant” this works well for Fidelis Mukonori.

WhatsApp chats in Zimbabwe swarmed with all sorts of reverence about Fidelis Mukonori’s powers as a member of some Catholic Jesuits grouping. His participation in the Mugabe ouster negotiations only adds to this mystification and his supposed importance.

Positioning the Catholic as a VIP Church and player in Zimbabwe politics

Second and closely linked to the individualistic reason above, this narrative being pushed by Fidelis Mukonori seemingly places the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe at the center of Zimbabwe’s difficult politics. His involvement in the negotiations whether invited or not makes the Catholic church a seemingly VeryImportantPlayer (#VIP) in Zimbabwe’s politics.

Pallbearers led by Father Fidelis Mukonori carry a casket bearing the body of national hero Retired Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku on arrival for a mass at Chishawasha. He was later buried at the National Heroes Acre. — (Picture by Shelton Muchena)

As mentioned above, Zimbabwe is a society that thrives on this misguided notion of VIPs (persons or political players including the church). The Catholic Church can try all it wants to be a VIP in Zimbabwe’s politics and is entitled to as much as any other Zimbabwean.

However, it should never be forgotten that the church was also instrumental in quests for democracy battles against Mugabe for a long time. One case in mind was during the height of the economic breakdown and the Catholic faithfuls would walk out of the Roman Cathedral in Harare whenever Mugabe and his family walked into the church for Sunday Mass.

Robert Mugabe reportedly ended up attending Sunday mass in his rural home, Zvimba to avoid further embarrassment. For Fidelis Mukonori to try to present a narrative that Mugabe left power voluntarily is to demean and trample on the Catholic faithfuls’ wishes who for a very long time hated and prayed for the dictators’ downfall. Fidelis Mukonori, cannot peddle the narrative that Mugabe left voluntarily innocently like that and get away with it.

Coup not a coup – serving the military narrative

Third, it is most likely that Fidelis Mukonori swore to secrecy that he would not reveal what transpired at the Blue Roof (Mugabe’s personal residence) during the takeover period. A deal might have been struck between him, the military and ZANU PF officials that he tells a certain narrative that Robert Mugabe “sighed” showing huge relief after he had signed the resignation papers.

This sort of narrative serves the military and the new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa very well. The narrative that has been peddled has always been there was no coup in Zimbabwe to depose Mugabe. For Fidelis Mukonori to say anything else would go against this much-desired narrative.

Thus, he sticks to his guns that Mugabe was so happy to “voluntarily step down”. That line cannot be true. The correct narrative is that Mugabe was forced out of power and he resigned kicking and screaming in a process that took almost a whole week to complete.

Tweets and media interviews from Mugabe’s inner circle and his nephews show that Mugabe would not have resigned because he intended to stand for elections in 2018. If Robert Mugabe was ready to stand in 2018 why would he happily step down before the elections? Fidelis Mukonori is being economical with the truth and by doing so is trying to sell Zimbabweans and the world a narrative that is incorrect and self-serving for him, Mugabe and the new rulers in Zimbabwe.

What is the concern with father Mukonori’s narrative?

The issue is over and done with. Mugabe is now history and no longer the President of Mugabe. His true legacy is of a man who led Zimbabwe through the first few years of his reign with magnanimity after the liberation struggle, significant development in education, health etc.

He is a man who can be credited for standing strong against Western imperial forces during his heydays. Robert Mugabe is a man who will always be credited with pushing for and executing the long-delayed land redistribution exercise. What happened afterwards in that process can always be questioned but that is a story for another day.

However, Fidelis Mukonori, cannot possibly say that Mugabe left power gracefully. Robert Mugabe ceased to be the people of Zimbabwe’s choice at least by 2008 or even earlier. Catholic faithfuls in Zimbabwe were among the people who wanted him to step down and the sentiments would not have changed now. Presenting a narrative that Robert Mugabe left with GRACE is a complete lie and misrepresentation of facts and history.

If no other Zimbabwean will question this narrative, the Catholics in Zimbabwe and all over the world need to question this. The same church where one goes to pray for peace cannot be seen to be protecting a broken legacy of a man who broke the spirit of a nation and his fellow Catholics in Zimbabwe.

This is not a call for personal and image attacks on Robert Mugabe or Fidelis Mukonori. However, if there is nothing else to say, the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe should probably say “NO COMMENT” when asked about Robert Mugabe. The church in Zimbabwe cannot continue to be used/abused to suppress the wishes of its faithfuls because of the need to maintain a VIP culture for individuals and religious institutions in Zimbabwe aligned to politicians and their political parties.