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Wilfred Mhanda on Question Time: Part 1

Former guerrilla commander Wilfred Mhanda, known by his liberation war name Dzinashe Machingura, speaks to SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma on Question Time. Mhanda recently released the book “Dzino, Memories of a Freedom Fighter” in which he writes about how he felt betrayed by both the late Solomon Mujuru and Robert Mugabe. He comments on Mujuru’s death, the assassination of fellow commander Josiah Tongogara and ZANU PF leader Herbert Chitepo.

Interview broadcast 24 August 2011

Lance Guma: Former guerrilla commander Wilfred Mhanda, known by his liberation war name Dzinashe Machingura, is our guest on Question Time. Mr. Mhanda recently released his book “Dzino, Memories of a Freedom Fighter” in which he writes about how he felt betrayed by both the late Solomon Mujuru and Robert Mugabe. We asked listeners to send in their questions in advance of the interview using Facebook, Twitter, Skype, e-mail and text messages.

Former freedom fighter and political analyst, Wilfred Mhanda joining the BBC Network Africa paper review live from Harare
Former freedom fighter and political analyst, Wilfred Mhanda joining the BBC Network Africa paper review live from Harare

Mr. Mhanda thank you for joining us on the programme.

Wilfred Mhanda: Thank you Lance.

Guma: Most questions from our listeners have predictably been centered on the death of the retired army general Solomon Mujuru last week Tuesday in a suspicious farmhouse fire in Beatrice. Can we start by getting your reaction to it?

Mhanda: Yah it was actually a very painful coincidence that on the very night that I launched my book General Mujuru should actually meet his end under very suspicious circumstances. We might have had our problems in the past but we were quite close, we got along together, we understood each other and I was really quite touched and shocked by his untimely death.

Guma: Now ZANU PF obviously are trying to keep a lid on the speculation but just going by your hunch do you think it was an accident?

Mhanda: Far from it. I was actually surprised that President Mugabe didn’t come out openly to say it was suspicious because any person who has listened to the story, who has read the papers clearly can come to no other conclusion except that there was naked foul play. And why the president couldn’t have come out clearly about that and announce the establishment of a commission of enquiry baffles the mind.

Guma: Yesterday Vice President Joice Mujuru spoke out publicly about her reservations about the death and questioning why Mujuru would have been unable to escape from the windows which she said, even their little kids used to jump out through the window. You share her sentiments there?

Mhanda: More than that actually. These are extremely suspicious, I say there’s an inescapable conclusion that there is foul play, there’s no doubt about it. I’m just concerned that people did not come out and express concern and hastily set up a commission of enquiry to establish and get to the bottom of this dastardly act.

Guma: What do you think are the implications of Mujuru’s death to the power dynamics within Zanu PF and Zimbabwe as a whole? That’s a question that’s come from Bindura, from Edward.

Mhanda: There are obviously far reaching implications regarding Mujuru’s death because he was the second most powerful person within Zanu PF, within the politburo. I would say actually in that regard also one of the leading political figures in the country he was. So it creates a vacuum within Zanu PF because he, as many people have testified, including Dr Dumiso Dabengwa, that he was the only one in the current politburo who could speak up to Mugabe and raise his hand or object to anything.

There is no-one now who is prepared to do that. So these are serious consequences particularly given the stage at which we are, the crucial period in which we are talking about a road map to elections, talking about a return to legitimacy and the return to political stability. He would have played a very prominent role in that regard, I have no doubt about that.

Guma: Who do you think is the biggest beneficiary of Mujuru’s death?

Mhanda: President Mugabe himself.

Guma: Let’s get to your book Mr. Mhanda – “Dzino, Memories of a Freedom Fighter”. Why did you decide to write the book?

Mhanda: That is a good question; there are a number of reasons for that and there were a number of promptings and urgings from others for us to give our account of the liberation struggle, the other side of the story, particularly given the patriotic history, the overwhelming one-sided narration by those who wield power and influence.

There was need to counter-balance, to actually expose what actually happened. So we owe it to the people of Zimbabwe to give an accurate account of what actually transpired during the critical phase of the struggle particularly between 1975 and 1977.

The other reason was also there was need, overwhelming need to correct some of the misrepresentations and deliberate distortions regarding some of the key periods within the liberation struggle like for example, who wrote the Mgagao Declaration which eventually led to the formation of Zipa. There are a lot of theories and speculation and claims about who did it and also about the formation of Zipa.

Who formed Zipa, what were the forces behind it? There are also a number of misrepresentations and falsifications about that and also about the demise of Zipa, the arrest of the Zipa commanders and it is said, it is claimed that people had rebelled against Mugabe, against Zanu PF. These are all distortions and misinformations that require to be corrected and I felt the need to do that because I was a key player during that period.

Guma: Okay before we go into some of those in detail, obviously in your memoirs you are exposing how Mugabe ruthlessly suppressed you and other commanders in the late ‘70s on his way to becoming the prime minister. Let’s start with how you became a senior commander in Zanla.

Mhanda: Yah I became a, I joined the Zanla high command in January 1975 and before that I was a senior member of the general staff commanding our main training camp in Mgagao in Tanzania. So I joined the high command in 1975 which placed me among the senior commanders.

Guma: You talked about distortions that you want to correct in your book; highlight these and what the truth is as far as you are concerned.

Mhanda: Like I said, firstly I think it has to do with the Mgagao Declaration which was responsible for the removal of (Ndabaningi) Sithole as leader of Zanu and which also expressed concern and disquiet about the bickerings amongst the nationalist leadership and we felt that we as cadres had the responsibility to rescue the liberation struggle from the clutches of détente that had been ushered in by the Rhodesians and the South Africans and to some extent, the Zambian government.

And the Mgagao Declaration actually made this very clear and we expressed our determination and desire to fight to liberate our country and we put it very plainly to the Frontline States that if they didn’t want us in their countries they should all deport us and we will start from throwing stones.

Guma: What problems did you have with the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole? What happened there?

Mhanda: The problem I think he was mainly out of touch with what had happened. He had just come out of prison from, in Rhodesia and also the party had been involved in a number of turbulent events like the death of the chairman, (Herbert) Chitepo, the Nhari rebellion, the arrest of the Zanu supporters and Zanu leaders in Lusaka.

These were all key issues and unfortunately Ndabaningi Sithole never bothered to hear what had happened. He only sought counsel from a few trusted individuals who had already been expelled from the party leadership and the party because of their supporting the Nhari rebellion and he sought actually to work with these men. We tried to prevail on him to see the other side, he wasn’t prepared to do that.

But I think the last straw was his refusal to condemn the massacre of Zanla fighters by the Zambian army at Mboroma and even to visit those who had been injured at hospital. He never wanted to do that. So there we had fighters who were prepared to die for him and he didn’t show any concern about their fate and about those suffering so these were issues that touched us very, very sorely.

Guma: Another person whose leadership you had a problem with – Robert Mugabe. Explain to people why, because there some talk there that you only recognized him as secretary general and there was a need to elect a new president? Explain this for our listeners.

Mhanda: Yah what happened was Zanu from its Congress in 1964 had four top leaders; we had Ndabaningi Sithole as president, and we had Leopold Takawira as vice president and he had died in prison, and we had national chairman Chitepo, he had been assassinated in Zambia.

So after we had fallen out with Ndabaningi Sithole there was only one person who was then left to take responsibility, to assume the mantle of leadership but we felt that we as fighters did not have the legitimacy to confer the title of presidency to him, that belonged to the people of Zimbabwe.

That’s why they held a Congress in 1974, it was to elect the leadership. We felt that we had to abide and work within the confines and provisions of the Zanu constitution and it provided that the secretary general, who were we to make him president?

Guma: Before we get to your relationship to the late Solomon Mujuru, I’m sure a lot of people know in terms of our liberation struggle the dominant two guerilla groupings, Zanla and Zipra, there isn’t much talk about Zipa. What was Zipa? Just explain this for people.

Mhanda: Yah I will explain but I think the best thing these issues are discussed extensively within the book and I’ll only try to summarise. Zipa was a product of the voluntary merger of Zanla and Zipra in November 1975 in an effort to restart the liberation struggle that had been brought to its knees by détente, by the forces of reaction, by Smith, the South Africans supported by the imperialist powers Britain and the United States.

So we felt there was no sense of urgency amongst the politicians to focus on the liberation struggle, including Ndabaningi Sithole himself. So we felt actually there was need, we left our country voluntarily to fight for liberation and that liberation struggle was now being hi-jacked, was in jeopardy so we then decided to form this union between Zanla and Zipra in an effort to restart the war – which is the war which eventually led to the Lancaster House in 1979.

There was no other war which was started, it was this Zipa war but then the official narrative, the official version is that Zipa was a failure, like what president Mugabe said at the burial (of Mujuru) he said it was a complete disaster. How could it be a complete disaster when it started the war that led to independence?

Guma: From Bulawayo comes a question from JJ Gumede who says – Lance my question to Mr. Mhanda is that the contribution of Zipra forces to the liberation of Zimbabwe has been largely downplayed and in some instances completely omitted from the historical narrative of Zimbabwe despite the fact that Zipra forces controlled from the north west, west and southern Rhodesia during the war and their inventory of wartime contribution from the fact that they shot down two passenger planes and bombed Salisbury’s fuel storage tanks appears not to have been enough for them to secure recognition as liberators as well.

Can Mr. Mhanda tell us why this is so?

Mhanda: I’m not sure from whom they would want recognition. Obviously if they expect recognition from Mugabe and Zanu PF they will not get it because they would be beating their own drum so I’m not sure whether they would expect Zanu PF to do that and unfortunately for them also is that strategically Zanu operated from Mozambique and it had a freer passage to enter Rhodesia from Mozambique.

Unfortunately Zipra could have actually, could have actually taken that opportunity but they were involved in a number of internal troubles but that having been said I stated earlier that Zipa restarted the war and among Zipa were also Zipra fighters so they also take credit to having restarted that war in 1976 which eventually led to independence in 1980.

In official history it is obvious that they should not expect from Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe to acknowledge that. Actually one of the problems that we had with Mugabe way back in 1976 was that we were urging for unity between Zanla and Zipra, Zapu and Zanu. He was saying no, no, no, no, in his own mind, Zanla had contributed more to the war so there was no need to share the spoils with anybody – that was his view from the very beginning. Even before independence and we actually argued that no, no, no that’s not the case.

Guma: Several things happened in history and we’ve received several questions from people, they want your view on the following incidents. Let’s start with the assassination of Herbert Chitepo – we have a question from Margaret, she texted us, I think she is in Glen View – she says please ask Mr. Mhanda who you think assassinated Herbert Chitepo?

Mhanda: I really do not indulge in speculation. I’ve dealt with that subject in detail in my book because there were number of murky developments and circumstances that blurred the whole picture about who did it. It’s not a question of an individual having done that. I personally do not rule out a combination of forces having coordinated and interplayed to bring about his downfall.

The Rhodesians had an interest in that and we had forces within Zanla who could have been infiltrated by the Rhodesians who also had an interest in his elimination. We had the Zambian government at that time who also were interested in having Chitepo out of the way because he was an obstacle to the unity agreement signed in 1974.

But I must hasten to say that Chitepo died in March 1975 but attempts had been made earlier by the Rhodesians without speculation about others having played a role. In 1974 they bombed his offices in Lusaka, surely if he were there and had died we wouldn’t be speculating about who killed Chitepo in 1975.

So we were at war and our principal enemy was Ian Smith and he was, as far as I’m concerned, the Rhodesians were principally behind it. They could have secured the coordination of or the cooperation of some other forces, that would be my answer to that.

Guma: Do you think if Chitepo had survived the Zanu PF leadership would have been different?

Mhanda: Totally, there’s no doubt about that but he could not survive. Even Jason JZ Moyo who was leader of that did not survive. This was a grand plan by the Rhodesians to make sure that all the senior leadership is wiped out. Look at the commander of Zipra – wiped out, Mangena; Tongogara wiped out and all those released by Ian Smith in 1974 returned intact, unscathed, whether it was tribal conflicts or accidents, why did it involve only those who had been as a leadership in exile? So this is very complex period but I touch on it at length in the book.

Guma: Well Mr. Mhanda we’ll have to end the interview here. That concludes part one of this Question Time interview with former guerilla commander Wilfred Mhanda. For part two of this interview, join us on Friday where we ask Mr. Mhanda about the assassination of the late Zanla commander Josiah Tongogara.

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