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Magistrate rejects request to exhume Mujuru

HARARE – A magistrate’s court on Monday rejected a request to exhume the body of former Zimbabwe army commander Solomon Mujuru to allow a fresh autopsy to establish the cause of his death six months ago.

Pallbearers from the Zimbabwe National Army carry the casket containing the charred body of Retired General Solomon Mujuru soon after the removal of his remains from his farmhouse in which he was burnt to death.
Pallbearers from the Zimbabwe National Army carry the casket containing the charred body of Retired General Solomon Mujuru soon after the removal of his remains from his farmhouse in which he was burnt to death.

Magistrate Walter Chikwanha – who is yet to give his ruling on what could have killed Mujuru — said at the end yesterday of an inquest into the general’s mysterious death that only the ministry of home affairs had powers to authorise exhumation of the body.

Mujuru’s family including his widow, Joice, who is also Zimbabwe’s first Vice President, indicated that they were not disappointed with Chikwanha’s ruling on the exhumation request.

But the family that wanted a South African pathologist, Reggie Perumel, to re-examine the general’s body said they would wait for Chikwanha’s full ruling on what could have killed the general before they decide on their next step — an indication they might yet push for further investigation into his mysterious death.

Such an investigation may possibly involve exhuming Mujuru’s body and having a second autopsy performed.

“They are yet to give us the ruling. Today is the end of the inquest but the ruling is yet to come,” Joice said when asked by journalists to comment on the inquest.

Mujuru family lawyer Thakor Kewada said: “We will study the magistrate’s ruling on the matter and will take our decisions then.”

Cart before the horse

Magistrate Mr Walter Chikwanha
Magistrate Mr Walter Chikwanha

While dismissing the request to exhume Mujuru’s body, the magistrate also criticised Kewada for “putting the cart before the horse” after the lawyer asked the court to allow Perumel to give evidence at the inquest before the court had analysed the evidence of Cuban doctor Gabriel Aguero Alvero who conducted the post-mortem on the general’s body.

In his evidence, Aguero Alvero, who works at a Zimbabwean government hospital, suggested that Mujuru could have died from inhaling carbon monoxide from the fire that destroyed his farmhouse in which he was sleeping.

But Perumel, brought into the country by Mujuru’s family and who sat in during the inquest, differed with Aguero-Gonzalez’s verdict insisting that the Cuban had not conducted a professional or adequate investigation into the possible cause of death.

Perumel, whose opinions were conveyed to the court through Kewada, said the autopsy was not properly done because Aguero-Gonzalez had failed to do X-rays on the remains of Mujuru, examine skeleton structures or even establish whether the corpse he was examining was indeed the general’s.

Kewada also urged the court to disregard Aguero-Gonzalez saying the Cuban was not properly registered to perform autopsies in Zimbabwe.

But Chikwanha rejected Kewada’s requests insisting that a decision on what could have caused Mujuru’s death or on the validity of evidence from witnesses could only be made after analysing statements from the more than 30 witnesses who either testified during the inquest.

“The court is still yet to analyse Alvero’s statements and more statements by other witnesses. It is only after the analysis of all the evidence that the court would know what transpired,” said the magistrate.

Open verdict

Chikwanha, who under the law must first present his findings to the Attorney General, can either rule that Mujuru’s death was accidental or criminal. If the magistrate suspects a criminal hand behind the general’s death the police are required to immediately launch a formal investigation into the matter.

But the court could also fail to come to a decision either way, declaring an open verdict, a highly likely outcome given the amount of conflicting evidence submitted during the inquest.

For example, some of the witnesses told the inquest that they heard gunshots hours before they were alerted of a fire at Mujuru’s house, while they also gave contradictory accounts about whether the general was sober or drunk on the night of his death.

Mujuru’s charred remains were recovered from the ruins of his farmhouse destroyed by fire last August. The police have ruled out the possibility of explosives or inflammable liquid having caused the fire.

Reports by the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority and Harare Fire Brigade also ruled out the possibility of the fire having been caused by an electrical fault.

South African forensic experts, who examined debris and curtains retrieved from the farmhouse as well as skin and tissue samples taken from Mujuru’s body, said there was no evidence to suggest a flammable liquid or explosives caused the fire.

Rex Nhongo

Mujuru, who was 62 years old at the time of his death, was one of Zimbabwe’s most powerful political figures and was seen as a kingmaker in President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party.

An icon of Zimbabwe’s liberation 1970s armed struggle for independence, Mujuru, whose his nom de guerre was Rex Nhongo, was the operations chief of Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrilla forces that together Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA fought to end white minority rule in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe’s name before its 1980 independence from Britain.

He played a key role in Mugabe’s rise to the top of ZANU (PF). Following independence, he pretty much carried on as Mugabe’s muscleman – as independent Zimbabwe’s first black army chief after serving for a short stint under General Peter Walls, Rhodesia’s last army commander.

After leaving the army in 1992, Mujuru was elected MP for his Chikomba home constituency, before leaving public life in 1995 to concentrate on his business interests, ranging from farming to diamond mining.

Pragmatic and moderate

Even after quitting public life, Mujuru retained immense power and influence in ZANU (PF), leading a faction that has tussled with another one led by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa for control of the former liberation movement if and when Mugabe steps down.

The former army chief’s faction of ZANU (PF) was seen as comprising the more pragmatic and moderate elements of Mugabe’s party.

Many analysts believe Mujuru’s faction – if it had ever won control of the party – was likely to agree to work with popular Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who many say is most likely to win any free and fair presidential election in Zimbabwe held today.

But Mujuru’s departure from the political scene is certain to strengthen the hand of Mnangagwa, a hardliner long regarded as Mugabe’s preferred heir.

Mujuru started off his military career in the 60s when he joined ZIPRA. He later switched sides to join ZANLA, where, as operations commander, he was second in rank only to the late Josiah Tongogara who was overall in charge of the guerrilla force. — ZimOnline