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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: Remembering an army general: Ode to Rex Nhongo

Today is Defence Forces day, exactly eight days away from a new Zimbabwe. Coincidentally, on this very day 12 years ago, the first black army general of independent Zimbabwe, Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru, aka Rex Nhongo, was snuffed out in murky circumstances, most probably by the usual suspect, the known killer in ZANU PF who to this very day continues to play God by deleting army generals from the world of the living.

In my other life as a journalist, together with my friend and fellow scribe then, Sydney Masamvu, we would regularly meet and chat with Rex, the former army general.

We would meet him and chat and join him in downing his favourite whiskey brands either at Raylton Sports Club in Harare or at some other location within and around the precincts of the capital.

The stammering soft man of hard power, the only man who reputably had the guts to confront the much- feared Mugabe in Zanu PF meetings, was a jovial man with whom we often drank, sang and danced..

And once in a while in our conversations, as the whiskey got the better of him, Rex would let slip and spill more than the wise expensive whiskey waters.

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That way, we often got our tips on the goings-on in Zanu PF, which would be published in spangled banner colours in our respective newspapers. We would creatively attribute the juicy intricacies to “unnamed Zanu PF sources.”

And Rex would not mind the news coverage upon reading the newspapers the following day because the feared former general was a free spirit. And in any event, even if anyone within ZANU PF had gotten to know that the general had let slip the news, no-one, absolutely no-one in ZANU PF, could muster enough courage to ask him why he had done so..

Between 2015 and 2020, in my five years of scholarship at the University of Zimbabwe, I had the privilege to meet and interact with yet another senior army general, Douglas Nyikayaramba, who was a classmate.

We studied Political Science together. He also loved his Zanu PF party and was known for exceeding the Constitution by pursuing active politics even as a serving soldier.. But with him, our relaxed chat was mostly about scholarship and life in general.

Of course, the interactions were mutually beneficial as they helped bust mistruths and stereotypes from which we often create false realities about each other. I remember Nyikayaramba appeared shocked when in one lecture I spiritedly spoke in support of the land reform programme, minus what I deemed to be the needless violence and the bloodletting of the former white commercial farmers.

But in principle, I pointedly spoke about the undeniable legitimacy of our case as black Zimbabweans to claim back our land. I was then a spokesperson of Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

But I could tell from Nyikayaramba’s bemused deportment that I had busted a certain myth about opposition politics and opposition politicians in Zimbabwe, especially about where we stood with regards to the emotive issue of land.

Yet again Nyikayaramba, who was shunted away as Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Mozambique after the coup, died in mysterious circumstances in January 2021, barely a month after we had both graduated at the University of Zimbabwe with our Master’s degrees in International Relations.

During my interactions with both Mujuru and Nyikayaramba, I learnt that as Zimbabweans, if we interact with each more often, we could find that we share many commonalities than we would care to accept and that we agree on more on issues than those on which we disagree.

If we met and talked more often, we could bust a lot of myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about each other.

Both Mujuru and Nyikayaramba loved their Zanu PF to boot while some of us have consistently and spiritedly retained our allergy to anything to do with Zanu PF. And we have our own legitimate reasons for our strong anti -Zanu PF disposition.

But there was always something unnerving and chastening about meeting and chatting with these feared and decorated generals in their personal spaces and in their capacities as fellow Zimbabweans, bereft of their military fatigues, their political leanings, their titles and their uncanny reputations as depicted by the media.

So I knew and often interacted with former army general Mujuru very well, mostly during my other life as a journalist.

I was in government as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s spokesperson when I learnt of his untimely death in mysterious circumstances in the early night hours of August 15, 2011, exactly 12 years ago to this day. We all only got to know of his tragic and untimely death the following morning.

In his well researched 348-page book titled The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe , published in 2020 with the subtitle Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, Oxford based civil-military relations expert, Professor Blessing- Miles Tendi evidently shows, beyond any shadow of doubt, that General Mujuru was murdered.

And there is no prize in guessing the identity of the person who masterminded the callous murder!

Today, on this Defence Forces Day and on the 12th anniversary of the death of Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first black army general and on the eve of a crucial election in which ordinary soldiers have vowed to vote for change and to support the transition to a new CCC-led government in eight days:’ time, I republish my obituary of Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru. The obituary below was first published in August 2011 just after Mujuru was killed, most obviously by his wife’s known rival in ZANU PF then.

In remembrance of Rex Nhongo

The white Mazda 323 left a trail of black soot in its wake as it meandered up the vlei from Shamva into Bindura, the provincial capital of Mashonaland Central province.

My two companions and I kept our thoughts to ourselves as we pondered our safety in this then volatile province where everything and anyone not directly associated with Zanu PF was considered an enemy.

We were still counting our fortunes that so far, we had survived overzealous party apparatchiks who mounted “roadblocks” and “vetted” every visitor and traveller into Mashonaland Central.

Throughout the journey, we had used our own ingenuity to sweet-talk our way past Zanu PF youths who manned these “roadblocks.” And it was by some stroke of luck that finally we were in Bindura.

The year was 2001 and I was still living my other life as a journalist.

To date, I am still not sure what would have been had those youths discovered that we were reporters from The Daily News, then subjectively considered an “unpatriotic” publication.

By then, brave journalism was really a hard hat area and The Daily News was still a publication that challenged the excesses of the ruling elite.

But still we made it into Bindura in one piece.

There were three of us, then senior political reporter Sandra Nyaira, now late, Aaron Ufumeli, then our news photographer and myself, then a senior staffer on the paper’s political desk.

We were making our way into volatile Bindura to cover a by-election following the tragic death of then Zanu PF political commissar and Bindura Central MP, Border Gezi.

That by-election had generated interest among all and sundry, not least because of the violence in the area but because of the impending electoral battle between Elliot Manyika of Zanu PF and Elliot Pfebve of the MDC. We in the media had dubbed this by-election ” The battle of the Elliots .’

But the race to succeed Gezi had become so hot that Zanu PF activists had murdered the MDC candidate’s brother, Matthew Pfebve at his rural home in Mt Darwin in a tragic case of mistaken identity. They had mistakenly thought Matthew was Elliot.

As the three of us made our way into Bindura, we were very much aware of the blistering political temperature in the area. So we pitched up at Kelly’s, a bar and restaurant in Bindura that was then being run by Solomon Mujuru.

There, we found fellow journalists from the public media in the company of senior ZANU PF officials and an unfamiliar lady who I later learnt to be the chief spook at the local CIO provincial headquarters in Bindura.

Our colleagues from the public media pretended they did not know us. It appeared it was dangerous to even speak to us as journalists.from a “marked” newspaper..

General Mujuru, who unbeknown to our public media colleagues already knew Sandra and I, suddenly appeared at the restaurant. He greeted us and to the amazement of fellow journalists , only took Sandra, Aaron and myself from and chaperoned us to his private apartment in Bindura town. He later told us that his wife, whom he derogatorily referred to in his customary stammer as ” icho Joyce” did not know of the existence of this apartment where he probably relaxed with his concubines.

It was around 11am. My two colleagues did not drink so General Mujuru offered me whiskey and as I took my first sip, the revered soldier said in his trademark stammer:

” Iwe Ta Ta Tamborenyoka. Inguva yekunwa whiskey here kuseni kuno. Sa sa saka muchizonyora zvekunyepa kuti rally yeMDC yanga ine vanhu 10 000 ivo va vari 50 chete.”

(Tamborenyoka, why are you drinking whiskey so early in the day? That’s why you guys write lies that the MDC rally had 10 000 people when in fact it had just 50).

We all laughed heartily!

As I partook to the whiskey and conversed with my two colleagues, General Mujuru stood up, personally took to the stove and began preparing sadza which he later served us.

It was an unforgettable three hours which we spent in his apartment that he had earlier told us his wife, Mai Mujuru, later to become Vice President, did not know about. By then, Amai Mujuru was an ordinary MP for Mt Darwin.

A few months before, we had covered a story in which the good general had barred then war veterans leader Chenjerai Hunzvi from holding his violent campaigns in Chikomba, which is in Chivhu, Mujuru’s home area. Chivhu was also Hunzvi ‘s home area.

We asked him why he had done that when both of them belonged to the same violent party and came from the same rural area. His answer was very simple:

“These are violent guys moving around the country, preaching violence, beating up people and setting families against each other. I cannot have those guys beating up people in my own home area,” he said in his trademark stammer.

“Ndakamuudza Hunzvi kuti ukafamba uchirova vanhu kumusha kwangu ndi ndi ndi ndinokurova magadziko ” (I told Hunzvi that if you engage in violence in my home area I will beat up your bums),” he said.

Magadziko (bums) was liberation war language that was used at all-night virgils ( pungwes ) during the war when the liberation fighters wanted to beat up the bums of the sell-outs who hobnobbed with the Smith regime ( vatengesi ) .

I had last heard the word as a kid in the late 1970s. Twenty one years after independence, the General was still a soldier.

We spoke about many things from political violence to the succession intrigue that continues to dog Zanu PF to this day

We spoke about the public media and their irresponsible journalism.

The General also told us a funny story of his son-in law who had paid lobola to him and he had in turn given the lobola to the same son-in-law’s child.

” Nda nda ndakapa roora racho kumzukuru wangu , mwana wake iye mukuwasha wacho .”

The General was blessed with only daughters and did not have a son, at least officially!

It is not too often that you meet a decorated military general and feel all at ease.

But Mujuru was hewn from a unique stone.

We were to meet again years later, this time in my new life in politics. I had just come out of prison where I had spent over three months in the ‘D’ class section, reserved for very dangerous criminals, on trumped up charges of terrorism when he told me to leave politics and go back to journalism.

‘ Vanokuuraya vanhu veZanu PF ava (they will kill you, these ZANU PF people”, he spoke detachedly, as if he was not a member of Zanu PF himself when in fact he sat in the party’s Politburo.

As his casket was lowered at the national shrine, I mused over that ironic comment ” Vanokuuraya vanhu veZanu PF ava ” especially amid the very valid speculation that he was murdered.

The major question on everyone’s lips was how a hardened soldier who had survived heavy and sophisticated artillery during the war could die a simple death associated with candles and matches 31 years after surviving a brutal armed struggle.

General Mujuru retired as army general at his prime and joined active politics.

Like his other Zanu PF colleagues, Mujuru had his own tainted past. But the cardinal lesson he left us is that any soldier who wants to join active politics must remove his military fatigue and leave the citizens’ army. You cannot mix the two vocations, politics and military service.

He later became MP for Chikomba, pursuing active politics having removed the citizens’ military fatigue.

Rest in peace, Mwendamberi.

Luke Tamborinyoka is a citizen from Domboshava. He is a change champion in the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa. You can interact with him on his Facebook page or via the twitter handle @ luke_tambo.