WHEN AN intense fire in his isolated farmhouse killed Solomon Mujuru, 67, in mid-August, Zimbabwe lost a tough liberation war hero with impeccable struggle credentials from the 1970s, a possible rallying point for anti-Mugabe dissidents within the country’s ruling ZANU-PF Party, and a potential moderating political force should President Robert Mugabe, 87 and frail, die in office. Many key Zimbabwean political figures benefit by his demise.
Mujuru was a key supporter of Joice Mujuru, his former wife, Zimbabwe’s key vice-president and a putative constitutional successor to Mugabe. A leaked American cable from 1988 suggest the pair were estranged, and it is rumoured that Joice and Solomon divorced in 2000, but the couple remained firm political allies. Solomon Mujuru gave his wife’s vice-presidency power and meaning, and as a team they were widely regarded as a Zimbabwe’s strongest opposing force to the cadre of generals and high-placed schemers who in the event of Mugabe’s death might attempt to subvert the constitution and impose themselves on Zimbabwe.
Tsvangirai ally, Mugabe rival
Likewise, General Mujuru (known during the liberation war by the nom de guerre Rex Nhongo) and his wife were believed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to be reliable potential allies in a post-Mugabe transition. If Mugabe, seriously ill with prostate cancer, dies during the currency of the Government of National Unity (GNU) that began in 2009, the MDC hopes to join hands in parliament with the Mujuru faction within ZANU-PF to inaugurate a peaceful Joice Mujuru-Tsvangirai interregnum leading up to free and fair national elections in 2013. Without Solomon Mujuru’s support among rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers, that plan looks less easily executable.
Mujuru also enjoyed credibility among members of parliament and many Zimbabweans. After his liberation exploits he served as a ZANU-PF member of parliament and then as a well-placed businessman with many interests in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. When Mugabe sent Zimbabwean troops into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support Laurent Kabila against militias from Rwanda and Uganda, Solomon Mujuru and Mnangagwa managed to divert Congolese diamonds into their own coffers, adding both to their personal wealth and their influence.
Mugabe gave Solomon Mujuru a lavish state funeral. But he had long looked upon Mujuru as a potential rival and, along with Joice Mujuru, as a figure who could not be guaranteed to preserve Mugabe’s legacy and the Mugabe family’s wealth and sway. Solomon Mujuru is widely believed bravely in private conversation to have recently urged Mugabe to step down from the presidency. First Lady Grace Mugabe has also viewed Joice and Solomon Mujuru as competitors for power and also, because of Solomon Mujuru’s stake in diamond dealings in Marange, in eastern Zimbabwe, as a direct threat to her amassing of riches from diamonds.
Solomon Mujuru’s undoubted high standing among a broad range of Zimbabwean soldiers likewise profoundly threatened the aspirations of the country’s defence force chiefs, especially army general Constantine Chiwenga and national police chief and general Augustine Chihuri. Allied with those leading military securocrats are Minister of Defense Emmerson Mnangagwa, Minister of Youth and Indigenisation Saviour Kasukuwere, several lesser cabinet ministers, and Central Intelligence Organisation chief General Happyton Bonyongwe. Solomon Mujuru’s legitimacy, greater than theirs, promised to thwart their post-Mugabe ambitions.
What is at stake, and what Mujuru’s death may have helped to facilitate, was the greater ability of the securocrat cabal to maintain power and access to ill-gotten wealth, especially diamonds and farms, in the event of Mugabe’s demise. Mnangagwa has long seen himself as Mugabe’s successor. Chiwenga has similar aspirations. Yet neither is popular within ZANU-PF or within the country. Chiwenga and Chihuri are both widely regarded as stepped-up political appointees. Their loyalty to Mugabe counted for more than their accomplishments in rank or in the liberation struggle. Chiwenga even failed his officer training course in Britain, at Sandhurst College. He is now enrolled in a master’s level course in international relations at the University of Zimbabwe, possibly in preparation for a political role.
Mnangagwa has always been close to Mugabe. He has served in several ministries, has helped Mugabe gain and launder corruptly-acquired funds, has his own stake in the Marange diamond fields, and is as ruthless and as determinedly acquisitive as Mugabe. But Mnangagwa, a Karanga (Mujuru was Zezuru, as are the other leading Generals and Mugabe), is not popular in ZANU-PF and lost several parliamentary contests in Kwekwe to the MDC. Solomon Mujuru’s views and following conceivably blocked Minangagwa’s pursuit of ultimate power after Mugabe, as Mujuru likely equally blocked the aspirations of Chiwenga, Chihuri, and others allied to them. In recent months Mnangagwa may have worried Mugabe by engaging in earnest discussions with both Tsvangirai and Solomon Mujuru about a post-Mugabe alliance.
Motives and suspicious circumstances
Zimbabwe under Mugabe is no stranger to political assassinations masquerading as accidents. Liberation war commander Josiah Tongogara, a possible rival to Mugabe’s ascent to ZANU control, lost his life in a mysterious car accident in 1979. Other contenders or presumed “troublemakers” were killed periodically since 1980 when their automobile tires blew up or axles collapsed. Tsvangirai’s official motorcade was rammed suspiciously in 2009, costing the life of his wife.
Solomon Mujuru, a known womaniser who had a highly developed taste for whisky, was either alone or with an unidentified woman in his farmhouse 20 km north of Beatrice, an agricultural trading center south of Harare, when either a candle tipped over or, more plausibly, persons unknown doused the farmhouse with petrol and set it alight. What is incontestable is that Mujuru died near or on his way to the front door when, if he had been in his bedroom late at night he could easily have jumped clear out of low-slung large windows. His widow cannot understand why he didn’t escape the fire by exiting quickly via a window.
Even more suspiciously, reliable evidence suggests that Mujuru’s automobile was found after the fire with the driver’s door open, keys in the ignition, his mobile phone on the seat, and his hand gun in the left-hand compartment. Moving a dying Mujuru into the house and setting it ablaze would have obscured a straight assassination.
Much of the forensic evidence has vanished because the fire engines that were summoned from Beatrice had no water and the farmhouse and Mujuru were both fully consumed by the blaze. Further, before the police could secure the area lots of curious onlookers had tramped back and forth across the site. For those and more political reasons, there has been no and probably cannot be any fully proper investigation of how Mujuru died, how the fire began, and who or what was involved.
The farm itself had been taken by Mujuru from Guy Watson-Smith. It consisted of 1,500 intensively worked irrigated hectares with about 500 prize cattle, wild game, and large cultivations of tobacco, maize, and horticultural flowers. In other words, it was a prosperous farm of the kind that the shrewdest and best connected ZANU-PF bosses grabbed during the land invasion era. When Mujuru’s thugs took the farm by force in 2001 they also grabbed $2 million worth of assets such as tractors, farm implements, fertilizer, and so on while the owners left with a suitcase each.
This year, given Mugabe’s parlous health and the Southern African Development Community’s insistence that Mugabe curb violence and respect agreements to proceed lawfully toward a new national election that could conceivably turn ZANU-PF out of office, Mujuru was in the way. Arguably, as a former head of the armed forces he was the only person who could effectively ensure that his ex-wife became interim president after Mugabe, thus strengthening the political hand of Tsvangirai and the MDC and vastly weakening or even obviating the pretensions of Mnangagwa, Chiwenga, and their ilk. Anyone of that securocrat cabal would have had the motive to eliminate Mujuru, and to arrange with local ZANU-PF cadres in and around Beatrice to do the deed. So would have Mugabe and Grace Mugabe. Solomon and Joice Mujuru threatened their hegemony and continued ascendancy.
Solomon Mujuru was deeply enmeshed, as were the securocrats and Grace Mugabe, in the taking of diamonds from Marange. Mujuru’s diamond-buying firm was run with South African cooperation. In a real sense, he and his business may have had controversial or adversarial diamond dealings that threatened or impinged upon the fiefs of the other diamond despots — Grace Mugabe, Mnangagwa, Bonyongwe, Chiwenga, and their Chinese allies. Mujuru’s immolation may have been less rooted in politics than in finance. A diamond deal could have gone wrong.
Whoever did it, and for whichever reason, Solomon Mujuru’s possible assassination hinders stability in the approaching post-Mugabe era. It strengthens the hands of those who conspire against democracy, and makes more likely that the aftermath of Mugabe’s demise will be bloody.
Published in Think Africa Press on September 13th, 2011