The last hours of Solomon Mujuru

The day before he died, General Solomon Mujuru — also known as Rex Nhongo — ordered whisky from the bar at the Harare Sports Club. “He would stand up and cheer each time our guys hit four or six runs. He was very relaxed and joyful, just enjoying cricket,” recalled Saviour Kasukuwere, the then minister of youth development, indigenisation and empowerment.

During the course of the match, the second secretary of the Indian embassy to Zimbabwe approached Mujuru and Kasukuwere, asking to be photographed with them, to which both men agreed. These photographs, from the afternoon of August 14 2011, may be the last ever taken of Mujuru alive.

“The general agreed to be photographed with an Indian-looking woman. Normally the general did not like being photographed. He was very publicity-shy. I just said to myself, perhaps the general is mellowing with age,” an onlooker remembered. 

Zimbabwe defeated Bangladesh by seven wickets in the cricket match, after which Mujuru and Kasukuwere parted ways. Mujuru spent the night at his Chisipite home. On the morning of August 15, his wife Joice Mujuru — who was then vice-president of Zimbabwe —  was getting ready to leave for work when Mujuru called out to her.

Joice recalled: “He said, ‘Mai Chipo, please rub this ointment on my back; I have backache.’ I was annoyed with him because he had taken long in the bathroom, then asked me to rub his back, yet I wanted to go to work. You know I have never seen a cleaner back. Solomon had rough skin but that day it was smooth. You know when someone dies, you bathe their dead body, oil it, dress it in the best clothes, then bury. I could not do that because of the state of his remains after the fire. I feel rubbing that ointment on his back that morning was me bathing and oiling him for burial. That was goodbye. I wish I had not been annoyed with him for delaying me because that was the last time I saw him alive. He came back home for lunch that day while I was at work. He had lunch with his grandchildren, then he went back to his offices.”

Before he left for his offices, Mujuru once again asked family members and staff at the Chisipite home about the whereabouts of the keys to his farmhouse in Beatrice. “After he came back from the farm [on August 11] he was saying someone had stolen his keys. He had been asking about those keys since he came back. I still do not know whether they were stolen at the farm or in Harare,” Joice noted.

At sunset on August 15 , Mujuru undertook the 50km drive from Harare to his farm in Beatrice, death winds hollering more potently with each kilometre the wheels of his white Isuzu Double Cab KB250 traversed. Mujuru stopped over, alone, for some drinks at his regular haunt in Beatrice, the Beatrice Motel.

The bartender, Portia Kamvura, who sold him drinks, stated:“General Mujuru only had four tots of [Johnnie Walker] Black Label and refused to have any more because he had an early trip to Beitbridge. He told us he wanted to wake up at 4am the next morning. Normally, the general could drink a whole bottle of whisky and still appear sober.”

As Mujuru sipped whisky, back in the capital city Wilfred Mhanda was officially launching his autobiography titled, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter. I attended Mhanda’s book launch in the evening in Harare’s upscale Belgravia area. The attendees were a who’s who of figures critical of Zanu-PF rule, including then prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai and then deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara, and a host of other notable critical voices from politics, law, civil society, academia, business, media and the foreign diplomatic community.

Mujuru’s ally, Dumiso Dabengwa, acted as a discussant at the book launch. Mhanda still felt bitter towards Mujuru for not supporting him against Robert Mugabe in the 1970s, as seen in his autobiography, which is censorious of Mujuru’s hand in Mugabe’s rise to power.

Mujuru left the Beatrice Motel unaccompanied at about 7.30pm and arrived at his farm at about 8pm He drove through the farm’s first security gate, which was guarded by a private security guard called Clemence Runhare. Mujuru then journeyed to his farmhouse, entering

its yard through a second security gate manned by three constables, Lazarus Handikatari, Augustinos Chinyoka and Obert Mark, from the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s VIP protection unit. According to the constables, after five minutes Mujuru drove out of the yard to collect a key, for entrance to the farmhouse, from his maid Rosemary Short. 

Rosemary inhabited a house located within the farm, fewer than 2km from the main farmhouse. To access Rosemary’s house, Mujuru drove through a security gate located on the eastern side of his farm. The private security guard in charge of this eastern gate that night was Samuel Lewis. Mujuru collected a key for the kitchen-door entrance from Rosemary and drove past the farm shop on his way back to the farmhouse. According to the constables, Mujuru entered the farmhouse at about 8.20pm.

At 1.40 am, on August 16, Chinyoka, who was on duty while Handikatari and Mark were taking a nap break, discovered that part of Mujuru’s farmhouse was engulfed in a ravenous fire. Mujuru’s lifeless remains, still burning, were discovered at 3.45am in the searing heat of a small living room. Mujuru was lying facedown on top of a Moroccan rug, with his legs spread apart. A portion of his left arm was under his torso.

Blue tongues of fire climbed from Mujuru’s charred and ashy frame. The blue tongues mounted towards the begrimed ceiling when they met buckets of water decanted by would-be rescuers at the scene. As news of Mujuru’s ostensibly fiery end spread like wildfire via cellphones and social media, Mujuru’s family, friends and adversaries journeyed frantically to his farm in the cold, early-morning hours of August 16. They convened outside the partly gutted farmhouse, which reeked of many things, burnt human flesh included. Aye, fire always catches up with the fireborn.

This is an edited extract from The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker (Cambridge University Press). Blessing-Miles Tendi is an associate professor of African politics at Oxford University

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