FORMER Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who served as a millitary leader between 1976 and 1979, says Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa seized power through a millitary coup that toppled his predecessor Robert Mugabe in 2017, the Zimbabwe Independent was told.
By Tinashe Kairiza/Chipa Gonditii
This came yesterday as Obasanjo yesterday helped launch a book titled Democracy Works: Turning Politics to Africa’s Advantage, co-authored with MDC deputy chairperson Tendai Biti, Liberia’s former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Greg Mills from the Brenthurst Foundation and American Jewish University president Jeffrey Herbst.
A consignment of the books was reportedly seized by the state at the airport in the capital yesterday, barely two weeks after suspected security agents confiscated copies of the book ahead of its planned launch in the capital.
In an exclusive interview with the Independent yesterday, Obasanjo, who first rose to power in Nigeria in 1976 after General Murtal Mohammed was assassinated, said Mnangagwa attempted to disguise the millitary coup that toppled Mugabe in November 2017 fearing punitive action from the region and African Union (AU).
Mugabe was deposed after the military, then commanded by General Constantino Chiwenga — now vice-president — took control of key state institutions and placed him under house arrest at his “Blue Roof” residence. The military raided the homes of his key backers, former finance minister Ignatius Chombo, former local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and former higher education minister Jonathan Moyo.
Chombo was arrested and tortured, while Moyo and Kasukuwere’s homes were sprayed with bullets before they left the country running scared.
“I figure the military, it appears, kept saying the thing was not a coup because they knew that if they said it is a coup the AU has definite decisions and action against coups,” Obasanjo said.
“So they kept saying it is not a coup, it is not a coup, because they did not want to call it a coup. But if it is masterminded by the millitary, which removes the incumbent, what do you call it? Half millitary, half coup, half succession?”
Obasanjo, who in 2003, barred Mugabe from attending a Commonwealth summit hosted by Nigeria nudging Zimbabwe to quit the club, said he did not “regret” the decision he made at the time.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 after Mugabe was accused of rigging the presidential vote while viciously clamping down on the opposition.
“Why should I regret? It was not me, it was a Commonwealth decision,” Obasanjo, who started his second spell as Nigeria’s president in 1999 until 2007, said.
The career soldier, credited for steering Nigeria back on the democracy path, said shortly after his arrival in the country, he had spoken to Mugabe on the telephone, in a conversation he described as “warm”.
“I have just spoken to him. He is doing very well, I will see him when I come back again,” Obasanjo said.
Quizzed on what the former leaders spoke about and whether Mugabe missed being in power, Obasanjo said: “you should ask him.”
Sources, who were seated with Obasanjo when he spoke to Mugabe, said former first lady Grace Mugabe was the first to speak to the former Nigerian leader whom he invited to visit the Mugabes’ residence in the affluent Borrowdale suburb.
But with another launch of Democracy Works scheduled in Malawi, Obasanjo could not make it to the Blue Roof, reassuring the Mugabes that he would soon pay them a visit.
“It was a very pleasant telephone conversation between the two leaders. Basically they just exchanged pleasantries.
“First it was Grace who spoke to Obasanjo, inviting him to come to Blue Roof. But Obasanjo was due to fly to Malawi and he could not make it,” a source who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Independent.
Obasanjo, as Nigeria’s millitary leader between 1976 and 1979, recounted how he had helped end an internecine feud between Mugabe, then Zanu PF leader and the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo, who was the leader of PF-Zapu during the country’s armed struggle against colonial rule.
He explained that during that time, Nigeria was extending support towards the two armed wings orchestrating the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe.
“We gave them money. At that time there were two liberation forces, Zanu and Zapu. Zanu led by Mugabe and Zapu by the late Joshua Nkomo. Initially, we gave them money. We also offered them military training, until they started turning their weapons against each other.
“So I invited both of them to Nigeria and I had two pistols with me. I said to them look, we are not in this struggle on ideological basis.
“If there was any ideology, the ideology was that the black man was not inferior to any other human being. So if the money and weapons we give you are used to turn against each other, let me give each one of you a pistol. Whoever survives goes to finish the struggle. And I remember Nkomo saying you have a unique solution to a unique problem,” Obasanjo recounted, noting that during his first spell in power, Nigeria was channelling 5% of its annual budget towards supporting the liberation struggle in southern Africa.
In 2013, then as the AU observer mission leader, Obasanjo said the presidential elections held in Zimbabwe that year, which Mugabe won, had passed the credibility test, though the opposition disputed its result.