Dabengwa: A hero who rejected ‘our time to eat’

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Owen Gagare

APART from his phenomenal liberation struggle exploits and heroics that earned him the nickname “Black Russian” and his principled politics, former Zipra intelligence supremo Dumiso Dabengwa, who died yesterday after a long illness, was a rare breed of a politician — unlike most of his peers, he did not believe in “it’s our time to eat” frenzy after the war.

The phrase “it’s our time to eat” is derived from the book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, written by Michela Wrong on a massive corruption exposé by John Githongo in Kenya in 2003.

Most liberation struggle luminaries and elites in Zimbabwean and elsewhere abandoned the struggle ideals and principles to become merchants of primitive accumulation of wealth and self-aggrandisement.

They could not resist the lure of power and trappings of office: flashy Mercedes-Benz cars, mansions, allowances and a lot of freebies, overseas holidays and VIP treatment even at a time when the majority are wallowing in a sea of poverty like Zimbabwe is now.

For Dabengwa, life was very different.

He lived a life of struggle throughout most of his days on earth, without much rest, comfort and luxury, while his contemporaries and war-time comrades led champagne lifestyles.

Dabengwa had joined the struggle in the late 1950s through the era of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the forerunner to Zapu which later splintered, leading to the formation of Zanu. He had earlier honed his skill in the struggle in the party’s youth league activities and associated activism, for which he was harassed and arrested.

At a personal sacrifice, he even helped former president Robert Mugabe and his first wife Sally escape Rhodesia through Botswana. Mugabe has publicly acknowledged this exfiltration escapade.

Following a trip to Moscow in January 1961 by George Silundika, a prominent NDP and later Zapu nationalist, after invitation of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee, two groups of Zapu militants went to Moscow in the summer of 1964 for training.

The groups included Zapu activists who were later to become some of the first Zipra commanders, Akim Ndlovu, Phelekezela Mphoko and Dabengwa, among others.

Apart from studying general military subjects, the trainees also specialised in guerrilla warfare. Military training of Zapu freedom fighters continued for many years, and became increasingly sophisticated, up to air force engineers and pilots, as time went on.

This was after Silundika had requested for, among other issues, financial, material and logistical support, according to Russian historian Vladimir Shubin.

Silundika, who was articulate, had impressed his Moscow interlocutors, and, according to the archive documents, NDP was allocated US$8 400 in 1961. Later such allocations became annual and their volumes increased. Besides, since then students from Zimbabwe went to study in the Soviet Union.

Soon after the Silundika visit, the Zapu leadership requested Moscow to organise military training for its cadres, especially “for subversive work”, for “military sabotage” and manufacture of “simple small arms”, as it was impossible to bring big weapons into the country.

In July 1977, the first group of Soviet instructors, which consisted of 12 people, arrived at a Zapu camp, situated 18 km from Luena, a town in eastern Angola (formerly Vila Luso), not too far from the Zambian border and worked there for a year.

The Soviet group had a mission to train Zapu fighters and commanders and spent exactly a year there, till July 1978. Up to 2 000 Zapu cadres went to Angola for training in two-month shifts.

The Soviet military specialists stayed in the camp together with Zapu combatants and endured all the hardships with them.

In spite of all the adversities, they performed their duties bravely. In a space of a year, the Soviet officers trained over 10 000 Zipra fighters and commanders up to a company level. A serious problem was the lack of proper air defence of the camp due to the absence of anti-aircraft weapons. Air-observation was then organised, trenches and shelters dug
out.

However, this did not prevent heavy losses when on February 26, 1979 at 08:10am, seven Rhodesian Air Force bombers (earlier supplied by Britain) attacked the camp.

At least 192 fighters were killed and about a thousand wounded. A Soviet warrant officer, Grigory Skakun, who was a specialist on fire-range equipment, was hit by a cluster bomb containing ball bearings and died on the spot.

Zipra fighters were trained both in conventional and guerrilla warfare.

When Zipra commander-in-chief Joshua Nkomo led a delegation to the Soviet Union in March 1978 to assess the training in Crimea where Zipra fighters were undergoing training in the
centre in Perevalnoe, he was shocked by the rigorous drills.

The training, which Dabengwa and others also underwent, included rolling and manoeuvring in a snow-covered field, running and even crawling with AKs or RPGs in their hands. The intensive training made Zipra cadres staunch fighters.

From the Wankie Campaign in 1967 and Sipolilo battles in 1967/68, through the fierce fighting of the 1970s right up to the Air Rhodesia Viscount disasters, in which Zipra forces shot down Rhodesian passenger airliners using Russian missiles at the height of the war — the country’s deadliest aviation incidents, and the subsequent vicious backlashes by Rhodesian
forces such as the Freedom Camp, Chikumbi and Mkushi encampments bombings and massacres in Zambia in 1978, Dabengwa was there in the thick of things; leading from the front.

Dabengwa fought alongside the likes of Zanla commander Josiah Tongogara, Zipra commander Nikita Mangena, Solomon Mujuru, Lookout Masuku, Chris Hani, Joe Modise and Jacob Zuma, among others.

Although he was Zipra, Zapu’s military wing, he co-operated with Zanla, the armed force for Zanu, and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the fighting arm of the ANC, throughout the struggle despite the problems.

After his sacrifice during the armed liberation struggle where he was persecuted by the colonial regime and having played a pivotal role in the war and later integration of Zanla, Zipra and Rhodesian forces, alongside the late Mujuru and others, he was ironically arrested and jailed by Mugabe’s government soon after Independence in 1980 on false treason charges.

Dabengwa was arrested alongside Zapu leaders and Zipra commanders, including the late Masuku, following the alleged discovery of arms caches on a farm owned by Zapu near Bulawayo in
February 1982. Masuku, who was Zipra commander, died in hospital chains as a result of the detention and torture.

Although Dabengwa and Masuku were acquitted of treason in April 1983, they were immediately re-arrested and detained until the latter’s death in 1986.

During the time Dabengwa was detained until 1987, Mugabe deployed the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland and Midlands, leading to the killing of about 20 000 civilians.

The official line was that the army had been deployed ostensibly to fight dissidents who were plotting to destabilise the country and overthrow the government, but research has shown that it was a pretext for Mugabe’s one-party state project which had ethnic undertones.

After being released from prison, Dabengwa initially refused to join the government and Zanu, but was pressured by former vice-president Joshua Nkomo, the Zapu leader, who believed the move was necessary to unite the conflict-torn country and stop the bloodshed.

He did not play a prominent role during his stay in government, but his record was blemished by the killing of at least eight people by security forces during food riots in 1998. He was Home Affairs minister at the time. Although the army was responsible for most of the killings, his infamous “shoot to kill” remarks were out of character.

On another downside, Dabengwa steered through cabinet and parliament the introduction of the Public Order and Security Act before John Nkomo took over, which was later used as an instrument for crushing dissent and the opposition; the very democratic values he defended.

Dabengwa was also Home Affairs minister when the land invasions occurred. At the time, he ordered the police to evict farm invaders, but Mugabe overruled him.

Despite serving in Mugabe’s regime, Dabengwa was bitter about his arrest and detention as well as the Gukurahundi massacres.

He blamed Mugabe for the killings.

Mugabe, in an interview with the Independent last year, partly blamed Dabengwa for the situation, a charge he swiftly rejected, insisting Mugabe was the author of the genocide.

Dabengwa once told the Independent in an interview in 1999 at his Mkwati Building offices in Harare that if he had a chance to be alone with Mugabe or President Emmerson Mnangagwa,
who was security minister during the Gukurahundi atrocities, he would not hesitate to punch them in the face.

Dabengwa quit government in 2000 after losing the Nkulumane seat in Bulawayo to the late MDC vice-president Gibson Sibanda. He refused to be appointed into government unlike many of his peers who after losing elections, still wanted to be on the gravy train. Mnangagwa was one of them.

Dabengwa, however, continued to sit in the Zanu PF politburo as a committee member together with Mujuru and others.

After 2000, he lived a modest life, dedicating most of his time to the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project and other regional issues like devolution, marginalisation and empowerment.

Dabengwa remained in Zanu PF throughout the build-up to the hyperinflation and economic meltdown period; deciding to quit the party in December 2007 after fighting for an extraordinary congress with Mujuru in a bid to remove Mugabe in December 2007.

Prior to that, the Dabengwa-Mujuru alliance had thwarted Mugabe’s plans to be officially declared president for life in politburo meetings and to increase his term from 2008 to 2010 without elections at the Goromonzi annual conference.

Before the landmark 2008 elections at the height of the economic collapse, in which Mugabe lost the first round of polling to the late MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Dabengwa quit Zanu PF and supported Simba Makoni’s presidential bid. Mujuru developed cold feet.

After walking out, Dabengwa told journalists that he felt free and had never in fact been Zanu PF at heart. He said he did not want to join Zanu PF in the first place, but only did it under pressure and out of respect for Nkomo.

Dabengwa even tried to lobby senior former Zapu leaders such Joseph Msika, John Nkomo, Naison Khutshwekhaya Ndlovu and others to quit Zanu PF, but they refused to get off the gravy train.

After the 2008 elections, he devoted time to reviving Zapu alone without its former prominent leaders.

He backed Tsvangirai in the 2013 elections. In last year’s elections, he supported MDC Alliance candidate Nelson Chamisa. This was part of his quest for a free and democratic, as
well as prosperous Zimbabwe.

A pressure group calling itself Royal Crown Council said Dabengwa was a true hero who lived and behaved like one.

“He was a true hero; he spoke like a hero, walked like a hero, and lived like a hero throughout his life,” it said. “His humility was disarming even under severe persecution by his political foes. His integrity and selflessness were resilient and abiding so much that he refused to join the looting frenzy when his former fellow liberators turned into mega
looters stealing not only the liberation war dream, but resources meant to liberate the poor from poverty, hunger and unemployment.”

After the November 2017 coup, Dabengwa was offered a vice-president’s post by Mnangagwa, who yesterday described him as “principled”, but declined it.

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