DUMISO Dabengwa, a Moscow-trained intelligence supremo and insurgent leader in Zimbabwe’s liberation war, whose fortunes tracked Cold War rivalries and the political and ethnic score-settling that followed independence from Britain, died last week on Thursday in Kenya. He was 79.
His family reported his death and said it occurred as he was on his way back to Zimbabwe from India, where he had been treated for an unspecified liver ailment.
Such was Dabengwa’s feared reputation among the white minority of Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, that he earned the sobriquet “the Black Russian”, because of his close ties to the Soviet Union, where he underwent training by the KGB in the 1960s.
Yet, when the seven-year war ended shortly before independence in 1980, he played a persuasive role in trying to unite the rival guerrilla armies that had fought white minority rule: his own Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra), which was loyal to Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), which fought in the name of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe would go on to rule Zimbabwe, ever more autocratically, for more than three decades, until he was deposed in a military coup in 2017.
A photograph from the independence era showed the bearded Dabengwa in military camouflage fatigues alongside Rex Nhongo, the nom de guerre of Solomon Mujuru, the ranking Zanla commander, as the two rivals joined with their former white adversaries in the effort to create a unified national army.
When fighting between their two armies broke out in late 1980, claiming some 60 lives, the two men travelled together to the township of Entumbane in southwestern Zimbabwe to pry the combatants apart.
But the gesture was not enough to prevent a further conflagration in February 1981, when some 300 former guerrillas were killed in Entumbane, in an uprising that Mugabe put down by deploying white-led military units that had once fought to resist majority rule.
Bloody though the fighting had been, it was little more than a prelude to far more widespread violence when Mugabe ordered his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to sweep through Matabeleland — the Ndebele heartland in southwestern Zimbabwe — ostensibly to seek out so-called dissidents loyal to Nkomo. Thousands of people died in massacres that have stained the country’s collective memory to this day.
At the time of the killings, Mugabe’s intelligence chief was Emmerson Mnangagwa, the same person who emerged from the 2017 coup as Zimbabwe’s president and who offered a glowing eulogy to Dabengwa after his death. On Sunday, the authorities in Harare, the capital, declared Dabengwa a national hero.
The patterns of intolerance under Mugabe had emerged early. Much of the animosity lay in the enduring distinctions between the majority Shona people, who supported Mugabe, and the minority Ndebele people, who backed Nkomo.
Dabengwa’s experiences offered a template for the blend of repression, cunning and co-option that enabled Mugabe to hold power for so long.
Three years into independence, Dabengwa and Zipra’s military commander, Lieutenant-General Lookout Masuku, were tried on treason charges after the discovery of what the authorities said was an arms cache. Dabengwa was also charged with seeking to maintain close ties to the KGB.
When he and Masuku were acquitted, they were immediately rearrested under emergency powers dating to the era of white minority rule.
Masuku died in 1986 shortly after his transfer to a hospital from prison, and Dabengwa was freed under an uneven unity agreement between Mugabe and Nkomo in 1987. Dabengwa went on to serve as home affairs minister from 1992 to 2000. But in 2008 he withdrew from the unity pact to revive the party that was once led by Nkomo, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, or Zapu.
For all he had fought for independence, Dabengwa’s spell as an official in Mugabe’s government earned him a place on the list of Zimbabwean leaders subject to United States economic sanctions, accused of undermining Zimbabwe’s democracy.
To the end, he remained unforgiving toward Mugabe, insisting that the government formally accept responsibility for the Matabeleland slaughter in the 1980s, apologise to relatives of the victims and compensate them for their losses.
“Until this matter is resolved,” he told Michael Holman, a visiting British journalist, in 2018, “Zimbabwe will be a divided country.”
His active opposition to minority rule dated to the late 1950s, when he led other Zimbabweans in a campaign of civil resistance that earned him a spell in prison. His role as an underground activist and saboteur led him to Moscow in the early 1960s for training as he sought to build what he called “the vanguard of a guerrilla army” to fight white minority rule.
At that time, superpower rivalries between East and West meant that “we were used as pawns in Africa’s entire decolonisation process”, Dabengwa wrote in a paper in 2015. A rift between the Soviet Union and China meant that some liberation movements, including Zapu and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), won Moscow’s backing while others, including Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), were supported mainly by China.
Dabengwa returned to newly independent Zambia, Zimbabwe’s northern neighbour, in late 1964. Zambia, like other so-called frontline states, played a central role in offering rear bases to guerrilla fighters from across the region.
In the late 1960s, indeed, joint units from Dabengwa’s Zipra and the ANC’s military wing sought to infiltrate what was then called Rhodesia by crossing the Zambezi River and fighting some of the earliest battles for independence. The war intensified from 1972 onward, with the rival guerrilla armies fighting in separate areas, from separate rear-bases and with separate command structures and strategies.
While Mugabe’s guerrillas fought a largely rural campaign modelled on Maoist principles, Zipra planned to set up semi-liberated zones from which to “eventually liberate and occupy the major cities of the country”, Dabengwa wrote.
In 1979, however, talks at Lancaster House in London produced a peace deal that ended the bush war, though not the animosities that it had spawned between the rival claimants to the spoils of victory. When Zimbabwe held elections in 2018, Dabengwa pointedly supported those who opposed Mugabe’s successor. — NYT.
Cowell is a New York Times correspondent.