Rex Nhongo’s escape to Tanzania after the Chitepo assassination

THIS is the fourth extract from Blessing-Miles Tendi’s book The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker (Cambridge University Press). Tendi is an Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Oxford. Permission for reproduction of extracts of the book was granted exclusively to the Zimbabwe Independent by the author. Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker is available in Zimbabwean book stores and Exclusive Books (South Africa).

Herbert Chitepo was assassinated at about 8am. on March 18 1975. A powerful bomb in his Volkswagen Beetle car detonated as he pulled out from his home, 150 Muramba Road, Chilenje Township in Lusaka. ‘The blast threw part of the car onto the roof of his house and uprooted a tree next door.’ Chitepo and one of his bodyguards, Silas Shamiso, died instantly, while the second bodyguard Sadat Kufamadzuba was wounded. Nhongo was in Chifombo when he learnt of Chitepo’s macabre death via Zambian national radio that morning. Zanu instantly became an amalgam of tensions, suspicions, grief and shock. The Zambian authorities quickly, and controversially, concluded that Chitepo’s assassination was an inside job. Thus, Chitepo’s funeral, which was attended by leading Zanla cadres based in Tanzania such as Dzinashe Machingura, David Todhlana and Webster Gwauya, took place under a veil of fear that the Zambian government intended to arrest Zanla High Command members on charges of assassinating Chitepo.

The High Command maintained it was innocent and resolved to scatter outside Zambia, dreading a crackdown by the Zambian government, led by Kenneth Kaunda. Rex Nhongo and Robson Manyika would escape to Mgagao (Zanla’s largest training base in Tanzania). Josiah Tongogara, Joseph Chimurenga, Sarudzai Chinamaropa, Josiah Tungamirai, Machingura, Sheba Gava, Justin Chauke and Meya Urimbo, amongst others, would head for Chifombo. Dick Moyo was appointed to the High Command after the 1974 Nhari mutiny. He was sent to Botswana, only to be assassinated there by a parcel bomb three months later. Some High Command members made their way to the warfront to inform guerrillas in Rhodesia of Chitepo’s death, while other commanders simply vanished of their own accord.

Soon after Tongogara’s group arrived at Chifombo, they learnt of an impending operation by Zambian troops to arrest all senior Zanla commanders present there.
The Tongogara cluster decided to traverse the borderline, into Mozambican territory, to avoid capture. After crossing the border, Machingura ‘drew Tongogara’s attention to the need not to leave our fighters [in Zanla camps] to the mercy of Zambian authorities’ and the importance of giving them leadership. Machingura claimed to have debated this matter with Tongogara for approximately two hours. Tongogara conceded eventually, allowing Machingura to return to Zambia. Machingura first went back to Chifombo and then to Mboroma camp, where he avoided arrest by posing as a junior soldier while providing Zanla guerrillas with leadership until September when he, Saul Sadza and James Nyikadzinashe fled to Mgagao in Tanzania.

After Machingura went back to Zambia, the Tongogara group retreated to a Frelimo camp called Fingoe, believing they would find protection there. However, Frelimo handed over, in two phases, the top leadership of this group to the Zambian government, which requested their arrest on charges they were accountable for Chitepo’s death. Tongogara was part of the first group to be turned in by Frelimo. Less than a week after their arrival at Fingoe, Frelimo summoned Tongogara, Chimurenga and Urimbo to a meeting in Tete, from which they never returned. There is an irony that cannot be lost here: Frelimo employed on Tongogara the same trick it devised with him and Nhongo months earlier in order to capture Nhari mutineers at Kaswende. Chinamaropa, Tungamirai and Chauke were not invited to the Frelimo meeting with Tongogara but they all were subsequently handed over to the Zambian government by Frelimo. According to Tungamirai, ‘Frelimo thought it was genuine (the Zambian investigation into Chitepo’s death) … . They told us later that if they had known that was not the case they would not have sent us.’

The nature of Nhongo’s passage to Tanzania following Chitepo’s killing has, hitherto, not been explained. He and Manyika left for Tanzania separately. They rationalised that travelling separately increased the chances that at least one of them would make it out of Zambia. The road to Tanzania was strewn with Zambian security agents searching for Zanla High Command members on the loose.

A Zanla cadre described how Nhongo escaped: ‘Rex told me that he slipped away by taking three women comrades to Tunduma border post [border crossing between Zambia and Tanzania]. The comrades’ names were Sandy, Serbia and Chipo. Sandy and Serbia died in the war but comrade Chipo is still alive. Zambian security did not expect a man on the run to be showy with girlfriends. When you are on the run you are hiding. You look suspicious. Rex’s idea was that these women would make him look less suspicious. He looked like a guy with his girlfriends who was just having a good time.

The Zambians thought that cannot be him and started paying attention to other people who looked more suspicious and some of the Zambians started paying attention to what the women were doing around Rex instead of looking closely at him’.

Teurai Ropa gave an account of Nhongo’s getaway, which was comparable to that told by the Zanla cadre: ‘he went with women fighters to Tunduma. It is funny the way he told me this story [laughs].

You see my husband was very naughty with women. So he said to me when I tell you this please do not think I was doing anything this time. I went to the border with three women and they were flirting, hugging me, pretending to be kissing me and the police said, ah, these lovers are disturbing us, please pass quickly, we are busy looking for someone here. That is how he went out’.

According to Nhongo, Manyika arrived in Tanzania within a day of his entry and once reunited, they together proceeded to Mgagao. ‘When Nhongo arrived at Mgagao I had completed my training. I was now called a veteran and promoted to be a member of the Zanla General Staff. Veterans were those who had finished training and were ready to be transported to the warfront’, a Zanla guerrilla explicated. The guerrilla described the general mood at Mgagao before Nhongo and Manyika’s arrival: ‘when we heard the news of Chitepo’s death and that the leadership had been arrested in Zambia, Mgagao became very anxious.

The image of Chitepo at Mgagao was that of a very educated and sharp leader. A gift to the struggle. Someone who, because of his intellect, could not be looked down upon by anyone, even the whites.

The fighters felt his death was a real loss to the struggle. We were not happy. Those of us, like myself, who had been camped at Chifombo in 1973 started to talk amongst ourselves about what we used to hear at Chifombo about Tongogara and Chitepo’s uneasy relationship’.

On the whole, opinion was very much divided at Mgagao, with some guerrillas taking the view that the bombing was the work of the Rhodesian Security Forces, while others suspected the Zambians of trying to destroy Zanla because they favoured Zipra, as one Mgagao guerrilla explained: ‘Kaunda gave preferential treatment to Zipra, period. I experienced that when I was at Chifombo. Kaunda did not really recognise Zanla. He thought it was a splinter group. He questioned why Zanu had broken away from Zapu in 1963. Right after Chitepo was killed we heard that Kaunda was trying to force Zanla cadres in Zambia to join Zipra, by saying that your leadership is full of murderers. He also started moving our fighters to Mboroma, which is in the Zambian interior, far away from the front. How were they then supposed to operate? This was designed to stop Zanla from fighting’.

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