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Mugabe: One last shot from the grave?

Didymus Mutasa, one of the few remaining veteran nationalist leaders of Robert Mugabe’s generation has a fascinating and somewhat emotional scene in his old book, Rhodesian Black Behind Bars published in 1974.

Mutasa was being released from Salisbury Prison, where he was detained together with Mugabe and other nationalist leaders in the struggle for independence. It’s an emotional anecdote, painting very briefly but profoundly a picture of the detainees’ life. It would be unjust if I paraphrase rather than quote it in full. So here goes Mutasa, in his own words:

"Afterwards I was escorted back to the cell,” writes Mutasa, describing the scene when he had been told that he was to be released and he went back to his comrades.

“Edgar and I played our last game of Tsoro (draughts) and I lost a set of three games. He was pleased that he won and so was I. We were playing a game with definite rules.

Maurice Nyagumbo watched and sometimes took part. He was keen and wanted me to win.

There was Enos Nkala, Robert Mugabe, who knew the game better than us, and Morton Malianga.

All these friends were on my side, not because I was going away but because they knew that Edgar was better at the game than I was. They were following the principle that the weakest should be protected, a strong and good principle of our culture ...

At lock-up, when my belongings had been removed, Robert Mugabe was exercising while he was taking a shower. The picture of him hopping in the shower is still vivid in my memory. And so are the words, “VaMutasa mufambe zvakanaka,” (Go well, Mr Mutasa).

They (all the comrades) said in unison with voices half-raised: 'Don't forget the struggle’.”

These men fought a good fight in their younger days. They were committed to the cause and they made sacrifices in their day. We can learn a few things from that period.

It’s a pity things went south after independence when the revolution lost its way. But the picture of these young men playing draughts or Mugabe hopping in the shower as he exercised is captured the mind. Their comrade was leaving. They were staying. But they reminded him not to forget the struggle, no matter how hard the situation was at the time. And it was hard.

It is Mutasa’s reference to Mugabe’s superiority at the game of Tsoro, however, that caught my attention when I first read the book. And which I was reminded of today as I observed events in Harare, decades after their experience in Salisbury’s gaol.

You have to be a calculating character, always thinking ahead of your opponent to excel at the game of Tsoro. It might not have the sophistication of chess but it still requires an agile and deft mind.

After reading the book, it didn’t surprise me that Mugabe had risen from his jail cell to outsmart all of his fellow nationalists including his more illustrious seniors like Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo, first to become the leader of ZANU and later to become the first Prime Minister of independent Zimbabwe. And afterwards, to hold power for 37 years, often by instigating battles between his subordinates. He was a cunning fellow, always thinking ahead of his compatriots.

Nevertheless, by November 2017, his powers appeared to have waned. Some of his closest allies have never been able to explain why he did not act upon their advice that there was an impending coup. They cannot fathom why Mugabe continued to trust the very same people who were plotting to oust him.

On the evening of 14 November 2017, military vehicles began to move into Harare. The day before his top general, Constantino Chiwenga had issued a scathing statement, flanked by other generals. It was ominous.

Still, Mugabe did not seem to see the signs or hear the alarm bells ringing, suggesting the season of power was imperilled. By 21 November 2017, he had lost the biggest game of political Tsoro. He was out of office ousted in a coup. The Tsoro master was forced to concede. It was game over.

At that point, Mugabe was down and out, or so it appeared. He walked away a bitter man. He had tried to play one more move that Asante Sana Sunday night. It was a desperate resistance. The game was done. He had been outmuscled.

He saw it as a betrayal of great magnitude by men in whom he had reposed so much trust. It must have hit him hard. Really hard. How could he, after all these years of outsmarting and out-muscling opponents be sent away so feebly without a whimper? A man of power under house arrest.

He spent the rest of his days complaining. The decline in health afterwards was visibly rapid. Although a generous package was announced, perhaps to placate him, he never recovered.

And he never stopped moaning about alleged mistreatment and harassment. Shorn of the power he had enjoyed as president, Mugabe had suddenly become ordinary; a man at the mercy of his former subordinates.

But no one would have known that for him the game of Tsoro was not yet over and that he was plotting one last shot.

And this one, a shot from the other side from which there would no response against him. He was determined to take one last blow at Emmerson, his protege, and it has been served cold and in dramatic fashion by his instruction that he would not be buried at the National Heroes Acre.

Mugabe was a master of funeral politics, a skill he used to great effect during his long tenure. For him, the funeral of a national hero was a political platform. There, he attacked opponents, both local and foreign. He even announced government programs. At times, he used these funeral occasions to reverse decisions of his ministers.

He was not the only one who understood the utility of the Heroes Acre as a political platform. In 1997, disgruntled veterans of the liberation struggle used August Heroes Day ceremony to vent frustrations by disrupting his speech.

An embarrassed and fearful Mugabe rashly succumbed to their demands, handing them huge unbudgeted payouts and plunging the national economy into a serious crisis.

Mugabe knew his funeral was always going to be a grand occasion. It would draw huge crowds. It would bring serving and current presidents. It would attract many cameras. There would be local and international media.

The master of funeral politics foresaw that the occasion would give Mnangagwa, his protege turned nemesis an unprecedented platform from which to milk political capital. He was not going to allow that. And so he chose to throw one last unanswerable punch from the grave.

That’s why although there will be a big ceremony on Saturday 14th September at which great dignitaries will attend, the bigger story will be that Mugabe refused to be buried by his successor.

It is impossible to sugar-coat the snub. Mnangagwa would have wanted the platform. Gone is the facade presented to supporters and the rest of Africa that all was well between him and his predecessor.

Mugabe would have relished that embarrassment. It sounds petulant and it might leave his family in jeopardy, what with a wounded Mnangagwa still in office, but Mugabe always cared about himself.

For Mnangagwa, it’s a no-win situation. Go after Grace Mugabe and the family and he will be accused of being vindictive. Protect them and he will be accused of abusing power.

People love the highest office in the country and it has many privileges. But it also has moments of great embarrassment. It has a lot of power but how do you fight a dead man?

The master of Tsoro whom Didymus Mutasa described in his book has had the last laugh.

Then, at the Salisbury gaol, it was Mugabe saying “Fambai zvakanaka vaMutasa. Now it’s his turn to say Fambai Zvakanaka vaMugabe, a journey from which there is no return ticket. He is done. It is those who remain, the millions of Zimbabweans who must not forget the struggle.


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