FORMER President Robert Mugabe confiscated a book written by now Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri, detailing the circumstances surrounding the death of the late Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (Zanla) commander, General Josiah Magama Tongogara.
In an emotional speech at the 39th memorial service for Tongogara, Muchinguri broke down as she “narrated” events leading to Tongogara’s death in a suspicious car crash in Mozambique on Boxing Day, December 26, 1979, months before Zimbabwe’s first all-race elections in 1980.
“I wrote a book on the story [of Tongogara’s death]. I did not know that I was not allowed. Maybe now we can say it because the people are dead. When I wrote the book, I was summoned by former President Mugabe [then Prime Minister], who was in the company of the country’s military commanders Generals Solomon Mujuru, Vitalis Zvinavashe and Josiah Tungamirai, all bedecked in their official uniforms. You know how scary that is. I was asked to hand over the book,” Muchinguri told guests, who included Tongogara’s family members.
Mujuru, Zvinavashe and Tungamirai, who were leading commanders during the liberation struggle and went on to lead independent Zimbabwe’s military, are all dead.
Muchinguri added to the decades-long intrigue around Tongogara’s death by claiming Mugabe and the then Zanla chief had an altercation before the fateful trip.
“Former President Mugabe and Cde Tongogara had an altercation over travel plans to return to Zimbabwe. Mugabe wanted Tongogara’s staff to be flown to Zimbabwe, but the General stood his ground,” the Defence minister, who served as one of Tongogara’s aides and was in the same car when he died, said.
Tongogara reportedly favoured unity between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and his then rival Joshua Nkomo, who was leading the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) under the Patriotic Front (PF) banner. Zanu and Zapu were already fighting white minority rule as the Patriotic Front coalition.
There are several versions of events regarding Tongogara’s death, with former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith claiming he was killed by “his own people”, a reference to Mugabe’s Zanu. Smith, in his memoirs; The Great Betrayal added that briefings from police and the Rhodesian Special Branch concluded Tongogara had been assassinated.
The United States Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) briefing two days after Tongogara’s death also said the then rebel commander “was a potential political rival to Mugabe because of his ambition, popularity and decisive style”.
On the same day, the US embassy in Zambia reported that nobody accepted Mugabe’s version of events that Tongogara had died accidentally, including the then Soviet Union.
Tongogara’s wife has consistently said she was not allowed to view her husband’s body. Rhodesian police also claimed the body had “three wounds, consistent with gunshot wounds, to his upper torso”.
Acting Commander of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Edzai Chimonyo, who also attended the memorial and was also in the same car with Tongogara, said the late Zanla general’s gut had been ripped open on impact, adding “time will come for us to put the record straight”.
Apart from his statement after Tongogara’s death, Mugabe seemed to silently push the military supremo’s contributions and demise to the back-burner of Zimbabwean history during his 37-year-rule.
After taking over last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa re-named the country’s biggest cantonment, KGVI Barracks in Harare, after the late national hero.