The Sunday News
Colonel Ernest Mganda Dube aka Bookless
MANY Zimbabweans will live to remember Brigadier-General Collin Moyo (Retired), aka Cde Rodwell Nyika whom some of us would call “Chidodo” a nickname he did not like, who was declared a National Hero and interred at the National Heroes’ Acre on Tuesday last week.
I have no clue how the nickname “Chidodo” came about save to say it might have come from ZPRA guerrilla subordinates whom he wanted to see establishing themselves in Chidodo area of Mashonaland during the guerrilla war. This write-up does not intend to repeat other eulogies by authors in various media platforms and individuals but buttresses their insight this time from a former operational guerrilla cadre’s perspective.
My first encounter with Rodwell Nyika was in April 1977 at Freedom Camp in Zambia when we were being given rudimentary physical fitness training in preparation for the vigorous training in Boma, Luso, Angola under the Cubans. I recall well Rodwell being among a “troop” of instructors that took us through a three-four-five hour Short March, an enduring walk-run, half-marathon-like battle-fitness exercise. We were carrying sticks resembling rifles. The march ended with a judo exercise.
By the time we returned to the camp, many of us in the 2 000 group were tired, rain-sweating and almost collapsing and yet the yelling voices of the instructors never ceased. When it came to judo, it was a marvel to follow Rodwell’s demonstration on how to prevail over a close-combat fight and that was our introduction into the ZPRA concept of operational fitness.
In March 1978 after having returned from Angola, I was deployed to Kavhalamanja (Feira), Luangwa District, Zambia, a locality that shared the territorial control of the River Zambezi with Mozambique’s Zumbo District and Rhodesia’s Sipolilo now Guruve District. The base came under heavy Rhodesian air and ground force attack and as such, we slept in the bushes of the base periphery.
I recall seeing ZPRA commander Rogers Mangena (Alfred Nikita) ordering my company commander the direction to sweep the bushes but only stopped by helicopters that hovered over our heads. Our induction was nerve-wrecking with sights like two burning trucks that we had seen 10 or so kilometres before reaching Kavhalamanja and the sound of helicopters with nobody telling us what was happening.
One was then obliged to realise that we had arrived to a battle theatre where adrenaline separated men from boys. Before we had started sweeping through the forest, we were ordered to come back as the attempt was risky and exposing the commander and as such, we were guided to manoeuvre to another area unknown to many of us again.
The next noon, we established ourselves at a new base called Nkume, which was approximately 10km inland Luangwa District from Kavhalamanja. At this base, I formally met Rodwell who chose a group of 30 as base security with me as platoon commander.
I remember hearing the sound of arriving Jeeps that was followed by a whistle and voice call. As we were in shelters that were wide spread our reaction to the call was a bit slow such that the second voice became louder and harsher. We were agitated to be shouted at as we were getting into assembly in preparation for Nikita’s address. Rodwell was the first to say a few tough and disciplinary words indicating that our sluggish behaviour could not be tolerated.
When Chief of Staff Jevan Maseko (Tshangani), the then Chief of Operations, addressed us bellowing tough words (to be sarcastic, angry words) of a commander, what a baptism of life we were experiencing. The address became ferocious when Nikita took to the stage. In the back of my mind I was wondering what the hell was taking place in the theatre such that the commander would talk tough like that.
I later got wind that the genesis were the events of February 1978 when Rodwell took over command of the region replacing Cde Davy aka Tshibhoyi whom the guerrillas felt was appreciative of the fog of war. Two days prior to the attack, some weeks after the guerrilla company had returned from attacking Shamrock Mine, the guerrillas had advised Cde Rodwell of the threatening presence of the enemy soldiers hence the need to call off the plan of crossing the company into Chewore Game Park.
Irked by the killing of eight of the first 12 guerrillas attempting to cross ignited the guerrillas to physically threaten shooting Rodwell for his decision. The enemy’s reaction could have been provoked by their stand-off attack on Kanyemba Garrison. Following that debacle, Nikita came and all hell broke loose.
The punishment, with Rodwell supervising the 10-kilometre run in front of the commander’s Land Rover was a tough experience to the guerrillas. Rodwell never tolerated pleas to change his orders (interview with Alfred Makhonjwa aka Alfred Ncube on 13-01-2021). Remember Nikita had had his right hand, fingerless as the index one was ripped off by what was suspected to be a shot from a comrade.
With time, Rodwell effectively assumed control amid a rebellious background. From that episode when Rodwell addressed us within the base, he was tough and prepared for the worst to his life. After three days having established Nkume Base, I accompanied Rodwell on his night march to Feira town where he was to check his secret contacts.
Once back at the base, my group got Rodwell’s order to cross the River Zambezi and join other guerrillas at Hurungwe, Kazangarare, Mashonaland West Province.
Let me say a bit about my group’s serious encounter with Rodwell which I wrote in one chat conversation in the Former ZPRA Forum as “Reminiscing how Rodwell got us released from detention by Frelimo”.
As virtually inexperienced guerrillas beckoning our Angolan semi-conventional doctrinal training, we marched into the width and breadth of Chewore Game Reserve with reckless caution what one would call “school-boy blunders.” When we first settled at Chikowa River, Kazangarare, in the first light of our day one in operations, the enemy tried to siege us. Luckily we saw them in the process.
While we fought them machine gun-to machine-gun and mortar to mortar our retreat fell into the enemy plan. This baptism of fire resulted in the loss of platoon commander Regie who had trained in Somali and comrades Julius (the Venda guy) having both buttocks ripped off by enemy FN rifle shot and Katusha’s Achilles heel knocked off.
With barely 10 days in the theatre we were marching across the Chewore Game Park evacuating casualties to Rodwell’s Nkume Base to which he had the courtesy to allow us three days’ rest before marching back. Our second tough learning was a raid on Mangula (Mangura) Mine where we took away the cashbox.
That was followed by a morning counter-follow-up ambush where we captured an FN rifle from a dead enemy soldier. With Cde Bluebutch breaking his leg during contact in Kazangarare, we had no choice other than to evacuate him to Nkume Base. At least, this was after a two-month stay in the theatre.
Despite that unfortunate development, Rodwell was not amused but instead gave us seven days rest and thereafter ordered us to carry out a reconnaissance task on the enemy garrison of Kanyemba. As we approached Kanyemba garrison after the mountainous route manoeuvre, two to three shots were fired towards us forcing us to move further to the western direction.
With no border markings standing out, we found ourselves directly to the south of Zumbo Town, Tete Province, Mozambique where we decided to meet the Mozambican army battalion deployed close by on the river-bank.
Unfortunately Frelimo decided to play us captives and locked us in prison across the river. After three days, we were driven by five boat-runs across the River Luangwa into Feira Town with the Zambian immigration receiving and clearing us.
It was until a Zambian immigration officer asked us where and when we were captured, that we noticed that the clearance was bad news to us since the Mozambican military had reported us as captured Rhodesian Skuzap operatives hence they were taking us to Beira via Zambia-Malawi route for further investigations.
In realising that we were ZPRA, the Zambian Army got hold of Rodwell. I remember seeing the temperamental Rodwell arriving and seeking few clarifications from Xabanisa, our detachment commander then.
His high pitched voice, the usual one when he was angry, could tell us all hell was likely to break as Frelimo were determined to continue taking us prisoners. After a good 30 or so minutes of conferencing between Rodwell, Frelimo and Zambians, we saw our Frelimo escorts boarding their steam boat and driving to Zumbo and thus, we regained our freedom.
As we were driven by the Zambian police back to Nkume Base, we knew our fate from our commander. This time, a day’s rest was just too good that Rodwell could give us. We were all stone-shocked as to why Rodwell would lead us like us like that. Elsewhere, Cde Alfred Makhonjwa, another combatant who witnessed Rodwell’s command and control of the region has already told us of almost similar encounters with Rodwell.
He has told us what led their group to be at serious encounter with Rodwell following his command to them to cross the River Zambezi for operations despite the fact that enemy movements sighted along the river were warning signs that the worst was coming.
Of the 12 who attempted crossing, eight were caught by enemy fire in the middle of the River Zambezi with only four surviving. That triggered the guerrillas’ reactions. However, Rodwell would not bulge as his resolve to get everyone into combat zones was not negotiable.
The morality of bringing up this episode is to show the life-threatening environments Rodwell went through as a field commander who led from the front. He was to be physically wounded during a battle as he led his troops.
The last time I was to cross the Zambezi from the theatre, it was the post-downing of the Rhodesian Viscount civilian plane in Magunje by another guerrilla group. Our group had also missed bringing down Jim Bark’s spotter plane as our strella SAM 7 malfunctioned but was enough to force Barker, the troublesome farmer never to fly again.
This time the reason of crossing the River was to evacuate casualties and those who had lost weapons at various battle sites along Mampofu River. With the likes of comrades Dlodlo aka Toyitoyi, Phuthi aka Bee, Jethro Mlalazi (Gazankulu) having fallen, two comrades having vanished into Sinoia (Chinhoyi) suspected to have been enemy within us, dwindling of our ammunition supplies, and the taking of civilian recruits from Kazangarare, was reason enough to march back to base.
On the night of our arrival at the River, efforts to locate the “navy team” was fruitless and as such we slept along the River on the Rhodesian side. As we saw the helicopters hovering over Nkume Base we realised why there were no observation points (OPs) along the known crossing points.
We later learnt from colleagues the following day as also narrated by Mkoma-Jola.com, (Herald, 13 January 2021), that Rodwell had fought the battle bravely such that his shooting dead of an enemy soldier carrying a Bren Gun [machine gun] was a distinguishing act never heard of from many ZPRA commanders then.
In December 1977, the operational exploits by Rodwell were recognized by the ZPRA High Command as he was appointed Commander Northern Front (NF) leaving Bvuma Jerry as the new regional commander deputised by Joseph Mbedzi (Sibuko) with Wilson Dube (Jonas Donga as Commissar) whilst the late Colonel Ngoni Dutsa aka Den became regional Chief of Security and Scotch (Chief of Communications) all got together with the out-going Rodwell.
As NF Commander Rodwell was deputized by Nicholas Nkomo aka Gilbert Khumalo, a tough trained guerrilla who had seen it all. Rodwell continued to tactically dominate NF as far as planning and executing offensive battles was concerned. Once responsible for a new conventional war trained Brigade that comprised four USSR-trained battalion commanders [Mnkandla, Madliwa,Jack Matiwaza, Zuba] deployed along the Zambezi Valley, from Livingstone to Feira, Rodwell was the first ever ZPRA commander to command an almost two division force of combined guerrillas and a conventional brigade supported by tanks.
I was to learn later how Rodwell as commander Northern Front led attacks on the enemy garrison of Mana Pools, Mashumbi Pools, among others. His subordinate regional commanders like Retired Colonel Tshipa aka John Nyamupingidza [Bulilima- Hwange-Tsholotsho], Rtd Lt-Col Ernest Sibanda aka Fibion Mutero [Lupane-Nkayi-Gokwe) and Jerry [Guruve-Hurungwe-Harare areas] were fighters and commanders of ZPRA’s best breed.
To the Rhodesians, Rodwell was the focal point of ZPRA’s fighting power hence during the quartering into assembly points during the cease-fire he was never allowed to stay with his tanks. The quartering of tanks in Esigodini, in Matabeleland South on a flimsy excuse that bridges in his area could not take tank-weightage was just a strategic ploy to keep Rodwell under lock and key.
Meeting Rodwell in the post-independence at Commando Barracks during my return to the DRC War in 2000 marked another pleasant re-union as we discussed a lot of our liberation-era battle encounters. He challenged me to come up with ZPRA history write-up as I knew a lot of operational exploits. In 2018, a Rodwell video recorded by the Friends of Joshua Nkomo, narrated his battle exploits at Kavhalamanja Battle and he broke down and shed tears. Many might have wondered if ever generals cry when faced by calamities.
The answer is “Yes” once a General’s memory reconnects with the fallen comrades whom he lost for a cause, he can shed a tear. Commander Rodwell lost men under his command at different battle circumstances. Also remember Rodwell had permanent scars in his body i.e. the loss of his fingers, among others. Yes, his tears befits the 28 ripped ZPRA combatants’ bodies he buried at Kavhalamanja on 7-8 March 1978 following a terrible Rhodesian attack that also killed 26 Zambian soldiers and 11 civilians as well.