The Sunday News
Dr Mandla Nyathi
Chief spies are not famous for mingling easily with the public: they tend to be aloof; secretive and in glamorised Western films have notoriety for keeping everyone guessing about everything in the world around them.
Dr Dumiso Dabengwa, who died on 23 May and was declared a national hero, defied that classic stereotype view of spies.
He was an unconventional spy in many respects: he lived a private life of a spy in public with immense success; unlike many spies that marry other spies, he married an ordinary woman who has never sought a public office; he retired from a military intelligence role to become a successful politician, farmer and community leader against many odds.
Yet despite all that success, he remained rooted to the ground. Following his death, mourners turned up in their multitudes for memorial prayers at the various locations of the globe. They are testimony of the person he was. Touching lives of the famous and the ordinary; lives of the rich and the poor alike, the late Zapu leader was widely respected across the political divide, home and abroad.
His name will spark interest to historians and social commentators for a considerable future. Exemplary in many ways, beyond any reasonable doubt, he nonetheless, like every human being, he had a side of his black spots, and of course, the “highs and lows”.
Born almost 80 years ago, Dr Dabengwa became synonymous with the Zapu’s struggle for independence in the 1960s to the late 1970s. Known as DD in many circles, Dr Dabengwa more formally, he was not an orator on the scales of former President Robert Mugabe who put him to prison for a considerable time after independence. Neither could he match the acute charm and oratory skills of his mentor, the late Dr Joshua Nkomo. But to his massive credit, those that had a privilege to interact with him at formative stages of his illustrious military and political career, all point to a capable intelligent humble schemer. He made for what he lacked by being astute, attentive and simple in his approach to solve complicated matters.
A big heart he had, there is no doubt about it. He was philosophical too, though sadly, most of his visionary ideas have gone to the grave with his body interred at his birthplace of Ntabazinduna, Umguza District in Matabeleland North on 1 June. When asked in 2016 about what should be done about the Zapu records, including minutes and newsletters of all sorts, recovered from the Zapu London offices of the 1970s, he jokingly remarked, “ . . . be careful, some of that rich history could end up being used to roll a tobacco.”
He then went on, “The Mafela Trust is a better housing I can think of right now.” Most people that have worked for the secretive services joined simply because they knew someone already in those organisations.
In rare cases, for example in universities and colleges alike, a tap on the shoulder by a stranger could be the beginning of a successful career in the secretive services. In the case of Dr Dabengwa, none of the archives, declassified or otherwise, gave a public indication of how he became the chief intelligence officer and epitome of the Zapu military wing intelligence.
That he is the only person to have used the title “intelligence supremo” within the Zapu and Zipra formations speak volumes of the irreplaceable character he was. However, that was without failure. In an event that went undetected through the Zipra and Zapu intelligence radars, and could have potentially changed the history of Zapu forever, in 1971 Dr Dabengwa and some of his top Zapu colleagues based in Lusaka were arrested by mutinous juniors.
Caught by a group of rebellious cadres that had gone largely unnoticed in the history of Zimbabwe that was probably the greatest intelligence failure by Zipra outside the enemy lines, it was even a greater personal failure for Dr Dabengwa who, through his heroics and training, got the accolade “the Black Russian” for his contributions. Were it not for the role played by the likes of the late Nust founding Vice-Chancellor, Professor Phineas Makhurane, and Betty Kaunda, in influencing the outcome of that episode of intelligence failure, the life of Dr Dabengwa celebrated today, would have had a different narrative.
And true to his virtues of honesty and loyalty, when Prof Makhurane died in 2018, despite his own health challenges at the time, Dr Dabengwa made effort and against all adversaries attended the funeral of the late Nust vice- chancellor. Prof Makhurane’s funeral was that of a man who had helped rescue him from the claws of preliminary political extinction and possible death: to show last respect and to say good-bye. The faction aligned to Dr Dabengwa and others like the late Edward Ndlovu survived the onslaught: now with the Zambian military and political establishment playing both tacit and explicit roles. The poor group of rebellious fellow comrades in the struggle was arrested, after being lured using an ancient trap: involving leaving arms and all weapons outside the negotiation room. The Dabengwa group turned the tables and imprisoned the rebels in Zambia.
There were calls to have them killed and, luckily for them, using his wisdom and influence Dr Dabengwa was opposed to the whole idea of killing the rebels. The United Kingdom provided sanctuary on a humanitarian ground.
The rest is history. Some of those rebels died in the United Kingdom. When some of the members of that rebellious group returned to Zimbabwe after independence, Dr Dabengwa showed leadership: he treated them with respect and dignity and never sought to revenge for what they had once tried to do on his life and person. That is the person Dabengwa was. Whether that was an inborn trait or it came about due to his military training and political astuteness is irrelevant.
A casual perusal of public birth records of male children in the mid-60s to the late 1970s in Matabeleland show a sudden emergence and peak of the name “Dumiso.” It is a sub-Saharan Africa thing. Some parents name their children after the heroes of the time: including footballers, musicians and politicians. It is not surprising or unusual to find names such as Kabila in Zimbabwe, named after the Congo President.
Dr Dabengwa had that effect too: many supporters of his political party named their children after him probably in the hope they will achieve things that he had aspired for or achieved in life.
The harsh physical conditions and constant threat to his life did not change Dr Dabengwa’s resolve. His contributions and views expressed during the Lancaster House Conference to end the war that had ravaged the economy showed level-headedness and a rational thinker in his view of the world and democratic values.
But, democracy has its enemies, real and imaginary. It was not long after independence (in 1982) that Dr Dabengwa was in prison again. Like in the Zimbabwe House in Zambia where blood had oozed on his body as he made a menial resistance to the arrests, colleagues junior to him in the military hierarchy arresting him. Nothing gives away the experiences of the prisoners during that time.
Individual accounts narrated on different forums give the closest true picture of that experience. Sad as it is, DD has gone to the grave with the first account of events that could potentially contribute in the healing process of the nation. The late Dr Dabengwa was a survivor. He survived life in prison and ducked bombs from the Rhodesian Air Force. His mission appears to have been to go forward with human development. Upon his release from prison following the success of the talks between PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF, there was huge speculation in the political arena about his future role in Zimbabwe.
In some quarters, they had unrealistic expectations such as him returning to the helm of some arm of the Zimbabwe National Army. The modest if realistic option was for him to represent a constituency in Parliament. The die fell on the latter though he had hurdles to clear before he could achieve that.
Typical of the person he was, fused in mystery in the eyes of the people that knew him at a distance; it took many steps for him to get to the ladder of the new political set-up in Zimbabwe. People should not forget that he was largely credited with engineering the Zapu and Zipra propaganda on invisibility of the armed cadres: for example, claims that Zipra cadres could magically disappear, change into a tree, a lion and so forth. Far-fetched as it was, it was effective as a propaganda coinage targeting the semi-illiterate masses during the liberation struggle.
Imagination on the same scale became necessary when Dr Dabengwa put his name forward to contest for the chairmanship of the new Zanu-PF in Bulawayo in the twilight years of the 1980s. It was not going to be an easy stroll in the park. Dr Dabengwa faced immediate challenges from the remnants of the old Zanu-PF executive. Amongst the outgoing executives were the likes of Freddy Waniwa, powerful individual indeed who, undoubtedly, had used proximity to State power to dole out jobs, contracts and training opportunities to Zanu-PF linked youths and other unemployed adults in the hope of keeping them in the party structures or that they would join the ruling party. Asked to comment whether he would be able to maintain expectations given the culture developed in the previous administrations, he was blunt to the point;
“…ukudlisa kwe politics akufunakali. Politics must make the environment conducive for businesses to thrive.” The drama had not begun until then. He went on to file his nomination papers in accordance with the Zanu-PF internal rules in 1989. The old Zanu-PF in Bulawayo organised themselves and so did the new recruits in the rebranded new Zanu-PF home.
The wind was not so obvious about the preferred direction. The day of the elections for the new look Zanu-PF in Bulawayo came. It was at MacDonald’s Hall in Mzilikazi, 1989. Perhaps sensing the risk of exposing his limitations on oratory exhibition or using his inborn tricks to his advantage, Dr Dabengwa switched to instinct and played on the Electoral College’s emotions. His campaign speech was a mere six (6) words. Six words I repeat. He stood up and with eyes sharp to the direction of the audience about to decide on his political future he declared;
“Mina ngingu Dumiso Dabengwa! Ongangaziyo angangivoteli.” Interpreted literary he had said his name was Dumiso Dabengwa, anyone who did not know who he was, should not bother voting for him. Then he went back to his seat. They, almost all of them in that hall, voted for him. His political star was on the rise again. Yes, the Black Russian.
In 1989, he became the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs. He joined a ministry not short of challenges: some historical, others a function of inefficiency, and so on. Particularly of immediate concern was the issue of victims of political instability and children without birth certificates owing to the Gukurahundi issue. Who could be a better person to lead in that front other than DD?
That was even so when Dr Dabengwa became the Minister of Home Affairs. But as Zimbabweans remember him on the first day after his burial, the problem of birth certificates for the children born during the political instability and the Gugurahundi era remains unresolved.
Dr Dabengwa’s biggest challenge while in charge of the Home Affairs came from the international arena. Nicholas Mullen, an Irish Republican Army operative (a terrorist in Britain) got wind of his imminent capture in London and escaped with his daughter to Zimbabwe. He was safe in Harare until in February 1989 when the British foreign intelligence organisation (MI6) connived with some Zimbabwean counterparts in an elaborative operation that would see Nicholas Mullen abducted and extradited without due process to London. He was tried and jailed, spending almost 10 years in prison.
For many years, campaigners for his release argued that his conviction was unprocedural after the Harare authorities had not followed established extradition procedures in place between London and Harare. There was no question of whether the trial judge had erred or whether Mr Mullen was a terrorist. The crunch of the matter was the illegality of his arrest and roles by some intelligence operatives on both sides of the borders. The conviction, eventually quashed after 10 years, set some footmarks for those who want to value the rule of law. The analyses of the judges were critical of the intelligence services as they were of the department of chief immigration officer whose office fell under Dr Dabengwa.
In 1990, Dr Dabengwa contested the Nkulumane Constituency in Bulawayo. Prior to the election he vowed not take the seat if he got less than 20 000 votes. He got less than that critical figure. He took the seat anyway, and proceeded to Parliament. He was uncontested in the same seat in 1995, perhaps indicative of the trust and admiration he still held amongst his people.
It was different a game in 2000. The indefatigable Dr Dabengwa lost control of Nkulumane constituency with such margin that had it been someone of thin skin they would have retired for good from politics. He soldiered on albeit with a political limp: remaining in Zanu-PF until 2008 when he teamed up with Simba Makoni to push a fight against Zanu-PF and MDC. Commenting on the 2000 election loss to MDC, his judgment was that MDC would have still won the election having fielded even a donkey. That is how much the political landscape had changed in just more than 10 years. Dr Dabengwa died leading Zapu, an organisation that brought him fame and admiration from many people in Zimbabwe and abroad. Even after his death, it is difficult where another intelligence supremo will come from. Let alone who will fill confidently wearing the intelligence supremo hat. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Dr Mandla Nyathi is a Zimbabwean academic based in the United Kingdom.