On the death of Solomon Mujuru, intrigue and conspiracy theories galore

Aug 17, 2011

In Zimbabwe the death of any prominent senior member of the ruling elite is an occasion for mass catharsis on some level. Ordinary people discuss whether the deceased's life record was net positive or net negative, and what he or she could and should have done differently to contribute to shaping the country's trajectory. In all these respects and many more, Solomon Mujuru's death will be 'off the charts.'

Firstly there was the horrific nature of his death, being burned in his house 'beyond recognition.' The demise of a prominent person by any means is a reminder that regardless of one's importance in life, death is the great equalizer. But the gruesome death of Mujuru has particularly shocked Zimbabweans because of how particularly 'lowly' it seems for someone often referred to as a ZANU-PF 'king maker.'

For his many supporters and admirers the immolation of such a 'big man' seems particularly unjust. To his detractors, at the moment drowned out by the outpouring of reverential condolences, that gruesome death is poetic justice for Mujuru's 'sins,' real or imagined. The shock of the manner of his death; his personal humbleness, modesty and relative simplicity have for now led to mostly adoring accolades, but in time there will be more sober, mixed analyses of his legacy.

Unusually for a senior ZANU-PF official, even much of the private 'opposition' press in Zimbabwe has joined in and arguably even led the mourning. Newsday claimed that Matabeleland region had been 'plunged into mourning'' and that over the country a 'dark cloud hovers as General Mujuru dies.' In the same paper was another editorializing headline sobbing, 'Farewell Gen Mujuru, true son of the soil.' Such hyperbole is usually the preserve of the state propaganda services, but Newsday was eager to spearhead it on this occasion.

So apparently deep was the grief at Newsday that the first sentence of an article headed 'Politicians speak on General Mujuru' death quoted businessman Philip Chiyangwa as saying 'Mujuru was a hilarious son of Zimbabwe.' What was 'hilarious' to Chiyangwa about Mujuru, a man most people have described as a rather quiet, dignified and serious man, one wondered? At first glance this seemed shockingly insensitive to say about a man who many others consider to be mostly an 'illustrious' son of Zimbabwe! We will never know if the grammatical faux pas was Chiyangwa's, the subeditor's or both. Such was the rush for people to be seen to be out-mourning each other.

Perhaps one of the reasons parts of the media are so apparently disraught over Mujuru's death is that they have now been deprived of the opportunity to recycle, hundreds of times over, the old 'Mujuru vs. Mnangagwa' factions story. That Mujuru and fellow ZANU-PF strongman Emmerson Mnangagwa had personal, political and business differences that were sometimes bitter does not seem to be in doubt. But on a slow news day several of the Zim papers would faithfully spin almost any political development in ZANU-PF into yet another Mujuru vs. Mnangagwa 'factions'story. What are these papers going to write about now?

In literature there are writers of fiction. In Zimbabwe journalism Mnangagwa and Mujuru have provided a class of what can be referred to as 'writers of faction.' Chief among these is journalist Dumisani Muleya, who appears to just love a factional story, especially in regards to Mnangagwa and Mujuru. Mujuru's death gives Muleya the opportunity to squeeze out at least one more such factional story.

Muleya, or at least the headline writer of his article, wasn't going to be delayed by any investigation into the cause of death. 'Mujuru's death 'murder most foul,' the headline boldly, confidently declared, whetting the reader's appetite. What new details had the headline's implied, promised investigatory scoop uncovered about what in Zimbabwean terms would be the murder of the decade, if not the century?

Alas, the salacious headline did not indicate any new line of proof of the causes of Mujuru's death. It was merely quoting an anonymous ZANU-PF official's 'belief' that Mujuru must have been murdered. While the promising headline delivered nothing it suggested, Muleya was in fine form, recycling his now classic factional writing, such as how it will 'fuel the already vicious power struggle within the faction- ridden Zanu (PF).'

As is common with these factional stories, no clear explanation was provided for the benefit of the reader on how and why this would happen. Since all of this is speculation, why is there no speculation on how the exit of one of the supposed factional leaders might possibly cool rather than 'fuel' the 'vicious power struggle?'

Interestingly, the Muleya factional story's initial headline later evolved into the less sensationalist, more sober and journalistically responsible Mujuru allies cry ‘murder most foul,’ suggesting that the earlier sexed-up headline was the result of excessive grief, or just plain old over-excitement. More proof of why Mujuru will be missed for very different reasons by different interest groups. Or should we say different journalist factions?      

Actually, even though ZANU-PF has many camps within it, some of which may oppose each other on some issues but which many other times overlap on various other issues, the party has done a very effective job of keeping these competing camps under one broad tent. The MDC, on the other hand, has split into several quite distinct, separate entities that can more clearly, obviously be understood as 'factions' in a way that ZANU-PF hasn't quite done.

Certainly there are strong politicians with their fervent supporters, but despite the common use of the word 'factions' with regards to ZANU-PF, no one ever bothers to precisely say how they define and delineate such 'factions.' Does it simply mean a group of one politician's supporters versus those of another, or something more? Everyone uses the term 'factions' despite this cloudiness in what it means.

So one reads the years and seemingly hundreds of ZANU-PF 'factional' stories with a certain grain of salt. But hey, who doesn't love a good factional story, even if one sometimes suspects it is many times partly also fictional?!

Zimbabweans love intrigue and conspiracy. 'How could such an important man die in an accidental fire?' many are asking incredulously. 'It surely must be an assassination by his factional foes!' There is already a long line of conspiracy theorists giving their reasons why his death 'couldn't have been' accidental, as the Muleya headline indicates.

Of course the reality is that anyone can die of anything anywhere. So part of the widespread conspiracy theorizing is because of the violent, secretive, distrustful, repressive, fearful and paranoid nature of the society that Zimbabwe has become. Therefore no sudden death of a big man can be entirely accidental. One of his enemies must surely have a hand in it. This is as much a reflection of the mindset of the country as it is also obviously a possibility that he died 'by the sword.' No matter what any investigation claims to show, it will forever be believed by many Zimbabweans that there was something fishy about Mujuru's death.

Obviously a fire death automatically calls for an investigation into whether it was accidental or arson. It was pointed out that on the night of his death there was a power failure for some hours in the area, so a mishap with an unattended candle is just one of many possible causes of an accidental fire, as some are pointing out.

There are calls for an investigation from many quarters. But investigation by who? The Zimbabwe Republic Police? Zimbabweans being Zimbabweans, they will ask to which ZANU-PF 'faction' the top ZRP officials belong and how that might affect the investigation and/or the reporting of it. There is also the issue that there is now a record of many prominent national 'investigations' just quietly fizzling out as soon as they are announced. But the main issue is that for a shocking, mysterious death with heavy political overtones at a particularly fraught and paranoid time in the country, no investigation by an institution with the messy, widely distrusted reputation of the ZRP is likely to settle anything in the public mind.

Before this death the biggest 'whodunnits' in the pantheon of prominent deaths have been those of Herbert Chitepo and Josiah Tongogara before independence, and many other 'lesser' controversial, suspicious deaths before and especially after independence. The mystery and intrigue around Mujuru's death will now easily blow all those out of the water, only partly because we are now in the internet age of instant information/speculation.

Books and scholarly theses will be written, films and documentaries will be made, all speculating on 'who/what really killed Solomon Mujuru.' But at the end of the day you can probably just fill in the blank about the particular conspiracy theory of your choosing. 'Closure' will be difficult to impossible for Mujuru's family because of all the theories that will be flying around.

Speaking of rumours and conspiracies, before confirmation of the death, The Zimbabwean asked, Mujuru and girlfriend killed in fire? The 'story' didn't go beyond that speculative question. But just that a girlfriend element has been introduced into the mix of wild rumours will exponentially increase the number and directions of conspiracy theories. Lovers of political intrigue will always believe his political enemies 'got' Mujuru, while fans of celebrity gossip and romance novels will likely believe a lover or romantic rival did him in. It was kind of unfair to both the late Mujuru, his family and friends for The Zimbabwean to even pose the question in print before establishing if there is anything to it. After all, there is going to be all the time in the world to nit pick over every aspect of the death and present whatever evidence or theories are out there about it, of which there will be countless numbers.

After retiring from his position as commander of the army, Mujuru quietly became a businessman of note, with a very broad rumoured portfolio. There were many hushed rumours about how he came by many of his business assets and holdings, but there is no question that he very effectively leveraged his political power and prominence into business. From time to time there would emerge public accounts of shady and strong-arm methods used to muscle in on many sectors.

Which brings up the fact that he was incinerated in the main house of a farm he reportedly forcibly took over from a white owner as part of land reform to 'empower landless blacks.' This factor alone is pregnant with ironies. The white farmer got court judgments against his forcible eviction by Mujuru, but in Zimbabwe those aren't worth the paper they are written on.

The manner of Zimbabwe's land reform means it will always be controversial, even if it is widely accepted as a done, irreversible deal. But there is something supremely tragic about the fact that a man who had so much other property of his own, and presumably could buy anything he wanted in Zimbabwe (if stories of his purported wealth are to be believed), met the end of his life under cloudy circumstances on property he expropriated from another man. There is something of that which it will be difficult for even Mujuru's most fanatical admirers to make honorable.

In the kind of African traditional mythology which still has a hold of the thinking of many Zimbabweans, Mujuru's death might have been described as 'ngozi,' or loosely speaking, 'the revenge of the wronged.' Of course part of the modern political-historical justification for the forced expropriations of white farms was/is that the white farmers themselves were inherently 'wrongers' who were at least indirect beneficiaries of an earlier dispossession of the Africans; a sort of continual process of tit for tat.

And there is the issue that the common belief in Zimbabwe is that there is no such thing as 'ngozi' in the western cultural tradition to which white Zimbabweans belong. Whites may take up guns or go to court for relief, but ngozi is widely thought to be a secret, magical cultural weapon only available to Africans acting against other Africans! But since we are in deep conspiracy theory and speculation mode, is it perhaps possible that after whites have spent a few generations in Africa and have become relatively 'indigenized,' they can also access the secret African powers of ngozi?! This would seem to be a good conspiracy theory for H-Metro or Kwayedza, or one of the 'factions'-loving papers to investigate.

Will Mujuru's death change Zanu (PF)'s succession matrix? So asked a Zimbabwean website. Well yes it will, if only in the minds of media writers who had conferred magical 'kingmaker' powers on Mujuru, the results of which were never really in evidence. Even his wife's being vice president can only be explained by her late husband's supposed influence on president Robert Mugabe by a rather long stretch, which also conveniently ignores her own strong, independently-earned liberation war-era and ZANU-PF credentials.

Yet again, Mujuru was much loved by the Zim media for providing grounds to write speculative stories about which way the post-Mugabe succession winds were supposedly blowing. Just about any little political development was taken by this section of factional writers as evidence of which faction supposedly had the upper hand to succeed Mugabe that month, week, day, hour or second! Unfortunately, this kind of medieval fantasizing about what would really happen when the current 'king' kicks the bucket is where the country crawls in its political development.

Mujuru was certainly a powerful, influential man. But on top of that he was given almost mythical powers of influence by sections of the media. It made for good if increasingly predictable headlines. More usefully, the reputation for having almost supernatural political powers that was conferred on him by the media must have helped Mujuru in his various dealings as well, perhaps by also keeping any enemies; factional, fictional or otherwise, at bay.

Sad, tragic, painful death? Most certainly. Political earthquake for the country in the manner suggested by much of the excited media? Well, dust to dust, ashes to ashes is where we are all headed, but life goes on for others.

May Mujuru rest in peace, and may the positive contributions of his legacy be found to outweigh the negatives, as all of us would wish to be said about us after we are gone.

The Zimbabwe Review


With Solomon Mujuru's death, what are now the dynamics of ZANU-PF 'factions?'

Mujuru: separating the ZANU-PF factions from the media fictions


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