As Zimbabwe marks 17 years since the death of the late vice president and the country’s respected nationalist leader, Joshua Nkomo, some people say if his selflessness and love for the country were emulated by the current crop of national leaders, ordinary Zimbabweans would not be having the problems they are grappling with at the moment.
Former cabinet minister and veteran politician, Cephas Msipa, is one of the few people alive today, who worked closely with both president Robert Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo for a long period. Msipa, one of the former senior members of the Nkomo-led Zapu from which Zanu PF broke away, says Nkomo was from the start the quintessential nationalist leader respected by all and sundry.
Msipa reveals that in the early 1960s when there was talk of breaking away from Zapu, even Mr. Mugabe - then somewhat an amateur in nationalist politics- acknowledged that Nkomo was the face of what was then known as Southern Rhodesia.
“In 1960 there were people who were saying Nkomo must be replaced and we discussed this with (Mr.) Mugabe. Mugabe was very loyal to Nkomo at that time and he said to me ‘look, if we remove Nkomo, this country will be divided into Matabeleland and Mashonaland.’ He said Nkomo is the only person who can keep Zimbabwe together, Ndebeles and Shonas together. Yes, Nkomo was such a man.”
Msipa says even after the divisions in the nationalist movement ultimately couldn’t be avoided, Nkomo remained willing to work for a unified front, entering into various negotiations with fellow nationalists, while also trying to reason with the colonial regime on the other hand.
The veteran politician says Nkomo was always driven by the love of his country and the ideals of freedom, justice and equality for all. Such qualities made Nkomo put his personal feelings aside and accept to work even with those he distrusted. In the end that also enabled him to agree to work under Mr. Mugabe -his erstwhile junior- to forge the 1987 Unity Accord, following the civil strife in the early years of independence.
“He expressed his disappointment that he was working with people who were not all that honest, you know. He was worried about it; he thought some people were not being honest. He expressed his disappointment on a number of occasions saying ‘you see what these people are doing.’ But still for the good of the country he accepted that he had to work with such people.”
Nkomo at one point went public about what he was facing when he was brutalized by Mr. Mugabe, who accused him of sponsoring dissidents and cashing arms in an attempt to topple him.
As often happens with any major decision taken by an important character in a nation’s history, many people including Nkomo’s colleagues and supporters, questioned his wisdom in having PF Zapu agree to the Unity Accord signed by the two parties in 1987, with some even accusing him of selling the party out.
Dumiso Dabengwa, a former intelligence supremo of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, ZIPRA, the armed wing of Zapu, admitted that he was among those who initially felt that Nkomo was wrong to sign the accord, especially under the conditions set out by Mr. Mugabe and his Zanu PF party.
NATION AT HEART
But Dabengwa says he appreciated that the elder politician had the interests of the nation at heart, something he says is glaringly lacking in the current leadership of the country.
Christopher Ndiweni, a former ZIPRA combatant who is now a member of Zimbabwe People First led by former Vice President Joice Mujuru, agrees adding that Nkomo has to be eulogized forever for helping avert a civil war similar to that which raged for several years in Angola and Mozambique.
“They frustrated all the ZIPRA cadres making sure that they were being sacked from the army. We drew Nkomo’s attention to what was happening and even tried to persuade him to allow us to revert to our arms of war but he said ‘No.’ Some people say Nkomo was a sellout but this is because he didn’t want a situation like the one in Angola or what happened in Mozambique where many people were killed; that is what Nkomo tried to avoid. He truly deserves that status of being celebrated because he was the genuine leader of the liberation of Zimbabwe.”
Retired Brigadier General and former ambassador Agrippa Mutambara, also now a member of Zimbabwe People First, says Nkomo deserves the respect of all Zimbabweans because of his selflessness and humility, which he says President Mugabe should have done better to emulate.
“I fought from the side of Zanu and ZANLA but I have so much respect for Joshua Nkomo; his humility - the man who was so powerful that he was known as Father Zimbabwe. But he was willing to say ‘for the sake of our country, for the sake of prosperity, let me support Mugabe to lead the country.’ That Mugabe cannot do; even at 92 he wants to be president. No, we cannot accept that! We should learn from Joshua Nkomo, the acceptance that Zimbabwe cannot be ruled only by one person.”
COMMUNISM AND INDEPENDENCE
During the liberation war, Zapu established strong links with the former Soviet Union and as a result Nkomo was at various times said to be a communist, who wanted to help spread communism in southern Africa, a label used to try and malign his leadership, since communism was at that time viewed by many as nothing but an unrealistic dogma.
But Nkomo’s son Sibangilizwe said his father was neither a communist in principle nor practice.
“I remember at one time when he was going to Russia to get arms. His answer was: ‘We are getting our arms from whoever would like to help us fight this evil system. If Britain is willing to give us arms, we will accept them.’ At one time again a journalist asked him if after the attainment of independence the country would become communist.
"But his answer was ‘We are going to be ourselves; we want to be ourselves.’ That’s what he said and that’s what he tried to do after independence. I’m sure most people witnessed that when he negotiated for land he said it was supposed to be distributed fairly, and that no one should be chased from the land because of their colour.”
Some people have pointed out that during his time in government, Nkomo failed to use his influence to bring any meaningful development to his rural home area of Kezi, its surroundings and the Matabelaland region in general. Again, Dabengwa defends the late nationalist, saying such charges are misplaced, as Nkomo was a national leader whose outlook remained broad and not local or provincial.
Nkomo may be viewed in many different ways by many people, but there is no doubt that for most Zimbabweans, the late vice president remains the father figure that the nation is sorely missing amid the current hardships.