ZANLA forces defy Zambian authorities over Unity Accord

Part 5 in our 6-part series of excerpts from the autobiography of one of Zimbabwe's real heroes of the liberation struggle, The making of a freedom fighter by Wilfred Mhanda.

Mboroma, 1975

Once the Zambian authorities were satisfied that they had identified all the senior military cadres among the fighters under their watch at Mboroma, they embarked on the second phase of their operation. They informed the OAU Liberation Committee that they had started a programme to unify the liberation forces under the umbrella of the UANC, in accordance with the provisions of the unity accord.

To this end, they brought in a company of 100 ZIPRA fighters under the command of Lookout Masuku and Elliot Masengo, and a platoon of 30 FROLIZI fighters under the command of Grey Mutemasango in order to create the impression of a new united army. I concluded, however, that these ZIPRA and FROLIZI fighters, who were comparatively small in number, had been introduced to Mboroma to take over the command of the ZANLA fighters who had been left leaderless.

Lt Col Sibamba, a Zambian army officer, was charged with over¬seeing the supposed integration. His first decree was to ban all party slogans and all political lessons. We vehemently objected to the latter, arguing that political education was not partisan but intended to keep the fighters focused on the liberation of their country. In the end, we had our way. They knew that the strength of the ZANLA forces was based on their political consciousness and they were determined to break it, but they fell short on rationale.

We were prepared to aban¬don the use of slogans to diminish tension, but when the ZIPRA and FROLIZI fighters tried to introduce UANC slogans we resisted, which led to them accusing us of being anti-unity. On this they were support-ed by the Zambians. Our argument was that it was only the leadership who, as signatories to the Lusaka Accord, fell under the banner of the UANC. We, for our part, were still awaiting their directives as to the form that this would take and could not accept explanations from other party leaders. Similarly, we offered spirited resistance to any attempts at forcible integration with the ZIPRA and FROLIZI forces.

Poisoning

There was a poisoning incident around mid-May. Webster Gwauya and I had taken a sunset walk and on our return we were met by wail¬ing women and children writhing in agony, vomiting and rolling on the ground. It was supper-time and, as usual, the women were served first, though some male fighters were also affected. Then there were shouts of ‘Poison! Poison!’ We rushed to the kitchen and were told that the havoc had begun after they had started serving. I immediately ordered everyone to stop eating and throw their food away. Unfortunately, about 60 per cent of our contingent had already finished their supper and were suffering the effects. All we could do was to order that they be given some milk.

Fortunately, Webster and I were always the last to eat and our food was prepared separately on a small fire for security reasons. The Zambian authorities did not, however, give up. Together with the ZIPRA and FROLIZI fighters, they embarked on a scheme to convert us, enticing us to defect with offers of money and what we con¬sidered luxury items such as soap and toothpaste.

Of our total strength of 1,300, about 500 were combatants or trained fighters, 200 were recruits, with the rest being refugees, among them spirit mediums and chiefs from our operational area in the north-east of Rhodesia. In total, the overwhelming majority remained steadfast; only 100 or so recruits and a dozen or so refugees crossed over.

Thwarted once more, ZIPRA tried to cow us into submission using intimidation and coercion – there were daily provocations, and fre¬quent fights for a period of about two weeks. Every able-bodied male combatant had to carry a knobkerrie at all times for self-defence. We managed to contain the worst of the skirmishes between ZANLA and ZIPRA with the help of Lookout Masuku, who was the only level-headed person among the ZIPRAs.

Stubborn ZANLA

A company of Zambian soldiers based at Mboroma kept watch over the ZANLA combatants. One June day, Lt Col Sibamba arrived from Kabwe, determined to deal with the stubborn ZANLA forces. At around 3 p.m. he established a cordon of heavily armed Zambian soldiers and ordered a parade of everyone in the camp. Standing at the centre of the open ground, the Zambian commander had ZANLA combatants on one side, ZIPRA and FROLIZI fighters on the other.

He told us that he had orders from Lt General Chinkuli, command¬er of the Zambian Army, to effect an integration of all the fighters in terms of the Lusaka Unity Accord, and he ordered all the ZANLA combatants and refugees to cross over to the ZIPRA and FROLIZI side within five minutes.

This move, Lt Col Sibamba said, would put an end to the divisions at the camp once and for all. Several of our senior colleagues including Richard Hove and Elliot Kaseke were fearful and decided to run away. Webster Gwauya, Peter Baya and I moved towards Lt Col Sibamba, but I ordered our combatants to remain where they were. I told the Zambian officer that the three of us had moved forward as represent¬atives of the leadership who had signed the accord.

The rest of the combatants were not, as yet, members of the ANC, which was a politi¬cal arrangement at leadership level, as the mechanics and modalities for unity had not been outlined. The atmosphere was highly charged, with the Zambian colonel shouting over our heads, exhorting the ZANLA contingent to move as directed or face the consequences.

At that point, concerned that some of our group could yield to the intimidation, I ordered all our combatants and refugees to break through the cordon and head for the forest. They did as I directed: combatants, women, children and the elderly alike broke through and ran for the forest. It was a huge gamble, as the Zambian soldiers seemed determined to enforce their orders and could have opened fire. The colonel, however, did not give this order, probably fearing a massacre.

We regrouped about three kilometres from Mboroma camp. It was growing dark and I addressed everyone and thanked them for their brave action, their resolute, principled stand and exhorted them to remain steadfast. We decided to remain where we were overnight and decide on our next move in daylight. However, in light of the conduct of some of our officers during the stand-off, I had already decided to make some changes to the command structure, which I announced immediately.

David Todhlana became the new overall commander with responsibility for administration and would report directly to me. Denford Munetsi and Marima were now going to work under his command. Although I had been under cover, these latest events had prompted me to assume leadership owing to the gravity of the situation.

In my view, the Zambian officers were at a loss. They were probably worried about the fate of women and children sleeping in the bush. They had assumed that a stern show of force combined with threats would cow our combatants into submission, particularly the refugee component of our group. They assumed the diehards would be isolated and therefore easier to deal with.

It was a serious miscalculation that they later regretted. That same evening, they headed into the forest to look for us, as they had to account for us to their superiors. Upon locating us a distraught Zambian captain tried to persuade us to return to the camp for the sake of the women and children. We refused. In the end they brought us blankets and promised to bring food rations in the morning.

The following day the Zambian captain returned to our makeshift camp to persuade us to return to Mboroma. Again we refused to do so. We accused the Zambian army of coercing us to surrender to the ZIPRA and FROLIZI forces. Under these circumstances, returning to the camp was out of question.

We made arrangements with the Zam¬bian army for food supplies to be brought in and for the collection of our personal items, which we had left behind. We remained at this makeshift site, living in the open, for about a week whilst we scouted for a more suitable location. We finally chose a site strategically situated on high ground about 15 kilometres from Mboroma. There was a stream nearby that provided a source of fresh water.

New site

We moved to the new site whilst construction of shelter structures was still in progress. We built dormitories, a kitchen, bathrooms and toilets from poles and grass thatch. At last, we had our own camp, one that wasn’t controlled by the Zambian army. This represented the first major defeat for the Zambian authorities in their bid to incorporate the ZANLA combatants into ZIPRA.

From here on the situation improved dramatically. I quickly realised that it was important to keep both combatants and refugees occupied. To this end I developed a weekday morning political education pro¬gramme and a programme of cultural activities for the afternoons and weekends. We also instituted jogging sessions and exercise in the mornings to keep the fighters fit.

Hunger strike

Towards the end of June, we heard that the nationalist leaders, includ¬ing Ndabaningi Sithole, would be meeting in Dar es Salaam to discuss the Zimbabwean ‘problem’. I thought this presented a golden opportu¬nity for an initiative. Quickly devising a plan, I discussed it with Web¬ster Gwauya, Peter Baya and David Todhlana, who endorsed it without hesitation. It entailed staging a mass hunger strike to demand access to our president.

We were mindful that we had a large number of children and suckling mothers who could not withstand a hunger strike for an extended period, and we wanted an action that would work. We decid¬ed that the hunger strike would only apply during the day and that a small meal could be eaten in the evenings. We still received our rations on a daily basis, which meant that we had to accumulate stocks to cover the days of the strike action, and reckoned we needed a week to do this.

The day before the strike was to start, I addressed the fighters and explained the reasons for our action and asked for their co-opera¬tion. Todhlana was despatched to inform the Zambian army captain of the hunger strike and to tell him not to arrange us any food. We also requested that he relay our demands to Lt General Chinkuli, the commander of the Zambian army, advising the captain that one of our senior officers, Webster Gwauya, was already in Lusaka waiting to break the news of the strike to the BBC if the Zambian authorities did not accede to our demands, namely, that our president be brought to Mboroma within the first three days of the strike.

At first, the Zambian army thought we were bluffing and brought food supplies over to our camp. When they saw the food being dis¬carded, they realised that we weren’t.

Ndabaningi Sithole arrived early in the morning of the third day, accompanied by Lt General Kingsley Chinkuli and other national¬ist leaders, including Joshua Nkomo, James Chikerema, and Bishop Abel Muzorewa. On seeing Sithole stepping out of the helicopter, I called the fighters to assemble on the parade ground. The Zambian army officers were shocked to see Webster Gwauya welcoming Sithole, as he was supposed to be in Lusaka. Calling the assembly to atten¬tion, I saluted President Sithole and gave a report of the number of combatants and refugees. We then asked him to speak. His first words were ‘My children, the hunger strike is over’, with which everyone was in raptures and shed tears of joy.

I had never witnessed anything like it. Long bottled-up emotions of anger and frustration were justifiably given release. The fighters broke into Chimurenga songs in praise of their leader. It was a moment of joy and relief after what we had experi¬enced at the hands of the Zambians. I introduced myself to Sithole as a member of the ZANLA High Command, at which point the Zambian authorities, General Chinkuli included, realised that I had evaded their net and survived to orchestrate resistance against them.

Once the emotion had subsided, Sithole addressed us. He underlined his commitment to our welfare and to the armed struggle, something the combatants longed to hear in the presence of senior Zambian gov¬ernment officials. He promised that he and his fellow nationalist leaders would be back within a month to work out the modalities of resuming the liberation struggle.

None of the other leaders present said anything, not even the Zambian General. Regrettably, we never got an opportu¬nity to have a private confidential word with President Sithole. This day was a turning point and the beginning of the end of détente, no matter the obstacles that still lay ahead – Sithole included. We felt that we were on the way to resuming the armed struggle; the only reason we had left our homes and to which we had committed our lives.

Our victory also represented a humiliation for the Zambian government, given their huge investment in détente. The small cumulative victories that we had scored against the Zambian authorities had facilitated a breakthrough. We had been vulnerable and at their mercy, but armed with nothing more than our commitment to the liberation struggle, our party and its detained leadership, we had achieved victory.

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