The mysterious death of Solomon Mujuru and fears for the future of Zimbabwe

By Peta Thornycroft and Aislinn Laing in Johannesburg

6:00PM BST 27 Aug 2011

Solomon Mujuru

Solomon Mujuru Photo: AP
He was one of Zimbabwe‘s   most revered independence warriors, a multi-starred general who guided   Robert Mugabe to power 31 years ago. He was also one of the few men bold   enough to challenge him.

And so when Solomon Mujuru, a senior MP in Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, died in   a fire at his rural farm near Harare earlier this month, few people were   surprised.

Just as a car crash killed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife Susan two   years ago, it has never been unusual for politicians and their loved ones to   fall victim to unfortunate accidents in Zimbabwe.

The police account of the fire that killed Mr Mujuru on August 15 states the   blaze was started by a candle, lit by household staff following a power cut.

But ever since, rumours about the circumstances in which he was found have   circulated, with many struggling to believe that an experienced bush   combatant in the liberation war chould have been vanquished by a domestic   mishap. Instead, the fear is that his death may mark the start of a violent   power struggle within Zanu PF, as talk of Mr Mugabe’s failing health focuses   minds on his succession.

Mr Mujuru, 62, who was the first commander of the Zimbabwean army following   independence in 1980, was a stalwart of Zanu-PF.

His wife, Joyce, currently services as the party’s vice-president and is   considered a favourite to take over the party one day, albeit with her   husband as the power behind the throne.

However, the faction that the couple led within the movement was considered   moderate – especially when it came to doing business with Mr Tsvangirai’s   Movement for Democratic Change party, with which Zanu PF currently shares   power.

As such, Mr Mujuru posed a direct threat to Zanu PF’s hardline wing, who see   Mr Tsvangirai and his followers as Western stooges bent on bringing British   colonial rule.

Last week, as speculation about foul play intensified, Mrs Mujuru added her   voice to the growing chorus of doubt, saying publicly for the first that   there were questions that needed to be answered.

Why, his widow asked, did nobody alert her husband when the house was guarded   by both police and private security staff, and flanked by a village of   farmworkers’ homes? And why did he not simply clamber out of the window in   their ground-floor bedroom, used frequently by their grandchildren to come   and go?

“For a military man, it’s so weird that he could have failed to escape   the fire,” she remarked during an official visit to the Zimbabwean   women’s football team, which was filmed by the state broadcaster.

What is known is that earlier that evening, Mr Mujuru, a lover of Johnnie   Walker Black Label whisky, had enjoyed a few tots with friends in a nearby   hotel. But he broke his usual habit of overindulging because he was due to   be up early.

His farm is said to be on a special electricity grid reserved for VIPs which   ensures they are never affected by the power cuts that blight ordinary   Zimbabweans’ lives.

But on the night in question, the power had been shut off. When Mr Mujuru went   inside, reports claim, he left groceries he had bought and his mobile phone   in his car.

Wilfred Mhanda, a fellow liberation army commander, believes he was attacked   the moment he entered the house.

“There must have been some people waiting for him inside the house,”   he said. “The fire was just to mask the evidence.”

It was not until 3am that the emergency services were called, and when a fire   engine arrived an hour later, it had no water to douse the flames.

By that time, a pile of ash and bones was all that remained of the General’s   massive frame.

The farm’s white former owner, Guy Watson-Smith, who was forced to leave by Mr   Mujuru’s men during Zimbabwe’s violent land seizure programme a decade ago,   remarked: “Our house was a single storey building, roofed entirely with   asbestos sheeting, and with walls of brick and cement. All that could have   burned was roofing timbers and ceilings, and to imagine the fire spreading   quickly without help is hard to do.”

One explanation for how the fire spread is contained in a highly-classified,   preliminary intelligence document which Zimbabwean newspapers claim to have   seen, in which Zanu-PF sources suggest the general was murdered and his body   then doused with gasoline. Pathologists consulted by The Sunday Telegraph   say that his body is unlikely to have been reduced to ashes without the help   of an accelerant.

Diehard supporters of Mr Mugabe felt that Mr Mujuru wanted to steer Zanu-PF on   a more moderate course, away from the uncompromising stance of the current   leader.

But with the 89-year-old dictator looking increasingly frail in recent months   – he is said to be receiving treatment for cancer – many believe that the   behind-the-scenes power struggle for the succession is already underway.

The main contenders were Mrs Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current   defence minister, who ran Zimbabwe’s ruthless central intelligence   organisation when it was accused of the massacre of some 20,000 political   opponents of Mugabe in the 1980s.

Tendai Biti, the MDC’s Finance Minister in the coalition government formed   with Zanu-PF in 2009, was among the first to implicate Zanu-PF, saying they   had taken to “roasting” their opponents.

Mr Biti later withdrew his comments, and many politicians do concede that   there may be suspects outside of their world. Mr Mujuru had previously   quarrelled with a neighbouring farmer about wages for workers, while his   business dealings in Zimbabwe’s controversial diamond mines could also have   made him a target.

But privately, some politicians believe the responsibility for Mujuru’s demise   could lie directly at the door of the president himself.

“Mujuru was the last remaining person within Zanu-PF who was able to   speak out against Mugabe during politburo meetings,” one told The   Sunday Telegraph.

“His death, whether an accident or an assassination ordered from the very   top, benefits Mugabe more than any other individual.”

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