From Mujuru, Kuwaza to Munatsi…
DEATH is never easy and, whenever it strikes, the grief it causes is traumatic for family and friends who would have lost a loved one.
JONATHAN MBIRIYAMVEKA/ ENOCK MUCHINJO
This encounter with mortality always leaves the surviving family in a sombre state and asking in vain — but why? It does not matter who you are — ordinary folk or the rich and famous — your passing will be the cause of great personal anguish for those closest to you. Worse, if the death is mysterious and raises suspicion of foul play.
For famous people, such demises dominate discussions in the public domain and make for sensational newspaper headlines. This is precisely why Michael Jackson’s death necessitated an inquest, and so did the deaths of Prince and Marvin Gaye.
And in Zimbabwe, there have been quite a few high-profile people whose deaths are shrouded in mystery to this day. Years later, in each of these mysterious cases, no one knows exactly what really happened as the state has failed to probe or provide satisfactory answers for the unsolved deaths.
The death of retired General Solomon Mujuru, Charles Kuwaza, retired Air-Marshall Perrance Shiri, and, more recently, banker Douglas Munatsi, still linger in the mind.
You could also add the case of Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman who was found dead in 2007 two days after his abduction near his home in Harare.
Then there is the mysterious disappearance of journalist-cum-activist Itai Dzamara, who has not been found six years after his abduction at a barbershop in Harare’s high-density suburb of Glen View.
Onlookers watched helplessly, in broad daylight, as Dzamara was bundled into an unmarked truck and taken away — crying out for help — to meet an unknown fate. While Dzamara is still under the missing category, the most prominent figure in the country to have died in these questionable circumstances is Mujuru, a decorated veteran of the armed liberation struggle who in post-Independence Zimbabwe was widely believed to wield massive influence as a kingmaker.
Mujuru died in April 2011 in a house fire that raged out of control for hours into the wee hours. The frighteningly huge flames razed down Mujuru’s farmhouse in Beatrice, 54 kilometres south-west of Harare, and gutted the 66-year-old former military commander.
Husband of the then Vice-President Joice Mujuru, the late ex-soldier — according to relatives, friends and political allies — was murdered by rivals at the height of Zanu PF’s intra-elite political tensions. General Mujuru, who liked operating in the shadows as a kingmaker, was the power behind what was known as the Mujuru faction which at the time of his death was in the ascendancy in Zanu PF’s succession race.
At the time, the faction was battling the Mnangagwa faction, which eventually triumphed. Vice-President Joice Mujuru could only watch as her faction was run out of town, leading to her expulsion from Zanu PF alongside her stalwarts like Rugare Gumbo, Didymus Mutasa and Webster Shamu, at the behest of the Mnangagwa faction, which had found a useful ally in former First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Many believed if Mujuru was alive, nothing of the sort would have happened. Threadbare police claims, and other similar accounts, say Mujuru died in a fire accident, possibly caused by a candle or an electrical fault. According to relatives and friends, these claims simply do not hold water, based on several contrasting versions of witnesses, who include farm workers.
For example, Mujuru’s bedroom, in which his remains were found, had several escape routes so it was questioned how a said military genius like him — who was still of sound mind and body even at the ripe age of 66 — could be trapped in the building without using his military instincts to escape.
For a man of Mujuru’s easy-going and carefree nature, one would imagine that his type of lifestyle perhaps posed the greatest danger to his safety, not an inferno that grew long after he had a chance to escape.
Often, when an international cricket team toured to play Zimbabwe, Mujuru was seen parking his rugged all-terrain vehicle in the Harare Sports Club parking lot. Alone and warmly greeting back strangers, he would stride across to the VIP enclosure of the stadium, a jacket-and-tie section where important guests watch the game from.
The smartly-clad guests of the late Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) chairperson Peter Chingoka — a close friend of Mujuru — would be treated to the opulence of expensive whiskey and wine for hours during the match. Only that the ex-commander would be dressed in his casualwear, chuckling heartily into his drink, as other guests stole gazes of amazement.
Mujuru’s death in the fire was certainly the biggest mystery of its kind and perhaps Zimbabwe’s first experience with a high-profile death of extremely suspicious nature. A decade on, the mystery of Mujuru’s death has only deepened. No arrests, no justice. Mujuru is not the only ex-service chief to have died without question marks being raised.
Shiri, the long-serving Air Force commander, died suddenly in Harare last year, initially reportedly due to Covid-19, which had claimed the life of his driver a few days before his own passing. Shiri, who was 65 and now Zimbabwe’s minister of Agriculture in the post-coup administration that toppled the late former President Robert Mugabe, was one of the top figures implicated in the Gukurahundi atrocities of the early 1980s, where at least 30 000 civilians in Matabeleland provinces and the Midlands were killed.
Shiri’s death in August 2020, close sources said, could have stemmed from food poisoning, although the official cause of death was pronounced as Covid-19. The suspicions were fuelled further when Mnangagwa visited the family brandishing post mortem results which confirmed he had died of Covid-19.
Government officials told The NewsHawks that the post mortem was unprocedurally done, as it was not taken to Parirenyatwa where pathologists were waiting for it after receiving all the paperwork. The body, which was at a military facility, never came, but all the same the post mortem was performed at the facility.
Early this week, Zimbabwe woke up to the news of the death of top banker Douglas Munatsi in a mysterious blaze at his home after great balls of fire ravaged his luxurious 9th floor penthouse in the Avenues area of Harare during the early hours of Monday.
The suave business executive, who at the time of his death was CEO of the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (Zida) — appointed to the position by President Emmerson Mnangagwa — was found without some fingernails with his lifeless body in a sitting position inside his comfy pad.
The removal of fingernails could imply that the affable 59-year-old might have been tortured severely before the apartment was set alight. Police say they are investigating the circumstances and causes of death, including a hunt for a woman only identified as Colleta, who is believed to have been the last person to see Munatsi alive after she visited him at his apartment and left some four hours before the fire.
It could be too early to make firm conclusions, suffice it to say that the Munatsi tragedy — like others before — has deep suspicion of foul play written all over it. For now, Munatsi’s shock death is similar in some ways to that of another top bureaucrat, Charles Kuwaza. In the case of Munatsi, the question right now is: did he die of an accidental fire, or met his fate through first-degree murder?
Four years ago, the country was left with similar questions over Kuwaza: did the former chairperson of the influential State Procurement Board (SPB) jump to his death from the 9th floor of a building in apparent suicide, or was he pushed in a premeditated killing? His family members insist it was murder most foul.
After all, his family members insist until today that he was afraid of heights.
“Suppose he had thoughts of killing himself, jumping from the 9th floor would have been the very last option,” a relative said this week.
Kuwaza, who had also previously served as a deputy chairperson of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), was known for his deep infectious laughter, as well as being an accomplished chess player, respected for his great work in the advancement of his beloved sport in his position of Zimbabwe Chess Federation (ZCF) president.
Outside the jovial, genial and pleasant personality that endeared him to people across generations in sporting and social circles, things were not quite the same in the government departments and businesses that Kuwaza spent most of his productive time in.
When he plunged to his death from his Club Chambers offices in Harare in April 2017 mid-morning on a public holiday, the 63-year-old Kuwaza was said to be collecting documents to support his court case in one of five counts of corruption he was facing.
He actually left his car engine running, as he had no intention of staying long in the office. But someone was waiting in the shadows to checkmate the chess guru. As expected, family and friends said they feared foul play might have been involved in Kuwaza’s great leap and subsequent death.
Four years on, nobody has been held accountable for Kuwaza’s death and the enduring trauma suffered by his adoring relatives and companions. With the Kuwaza case seemingly disappearing into irrelevance as the years go by, we now have this Munatsi puzzle in front us. Only time will tell — so the old adage goes.
But most people in this country will not be holding their breath, because from experience in Zimbabwe, time has not solved countless other mysterious deaths.