Father Fidelis Mukonori is without doubt the man-of-the-moment in political circles today, propelled to these lofty heights by the role he played in bringing in a “New Dawn” in Zimbabwe, making him one of the most sought-after media personalities in the past fortnight.
His mediation saw the resigning of Cde Robert Mugabe, after 37 in power.
The discussions that saw Cde Mugabe resigning were characterised by up to 16 hours of sincere exchanges daily between the command element of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and their former Commander-in-Chief.
Born in a Catholic family to Phine Musungavarume Mukonori and Esnath Mugwada on July 15 1947, Father Mukonori is the sixth born in a family of 10. The clergyman was born in Chiweshe and later his parents relocated to Chiota were his father had acquired a farm.
Today he adds farming to his wide portfolio of interests and it can safely be argued that it was at his father’s farm where he fell in love with farming.
In 1973 Father Mukonori took his oaths in Gambia as a brother in the Catholic Church and furthered his studies to become a Catholic Priest in 1999.
The cleric is the headmaster at Chishawasha Mission Primary Boarding School, with about 700 pupils. He is also the Chishawasha Parish priest. Ironically, he also attended Chishawasha Mission for his education. It is this same place that Mbuya Bona Mugabe (mother to Cde Mugabe) was born, which explains how the respected Catholic cleric ended up befriending the former president.
At 70, the “negotiator” is a mixed bag of qualifications. He holds a Master’s degree in Theology, Diploma in Social Development, Diploma in Philosophy, an Advanced Certificate in Conflict Resolution and has acquired several qualifications in development, philosophy and mediation. Added to this, the clergyman has experience in mass communication while he is also an experienced farmer and an election observer.
His baby steps into politics came in 1974 when he became a member of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, a commission that dealt with war coverage bulletins, which saw him touring several countries in the pre-independence era. During these tours, they would produce books, reviewing the state of war, political prisoners and their welfare.
These exercises to review political prisoners’ welfare was as a result of the death of Shumba Chirumanzu, through the Rhodesian government’s negligence.
And it is through these writings, that Robert Mugabe got connected to the name Fidelis Mukonori, who was still Brother Fidelis Mukonori.
“I was surprised at how much he knew about me just from reading my writings. We had never met but he knew so much about me yet I knew nothing about him,” said Father Mukonori.
In 1975, he began a 26-year journey at Silveria House in Mabvuku, where he worked as a youth co-odinator, youth director, leadership and civics trainer and internal auditor. He left in 2001 for Chishawasha.
It was at Silveria House where nationalists would meet and freely discuss political issues without interference and he was always part of these meetings. This is where he met the former President’s late sisters Sabina and Bridget, where over time, they became friends. From this friendship, a relationship with Mbuya Bona Mugabe, the mother of the former President, was born.
Mbuya Bona loved Brother Fidelis and welcomed him into the family like her own son. It is from this relationship that he was nicknamed “murume waVaBona” (Bona’s husband).
“I have always respected and honoured every minute I had with her. She was more than a mother to me. She was never out of time for me, we would talk of very serious matters, either family issues or not. I remember how passionate she was about Robert and how she spoke of Robert’s zeal to fight for the nation despite having been ill-treated by the Smith regime.”
It was through Mbuya Bona that Father Mukonori began to know more about Robert Mugabe.
“The first time I came face-to-face with Mugabe was in 1978 when I was invited by the late Simon Muzenda to the airport to welcome him from Nigeria. There he alighted from Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidential jet, together with the late Josiah Magama Tongogara. He was a simple and soft spoken tall dark man.
“Although it was our first time to meet, we instantly cemented our relationship,” Father Mukonori recalled.
Over the years, their relationship has grown, especially through regular non-political visits.
Even when the rumour mill claimed Father Mukonori to be a strong critic of Mugabe, their relationship stood the test of time.
“Despite the view by many, especially from the West, that Mugabe is a person who does not smile or laugh, when he is with me he smiles and laughs a lot. Even on his resignation day, I still could see the same spiritual and soft Robert who never loses temper, he resigned a happy man. Even after he was released from prison, one could not see any traces of anger or grudge in him,” added the cleric.
The closeness of the relationship between Father Mukonori and Robert Mugabe spurned media speculation at one time, that the cleric had suggested to the former President, because of their proximity, to step aside.
“It has never been my position to say that because he had his political advisers and I am not a politician,” he calmly said.
According to Father Mukonori, the former president is always in possession of the rosary that his mother gave him when he went to war, a symbol of spirituality, which he carries even today. The rosary was a weapon that would protect him during the liberation struggle.
“. . . my son, there is nothing more I can give you except that I will pray for you. Here is this rosary for I have no other weapon that I can give to you,” those are the words which Mbuya Bona said to her son.
Being a Catholic priest, one would think his job requires him to only focus on saving souls. However, those who have been following political developments in the country will easily recall his mediation roles in a number of the country’s crises, a role which he took up during the country’s liberation struggle. Though he is not a politician, Father Mukonori has played critical political roles. His mediation skills played a part during the 1979 Lancaster House Conference, talks which dragged for 17 weeks, finally yielding signatures on the evening of December 17 1979. On December 23, a cease fire was announced.
In the same year, the priest visited Washington DC for yet more political settlements.
“I had to advise Washington that they had to play the second saddle not the first one because they were not the colonisers. This was an issue between the British and Zimbabweans and not between the Americans and Zimbabweans so they needed to be reminded of their position,” he recalled.
He was also at the centre of the land reform negotiations in 2000 when he left his home to go and live with the Svosve people in Hwedza. The Svosve people took the first step to occupy a white-owned farm in Zimbabwe. He went on to become the mediator between the white farmers and the Government.
“I was asked by the white farmers to mediate and with the war veterans’ support, I chaired their meetings for eight months,” said the priest.
During that same year, Father Mukonori was requested by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to use his expertise. For nine months, he chaired meetings between Zanu-PF and MDC, which were done privately, until such a time these meetings became public information. In 2013, Father Mukonori was part of the team that drafted the current Constitution.
Its not an exaggeration that Father Mukonori has now become “Zimbabwe’s Mr Fix It!”
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