The Sunday Mail
IN Africa you are only a hero when you die. This is the sad and painful reality. And so last week, when Sadc and Zimbabwe decided to honour Retired Brigadier-General Hashim Mbita, the man who was the Executive Secretary of the Liberation Committee of the then Organisation of African Unity from 1974 to 1994, I was not surprised that this unsung African hero could not be there in person.
In April this year, I travelled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to interview that country’s former President Benjamin Mkapa and Brigadier-General Mbita, and when this man who served liberation movements across Africa tirelessly for 20 years wobbled into the room where we were to conduct the interview, I cursed Africa and got an idea why we are indeed called the Dark Continent.”
One could write a bestseller on “How to Neglect Your True Heroes.” Brigadier-General Mbita’s health had deteriorated so much that I almost failed to recognise him but fortunately, Zimbabwean Ambassador to Tanzania, Ambassador Edzai Chimonyo was there to calm my nerves. Below are excerpts from the interview I had with the Brigadier-General.
Munyaradzi Huni (MH): Thank you, Brigadier-General, for this opportunity to chat with you. How are you?
Brig-Gen Mbita: I am as you can see me. I am fine and thank you for finally thinking of me. Do I actually have a story of interest to anyone out there? Anyway.
MH: Yes, Comrade, you have so much to tell. You were the Executive Secretary of the Liberation Committee of the OAU. Tell us briefly how this committee was formed.
Brig-Gen Mbita: Well, it was around 1963 when Pan-Africanism developed into the formation of the Organisation of African Unity. It was at the OAU level that a decision was made in 1963 in Addis Ababa. Two crucial decisions were made.
One was to form the OAU in 1963. The members agreed to sign the charter that led to the formation of the OAU. At the same meeting, it was observed that there were many African countries that were not yet independent. ‘So what do we do us who are independent to help these other countries?’ That’s when the organisation decided to form the Liberation Committee of the OAU.
MH: What exactly was the role of this committee and what was its structure like?
Brig-Gen Mbita: The role of the committee was to assist liberation movements across Africa to realise their political goals. The assistance was in all forms – political, diplomatic, material, social and so on.
As the Executive Secretary I was reporting to the Council of Ministers. My responsibilities were to organise the fulfilment of the desires of the member states that wanted to assist those countries that were yearning for their independence. So my major task was to raise the necessary political assistance so that the liberation movements could move towards achieving their political will.
MH: How did you relate with the liberation movements?
Brig-Gen Mbita: The liberation movements had their own problems. So they would come to the committee and we would assist in solving their problems. The secretariat had three major branches – there was the administration and finance department, the policy and information department and there was the defence department. Each department handled issues most suited to it. So if any liberation movement wanted military assistance in the form of advice or materials, they would go to the defence department and so on. All these three departments reported to me. I would compile a report and my report would be brought to the full liberation committee twice a year.
MH: How difficult was it dealing with the liberation movements considering their different backgrounds?
Brig-Gen Mbita: It was as easy as it is today in their countries. How difficult is it? All those are not new difficulties. They are just a continuation of what I was experiencing during that time. There is nothing new really.
MH: We understand that Zanla and Zipra comrades sometimes clashed especially at Mgagao training camp. How would you handle such situations?
Brig-Gen Mbita: It was very difficult. It was very difficult and delicate. It wasn’t an easy job. You were dealing with human beings and when human beings differ to the extent of drawing arms against each other, it’s not an easy matter. The general here (Ambassador Chimonyo) will tell you. It’s not an easy matter.
I had the authority from the committee and the OAU to help them, but the job wasn’t easy. I didn’t help them only when they were in love. You help them particularly if there are difficulties.
If there was need to call the commanders I would call the commanders. Sometimes they would not agree to meet each other. So you see how best to do it.
MH: So the situation was quite tense sometimes?
Brig-Gen Mbita: You should know that. You should know that. They gave me lots of headaches. I worked with many commanders from both Zanla and Zipra. I worked with Tongogara in Zanu, I worked with Nikita Mangena in ZAPU. I worked with many of them. I worked with Joshua Nkomo, I worked with Cde Mugabe.
At one time I managed to bring JZ Moyo from ZAPU and my old man Muzenda from Zanu to the talking table, but it was very difficult to put them together. Not that they didn’t want to meet but their internal politics was such that no one wanted to be misunderstood by his comrades. So it wasn’t easy. These young people (recruits) had names for them. They called them names.
MH: What names?
Brig-Gen Mbita: No, I won’t tell you.
MH: Was there any strategic reason for choosing to have the training bases in the Mbeya area?
Brig-Gen Mbita: One of the reasons was that it was closer to their area of confrontation. You see from Southern Rhodesia the nearest point where there was a little acceptable politics, was Zambia. Zambia was the only one that bordered Tanzania. It also bordered Mozambique and it also bordered Angola. So it was easy to bring these young people who were being brought from Rhodesia. These young people who sacrificed their lives for the betterment of the future of their countries. It was easy to bring them across, a shorter distance. There were training camps even in Iringa which was faraway from Mbeya.
MH: The Smith regime was a ruthless regime if we look at what they did at Chimoio and Nyadzonia. As Tanzania, how did you protect the recruits as they were undergoing training?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Tanzania had to structure itself as if it was in a war situation. The security system had to be alert to be able to protect liberation movements.
As you know Tanzania had not fought a war to gain its independence but the experience of hosting liberation movements was enough to give us experience as if we had fought a war. We had to protect our guests. As for mobilising the people of Tanganyika, we told them that our independence was not the end of the struggle. There were other Africans who were still under colonial domination.
MH: Did you at some point visit the war front like in Rhodesia?
Brig-Gen Mbita: (Laughs) When it was necessary yes, I did. I didn’t visit the war front in Zimbabwe but my first visit was to Mozambique. I also went to Guinea Bissau. I wanted to go to Angola but the political situation and the political parties said it was not ideal for me to visit. There was a big fight between MPLA, FNLA and other parties in Angola. It was the leadership that said no, no don’t go there now because we can’t guarantee your safety. So I couldn’t be bolder than these leaders.
MH: How did the internal fights between the liberation movements affect the struggle?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Any negative tendency between people moving in a particular direction slows down the progress. That is what happened but you see even today in independent Africa, there are so many differences between our governments to the extent that we can’t properly marshal African unity.
MH: Tanzania was instrumental in the formation of Zipa which was a joint fighting force between Zanla and Zipra forces. On reflection do you think it was a good idea to form Zipa? What exactly was the idea behind forming Zipa?
Brig-Gen Mbita: The idea was to unite the fighting forces, a situation which earned me a bad name, but I didn’t mind. The political leadership in Zimbabwe said I was interfering with their cadres. I discussed with Nikita. I discussed with Mujuru. You might know the story about the Mgagao Declaration. Part of what happened was interpreted by the political leadership in Zimbabwe, both from the Zanu and ZAPU side that I was removing the leadership of their cadres. They said I was now creating the Mbita High Command. (laughs) That was the extent of my involvement.
MH: Following the disturbances that occurred after the formation of Zipa, do you have any regrets?
Brig-Gen Mbita: I don’t regret at all. No regrets at all. That was the right move to take at that particular time. No regrets at all. There was a time I assembled the leadership of Zimbabwe, Sithole, Joshua, Bishop Muzorewa, Cde Mugabe and others. I took them to Mwalimu’s house. He spoke to them. After that I told the leaders that I was taking them to Mgagao the next day and we agreed. We then went to sleep. We had agreed that I would come to take them from Kilimanjaro Hotel and when I got there around 6am, the first person I met was the Bishop. The Bishop told me that sorry (I was a brigadier at that time), he said I am sorry, some of us had bad dreams about going to Mgagao, so can we change the programme for another day. (laughs)
MH: Did he tell you about the bad dreams?
Brig-Gen Mbita: He just said he had had bad dreams and he didn’t feel like going to Mgagao. He said he didn’t feel safe. So what was I supposed to do?
I could not force him. So we had to postpone the visit and immediately I phoned Mwalimu and said I am sorry, I am not going to Mgagao today because some of my clients had had some bad dreams.
MH: Why did you want to take these leaders to Mgagao?
Brig-Gen Mbita: This is where their people were. That is where the cadres were. I wanted to take them there so that they could address the cadres. The divisions were just too much and I wanted them to show the cadres that despite the differences, they could still live together and fight the war together. I also wanted them to hear the feelings of the cadres, but then people had had bad dreams and we didn’t go.
MH: Tell us, what exactly led to the Mgagao Declaration?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Well, it was partly the difference between political leaders, partly because of mistrust of the cadres on the part of the leadership. So they had to find a way to sort their problems. There were so many problems. I remember there was, eehh, (name of Zanu-PF Politburo member given) what is he doing now? I think he was in Canada then, yes I remember. He was returning from Canada then and twice because of the information I was getting, I offloaded him from a ship which was going to Beira. When I was told that (name given) was going to Beira, I immediately knew that he was going to cause all sorts of problems. I had to stop him.
Brig-Gen Mbita: Because he was not a peaceful person. He was a politician. His political line did not convince me that he was going to make peace there. Very divisive.
MH: What had he done?
Brig-Gen Mbita: I don’t have to tell you that.
MH: But we would be grateful to know?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Well, you will know when I am not there.
MH: But . . .?
Brig-Gen Mbita: You will learn when I am not there.
MH: Ok, I see I won’t win this one. There was a dark moment during the struggle when Cde Chitepo passed away leading to some disturbances. How much do you think Cde Chitepo’s death affected the struggle?
Brig-Gen Mbita: It affected the struggle badly. It affected the struggle very negatively. It devastated the leadership of the Zanu High Command. The Zanu High Command was disrupted. It was really bad. Some divisions continued forever . . . Do you know Hamadziripi and who he was during the struggle? I was in Zimbabwe when he passed away. What happened at his funeral was a reflection of how some of these things had affected the struggle . . . The death of Chitepo was such a dark moment for the struggle. I witnessed such dark moments in Angola, in South Africa, in Mozambique and so on.
MH: But surely there were moments to rejoice. Any happy moments you remember?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Oohh, yes I had many lovely moments. I made lots of friends. Among my best friends in Zimbabwe was Cde Mujuru.
He was at home here anytime he visited Tanzania. Two of my children grew up in his house in Harare.
MH: Some people say eventually Tanzania was more close to Zanu than ZAPU. What is your comment?
Brig-Gen Mbita: No. Tanzania was more close to Zimbabwe. I am being frank here. Like I told you, when there were real problems in ZAPU, my first encounter with Cde Nkomo in Lusaka we discussed and I told him, hey, Cde Nkomo, why don’t you allow me to talk to Cde Nikita so that we could iron out some of the problems. He said to me, hey, you want to take my command? So you see but I was very close to JZ Moyo and George Silundika. We worked together well.
MH: How close were the liberation movements at that time?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Well, it depended on a lot of things, you see. For example, ZAPU had developed very close links with the Soviet Union. MPLA from Angola had built a relationship with the Soviet Union, Zanu had built a relationship with Yugoslavia and later China. So all these are forces that did affect the relationship between movements.
MH: Do you think there is still unity among liberation movements today?
Brig-Gen Mbita: There is a seemingly existing relationship of wanting to fight the economic struggle but now this struggle is completely different. When they were fighting the political struggle there were so many hopefuls from non-African countries. Now this economic struggle is a new challenge altogether. So many vested interests. Africa could win the economic struggle if there was a clear-headed African leadership. The unfortunate bit is that there is no cohesive political and economic leadership in Africa. There isn’t. I don’t know why. I don’t run any party or government. I am just an on-looker.
MH: President Mugabe has called on Africa to honour Dr Nyerere. What is your comment to this call by President Mugabe?
Brig-Gen Mbita: Africa should recognise what that great man did for this continent. His contribution to the struggle for independence in Africa. His political commitment was unparalleled. He sacrificed a lot for Africa, almost single-handedly. It was much later when Kenneth Kaunda came in. I can’t tell Africa what to do. It’s up to the leaders of this continent. Mwalimu did a lot for Africa and Africa should find how best to honour him.
MH: The Liberation Committee was dissolved in 1994 and in one of your speeches in 1994 you said “Mission Accomplished”. What did you mean?
Brig-Gen Mbita: The liberation struggle had been won. The committee was created to assist liberation movements and in 1994, South Africa became independent and South Africa was admitted as a member of the OAU. We had accomplished our mandate.
I hope a free Africa will remember the little I did for this continent. I am a satisfied man because I played my little part.