Dabengwa: Struggle stalwart, war strategist, epitome of unity 

Source: Dabengwa: Struggle stalwart, war strategist, epitome of unity | The Herald May 24, 2019

Dabengwa: Struggle stalwart, war strategist, epitome of unity
Dumiso Dabengwa

Sifelani Tsiko Environment, Agric & Innovations Editor
The death of liberation struggle stalwart Dumiso Dabengwa after battling with a liver disease has robbed the country of a distinguished military strategist and leader who shaped and influenced the 16-year protracted armed struggle to free Zimbabwe.

His death at 79, is a sad loss to a cadre who was one of the major drivers of the ZANU and ZAPU Unity Accord of 1987.

His distinguished military and political career both before and after independence played a significant role in the transformation of the country’s social, economic and political landscape.

Dabengwa in many ways, is part of the DNA of the liberation struggle of Zimbabwe which between 1964 and 1980 took the form of guerrilla warfare which led to the independence of the country in 1980.

In February 1964 ZAPU decided to send out part of its national executive, consisting of James Chikerema, George Bodzo Nyandoro, the national secretary, Jason Ziyapapa Moyo, the national treasurer, George Silundika, the national secretary for publicity, and Edward Ndlovu, the deputy national secretary to Zambia to organise the struggle, it was a major turning point in the struggle against white settler colonialism.

This leadership met a number of youths who had escaped to Zambia to join the armed struggle.

Among the first cadres to be sent to the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic in 1964 were Dumiso Dabengwa, Akim Ndlovu, Ethan Dube, Edward Bhebhe, Gideon Ngoshi, Joseph Nyandoro, Ambrose Mutinhiri, Jabulani Ncube and Robson Dayford Manyika.

Other freedom fighters were sent to Bulgaria, and a small number to China and North Korea.

In November 1964, Algeria also took a group of 120 recruits which included veteran war hero Alfred Nikita Mangena who later became one of the most distinguished ZAPU military commanders.

Zapu despatched many recruits to different socialist countries for specialist training, including trade unionism.

After 1977, following the death of Zapu vice president, Jason Ziyapapa Moyo, who headed the War Council, the late veteran nationalist Joshua Nkomo together with Akim Ndlovu, Dabengwa, Samuel Munodawafa and Zipra Commander Alfred Nikita Mangena and his deputy Lookout Masuku recalibrated the Zipra war machine outlining the ideology and strategies of the liberation movements in its fight against the Rhodesian regime.

Dabengwa was part of this war council that drew up a whole new strategy which was described by renowned historian Prof Ngwabi Bhebhe as “both ambitious and radical compared to anything thought of previously.”

“Its principal aim was to create semi-liberated areas in northern Zimbabwe which would constitute the new headquarters of the ZAPU liberation struggle. This required the concentration of all the ZAPU military forces and energies in the area,” wrote Prof Bhebhe in his book titled: “The ZAPU and ZANU Guerrilla Warfare and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe.”

Dabengwa was an indisputable military strategist and war commander which saw him being called the “Black Russian,” a name which instilled great fear in the Rhodesian army ranks.

In the post independence era, he played a big role, first in the bringing of unity between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU and later in rolling out various activities by Government that sought to enhance the country’s development.

He was a key figure in all efforts that were made to end the 1980s disturbances that led to the unnecessary loss of lives and division of the country along ethnic lines.

The Matabeleland-Midlands disturbances of the early 80s were a tremendous loss for Zimbabwe. There is no actor who was involved who was left untouched.

It was the heaviest burden ever experienced by the country and it led to deep-seated perceptions of exclusion, mistrust, and apathy.

In the national fabric, the conflict brought about division and ethnic antagonism. It left Zimbabwe scarred.

It is the silent talks that were spearheaded by Father Zimbabwe Joshua Nkomo, Dabengwa and their compatriots within the ZAPU camp as well as their former foes in ZANU-PF led by Robert Mugabe that led to Unity talks.

Dabengwa played a key role in reaching out to the masses to understand the peace process that the two liberation movements later forged in 1987.

The Herald, here shares veteran nationalist Dabengwa’s sentiments regarding the Unity Accord:

“During the Patriotic Front, the two organisations (Zapu and Zanu) were very close and they worked together. Once there was the split, when Zapu was thrown out of Government, problems arose and the ruling party felt that the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace should continue to support them rather than criticise them on the victimisation which was carried out on Zapu members.

“My own detention came about as a result of misunderstandings between the two organisations and the manipulations of former security who remained in the country in the name of CIO, who mislead Government completely into thinking that Zapu was going to carry out a coup to overthrow the elected Government of the day.

“I am supposed, together with the late Lookout Masuku to have initiated this coup plot. Government decided to pounce on us and it was a result of misinformation given to them by the same secret agents that we were fighting against,” he was quoted saying in 1994.

“My belief is that the South African forces were involved in the whole plot. It was a destabilisation plot. They were involved from the very onset, they planned it. All Rhodesians had to do was to implement . . . If the South Africans would have not (been involved), I don’t think that it (the dissident problem) would have ever happened. In the first place, all the things that took place: the expulsion of Zapu Cabinet ministers in Government would have not happened; neither the arrest of military leaders; or the finding of weapons to the extent it was done . . . As I said, Calloway was responsible for the caching of weapons. Weapons were cached from only one point, from the Gwayi Assembly Point.

“It was done in such a way that the security forces (Calloway was in the security forces) were not intercepted. They were able to move all the way from Gwayi, past Bulawayo. Vehicles were never seen by the security forces. They went up to the farms and cashed the weapons not intercepted at all.

“The Rhodesian forces were supposed to be very, very efficient in enforcing security, but they obviously had decided to look the other way. So the whole thing would not have happened. The caching of weapons was not an instruction from Zapu, it was not an instruction from the Zipra military command. It was an instigation by Calloway on the commander.”

But despite all this, Dabengwa overcame it and played a vital role in the country’s unification process.

“The Matabeleland conflict was a mistake because of the misinformation that came to Government. It was all mostly due to deliberate misinformation by the former Rhodesian security to bring about strife in the country,” Dabengwa was quoted saying in the CCJP and Legal Resources Foundation reports in 1992.

“There were certain elements within the Cabinet that remained who, I want to suspect, I have no proof of that, but who I suspect, for one reason or another decided to go along with the misinformation and decided to act in the manner they did.

“They decided to use it and some of them, to use it for their own personal benefits. To maintain their positions in Government. If the South Africans would have (been involved), I don’t think that it would have ever happened. In the first place, all the things that took place: the expulsion of Zapu Cabinet ministers in government would have not happened; the arrests of the military leaders would have not happened; and the cashing of weapons, to the extent that they were done, would have not happened.”

Unity was not a compromise between the two parties Zanu (PF) and PF-Zapu neither the defeat or victory of one party over the other.

Most of the political actors at the time felt it was an “organic merger” of two parties and an agreement of the two major Shona and Ndebele tribes to forget past differences.

It was, admittedly as Mugabe put it: “Lack of unity which had given rise to the dissident problem.”

Veteran nationalist Nkomo put it aptly: “Comrades, we in Zapu have always said, and I continue on this signing day and this sealing of the fact, that the unity we have attached our names to, Cde Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, means the real unity of our people. There is no going back. The continuance of this unity is essential for the future of our country. We do not want to leave behind us the legacy of division of the people of Zimbabwe. We want to lay the beginning of the foundation of one people, one nation.”

All what Dabengwa and Nkomo said, is a museum rich with historic, cultural, and educational treasure that we must cherish, preserve and strengthen.

It’s up to us as Zimbabweans to ensure that the courage and patriotism demonstrated by Dabengwa and all other national heroes of the past are remembered and retold to inspire the young people of today and those of tomorrow.

Dabengwa’s life teaches people of Zimbabwe unity, forgiveness and patriotism. When we soak our heads in history and glimpse the future we must not forget his heroic deeds.

In his late life Dabengwa took advantage of the existing democratic space in Zimbabwe and tried to form his own political party Zapu, which, despite not winning any election was part of the political landscape of Zimbabwe.

Timeline of the ‘Black Russian’

Compiled by Beaven Dhliwayo

The Herald traces the life of liberation struggle stalwart Dumiso Dabengwa who died from liver complications.

Born on December 6, 1939 in Bulawayo


Diploma in teaching

Holds four degrees, two of which are honorary

Honorary doctorate degree from the University of Zimbabwe

Honorary degree for his dedication towards the emancipation of black people in Zimbabwe and Africa

Diploma in Business Administration

Bachelor of Commerce degree.

Political Career

1958  School teacher at Cyrene Mission

1958  Starts political activism while working for the Bulawayo City Council.

1959  Dabengwa receives military training in Moscow, Russia. Affectionately known as the “Black Russian”.

1960-1980  Participates in the protracted armed struggle holding various portfolios including heading the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Party (ZIPRA) Intelligence unit.

1981  Charged with treason

1982  Re-arrested in 1982 on charges of plotting to overthrow the Government. Arrested together with ex-Zipra Commander Lookout Masuku

1986  In December, Dabengwa is released from nearly five years of indefinite detention.

1991  Dabengwa appointed to chair the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project.

1992  Appointed Home Affairs Minister, a post which he held for eight years until 2000

2005  Contest and loses the March 2005 parliamentary election

2008  Quits Zanu-PF citing corruption and bad leadership. Forms ZAPU

2008  Supports another former Zanu-PF official Simba Makoni in the 2008 presidential poll

2013  Joins coalition with Welshman Ncube and Morgan Tsvangirai in bid to oust Robert Mugabe.

2018  Quits active politics

2018  Forms the Dumiso Dabengwa Foundation

2018  Endorses Nelson Chamisa in the 2018 polls after pulling out of race. Chamisa lost to President Mnangagwa

2018  Diagnosed with a liver disease ailment. Receives treatment in South Africa and then India

2019  April 24 flown to India for medical treatment

2019– May 23 dies in Nairobi, Kenya en-route to Zimbabwe.