Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
Some four decades ago, Zimbabwe’s veteran nationalist — former Vice President Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo — who was affectionately known as Father Zimbabwe, survived an assassination attempt on April 15, 1979 after Rhodesian operatives trailed him in neighbouring Zambia.
The Rhodesian operatives tracked him after the Ian Smith regime made a firm decision to assassinate Nkomo, then head of a guerrilla arm — Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra), in Zambia after the shooting down of the Air Rhodesia plane in Kariba.
The infamous Selous Scouts (secret assassination organ of the regime) assigned Selous Scout Chris Gough to survey Nkomo’s house, and draw up the roadmap from the Zambezi to Lusaka.
It was reported in the media by then, that Gough was ideal since he was born in Zambia and had a Zambian passport.
A report in the Zambian Observer capturing the history, noted that Gough joined the Lusaka Golf Club, which was near Nkomo’s house on Nyerere Drive and President Lane which led to President Kenneth Kaunda’s State House. He monitored Nkomo’s movements.
Back in Rhodesia, at the back of Inkomo Barracks, a make-shift house similar to Nkomo’s Lusaka home was built for invasion practise by the Selous Scouts who would be involved in the actual attack.
On April 14, 1979, the attacking Rhodesian Special Air Service Unit crossed the Zambezi at Kariba by boat under the command of Captain Martin Pearce, guided by Antony White, who had done reconnaissance of Cde Nkomo’s house with Gough.
According to the Selous Scouts report, the equipment included seven sable Land Rovers painted in Zambian colours and one special air service vehicle, heavy weapons and grenades. The Zambian intelligence spotted them and thought they were Zambian Land Rovers.
Another group of Rhodesian commandos landed at the Lusaka Golf Club and attacked Nkomo’s safe house (former Celtel headquarters in Lusaka).
Nkomo survived the assassination attempt on his life by sneaking into State House using a “back door”.
When asked by a reporter how he escaped the attack, Nkomo replied that he had jumped out of a small little window at the back of the house.
On the evening of September 3, 1978, Zipra forces shot down a Rhodesian Viscount airliner, the “Hunyani”, using a Soviet-made Sam-7 missile in final years of the protracted 16-year armed struggle for Independence. The airliner, carrying 52 passengers and four crew members vanished from radar screens five minutes after its 5.05 pm takeoff from Kariba Airport. About 48 people were killed.
Archival material shows that almost immediately, a distress signal was received to the effect that the engines had failed.
The aircraft crashed near the northern border with Zambia in the Urungwe Tribal Trust Land (now Hurungwe District), 40 km south-east of Kariba Dam.
The aircraft involved, a Vickers Viscount’s regular scheduled service from Victoria Falls, via the resort town of Kariba.
A group of ZIPRA guerrillas fired a Soviet-made Strela-2 surface-to-air infrared homing missile which downed the aircraft.
According to media reports, Nkomo publicly claimed responsibility for shooting down the Hunyani in an interview with the BBC programme the next day, saying the aircraft had been used for military purposes, but denied that his men had killed survivors on the ground.
After the shooting of this aircraft, the Rhodesian army launched several retaliatory strikes into Zambia and Mozambique over the following months, attacking both ZIPRA and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA).
The attacks killed thousands of people in refugee camps in and around guerrilla positions — in Zambia and Mozambique
In February 1979, ZIPRA guerillas shot down Air Rhodesia Flight 827, another civilian flight, in an almost identical incident, killing 59 people. The guerillas, using the SAM-7 missile, sent the aircraft crashing in the rough terrain in the Vuti African Purchase Area east of Lake Kariba.
Angered by the downing of the aircraft, on February 25, 1979, the Rhodesian Air Force, with covert assistance from the South African Air Force, launched Operation Vanity, a retaliatory bombing raid against a ZIPRA camp near Livingstone, Zambia which led to the death of hundreds of civilian refugees.
As Zimbabwe celebrates its 39th Independence anniversary, it is poignant to pay tribute to Nkomo, who had an enduring charisma and stage presence and was a major source of inspiration for the country’s struggle for Independence.
Tribute must also go to thousands of people and fighters who lost their lives in refugee camps which were bombed by the Rhodesian army.
Nkomo was born on June 19 in 1917.
His vision for unity, for land equity, social, economic and political rights, can be found by looking not to the future, but to the past in which his visionary and influential political role shaped the country’s nationalistic politics.
Nkomo’s legacy stands proud to this day.
He was one of Zimbabwe’s foremost nationalist figures who played a critical role in bringing about not only the country’s Independence, but national unity and reconciliation among Zimbabweans after the political disturbances of the early 1980s.
His legacy in terms of unity and reconciliation is still enduring. Thoughts about his life, his stature, his unifying role, his bold and unyielding fight for land, social, political and economic rights for the majority of blacks should inspire us and the young generation about how his life and sacrifice impacted on our lives.
The name Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo should inspire some reasoning, upliftment and sharing of perspectives about the future discourse of our country’s national politics.
He was a man of the people, who taught this nation the importance of unity and the value of the struggle for land in shaping us as a nation. Nkomo was influential in the signing of the Unity Accord on December 22, 1987 that led to the end of the civil unrest which brought unity to the country. It was historic.
In 1990, Nkomo became Vice President and played a critical role in shaping the country’s social and economic development.
In 1996, Nkomo was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His deteriorating health forced him to retreat from public life, although he continued to hold office until his death in 1999.
He died on July 1, 1999, leaving behind a solid and rich legacy of the nationalist struggle, peace and unity.
Nkomo was laid to rest at the National Heroes Acre on July 5, 1999 where an estimated 100 000 mourners thronged the shrine to pay their last respects.
Father Zimbabwe or Chibwechitedza’s legacy lives on.