An interview with the Zimbabwean Jesuit who mediated Mugabe’s fall from power
It intrigued the world when a Catholic cleric appeared as a key player when Zimbabwe’s future hung in the balance last month. But Father Fidelis Mukonori is probably Southern Africa’s best-known Jesuit and is certainly the most influential Jesuit in Zimbabwe.
In November, Father Mukonori played an intricate role in the fall of Africa’s oldest president, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe. He was the key negotiator between the generals who lead Zimbabwe’s military and President Mugabe. He says that to him the outcome was obvious and that he told Mr. Mugabe that it was “time to rest.”
Just two hours after army tanks rolled out onto the streets of Harare in November, Father Mukonori got a call asking him to go to the army barracks to meet with the generals. He explains: “They told me that what was happening within ZANU-PF [the ruling party] was not acceptable. The issue of corruption, the purging of war vets, the mudslinging against soldiers, especially generals, was not acceptable.”
He was asked to go and tell the president what he had heard. Father Mukonori quickly became a mediator between the president and the generals over the next days as Zimbabwe began an unexpected but peaceful transition from Mugabe’s rule. Father Mukonori spent 16-hour days mediating between different parties before driving back to the mission where he lives each night—some 40 minutes outside of the country’s capital.
Just two hours after army tanks rolled out onto the streets of Harare in November, Father Mukonori got a call asking him to go to the army barracks to meet with the generals.
It was a role he had become known for in Zimbabwe. “Whether opposition or ruling party, they all come to me,” Father Mukonori says. “I don’t look for popularity in the media or amongst Zimbabweans; I look for what I believe is just for individuals and the nation of Zimbabwe. I deal with things below the ladder, not for publicity.”
The Jesuit also facilitated talks between Mr. Mugabe and incoming President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mr. Mugabe had fired Mr. Mnangagwa as his vice president on Nov. 6, causing the latter to flee to Mozambique and then South Africa. Father Mukonori explains that he got Mr. Mnangagwa on the phone while he was with Mr. Mugabe. He says that Mr. Mugabe asked Mr. Mnangagwa where he was, if he was O.K. and repeatedly told him to come back to Zimbabwe.
Mr. Mugabe and Father Mukonori spoke about the issues of the moment during his intervention but also about “deep issues.” Father Mukonori says that in the midst of the political crisis they “started breaking into anthropology...and sociology.” He says over the years he has discussed life, land, joy, sorrow, good governance, bad governance, evil, sin, hell and heaven with Mr. Mugabe.
Father Mukonori is saddened by what happened. He blames the factional battles within Mr. Mugabe’s party for the events that unfolded after Mr. Mugabe dismissed his vice president. He uses strong language to describe what he sees as the problem: “Political debauchery… political division… slicing each other’s character... trying to position each other for power.”
These factional battles led to the firing of Mr. Mnangagwa so that Mr. Mugabe’s current wife, Grace, could succeed him, but, Father Mukonori says, that dismissal “broke the camel’s back.”
One cannot but help feel that Father Mukonori attributes Grace Mugabe’s greed for power as a serious contributing factor to her husband’s political demise. He speaks fondly about Mr. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, but his demeanor changes when he speaks about Grace. When asked about her future after her husband dies, he says calmly, “I’m sure that people would do justice to her.”
After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Father Mukonori continued to play a role in national politics.
Father Mukonori is the superior of the Jesuit Community in Chishawasha as well as the parish priest and director of the schools at Chishawasha mission. He is also the executive director of the Center for Peace Initiatives in Africa, which is part of the Africa desk of the United Nations.
He has a long history with Mr. Mugabe. The former president really got to know the Jesuit priest in 1973 and ’74, when Father Mukonori was working with Zimbabwean youth in exile preparing to fight for independence against the colonialist Rhodesian Army. He had been keeping them in touch with their families and informed about what the leaders in exile were saying. According to Father Mukonori, Mr. Mugabe and other former political prisoners heard of his work with the guerrillas and reached out to him.
The former president is a Catholic, and he attended Catholic schools; much of his childhood formation was done in the church. When his father abandoned the family, a priest took the young Mr. Mugabe under his wing.
He attended Mass regularly at Harare’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. More recently, Mr. Mugabe has been going to the Redemptorist parish closest to his luxurious house in Borrowdale, Harare. He raised eyebrows when he attended the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II in April 2005.
“He is a serious Catholic, more serious than what most people think,” Father Mukonori insists. “He says his rosary every day; even during the war. He would travel with his rosary in his pocket, which was given to him by his mother.”
He explains that when Mr. Mugabe was sent by the liberation party to Mozambique as an exile, his mother told him that all she could give him for protection was God, so she gave him her rosary, which he used for the entire period that he was away.
Father Mukonori often visited Mr. Mugabe’s family; he was especially close to Mr. Mugabe’s mother, Bona, when the young Robert was in exile. He explains how angry and upset Mr. Mugabe’s mother got when in 1977-79 the then Rhodesian Herald (today the Zimbabwe Herald) published pieces saying that anyone who killed Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union, would receive $50,000 each as a reward.
Mugabe “is a serious Catholic, more serious than what most people think,” Father Mukonori insists.
“‘Why do they want to kill my son?’ she would ask me when I saw her,” Father Mukonori says.
The Zimbabwe War of Independence (1964-1979) was being fought during the tenure of the 28th General of the Society of Jesus, Father Pedro Arrupe (1965-1983). Father Arrupe had a profound commitment to justice that, he insisted, should permeate Jesuit ministry.
Father Arrupe’s vision contributed much to Decree 4 of the Society of Jesus’ 32nd General Congregation—titled “Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice.” This was an important document for the Society of Jesus and gave new focus to the work of Jesuits globally. It emphasized that the service of faith was primary to the whole apostolate of the society and stressed that justice was an absolute requirement of that service.
Father Mukonori played a key role in the country’s liberation war because he believed that justice needed to be done for the African people who had been colonized and degraded by Europeans on their own land. He has worked for many years with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Zimbabwe.
“Brother Fidelis,” as he was known (Father Mukonori entered the Society in 1971, initially to be a brother, and was only ordained later on in 1991), managed to go to places where others could not go. Perhaps Father Mukonori was ahead of his time.
During the 35th General Congregation of the Jesuits (2008), Pope Benedict XVI told members gathered in Rome that “the church needs you… particularly to reach those physical and spiritual places which others do not reach or have difficulty in reaching.”
In the same address, the pope said, “strive to build bridges of understanding and dialogue.” He also urged Jesuits to go to the frontiers.
Father Mukonori was attempting to do this when he worked at the Jesuit Social Justice and Development Centre in Harare. Later on, Silveira House—the Jesuit Social Justice and Development Centre in Zimbabwe—became an important place for political discussions which would lay foundations for the country’s post-colonial era. Father Mukonori says that it was the only safe place where nationalists could gather freely to discuss the future of Zimbabwe.
Mr. Mugabe’s sister, Sabena, also worked at Silveira House in the youth department, promoting nutrition, hygiene and child care. She too is a friend of the Jesuit.
Father Mukonori says that as soon as he met Mr. Mugabe he knew that he was a leader. “He is a person who never smiled,” Father Mukonori says wryly. “But, when we got to know each other…when I went to Zambia and Mozambique [when Mr. Mugabe was in exile] to meet the patriotic front with the Justice and Peace Commission and [Archbishop Patrick Fani Chakaipa, archbishop of Harare from 1976-2003] we wanted to understand their aims and objectives…
Father Mukonori says that as soon as he met Mr. Mugabe he knew that he was a leader.
“He got more interested in me because I traveled across the whole country and I would give them the facts,” Father Mukonori remembers. “We told him what the Rhodesians did...their success and failure regarding the war. I also told them what the freedom fighters did in fighting the war, the success side and failure side, the date and time as well as the commanders.” He says that he also told them when crimes were committed by members of the patriotic front.
Father Mukonori explains that the exiled leadership were leading the war from the rear. “We were on the frontier and so we went to give them the facts of what was happening on the ground.” Father Mukonori explains that although there was a war raging, they told the exiles that there had to be a negotiated settlement; it was the only way out of the conflict.
They managed to get the Patriotic Front (the coalition fighting white minority rule in Rhodesia) to agree to attend an all-parties conference. In 1979 Mr. Mugabe agreed to such a meeting. He stipulated one condition: “Britain must take and play its full role as the colonizer, no one else.”
Father Mukonori advised Mr. Mugabe during the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, and on Dec. 21, 1979, the Lancaster House Agreement was signed. It led to the creation and recognition of the Republic of Zimbabwe, replacing the unrecognized state of Rhodesia that had been created by Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Father Mukonori continued to play a role in national politics. He was close to and worked with Mr. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally. They ran a project to rehabilitate female guerrilla fighters and help them develop leadership skills when they re-entered society after the war.
He recalls fondly how he accompanied Sally Mugabe. who, he says, was angry with God and did not practice her faith after the death of the Mugabes’ only son in Ghana, Mrs. Mugabe’s native land. Mr. Mugabe, then in detention in Rhodesia, was not allowed to attend the funeral.
He says that Sally was traumatized by what she saw during the war and struggled spiritually. Father Mukonori says that he told her, tongue in cheek, that he hoped she would have a conversion experience like Saul. Later, she did return to the church. “She died a good Catholic, receiving communion three to four times a week,” he says.
He recalls too how he tried to bring white farmers and the government together, for example, to deal with the question of land. Father Mukonori has worked on the land reform and redistribution for a long time; he sees it as an important part of his ministry.
He says that he and Mr. Mugabe have discussed this issue “endlessly” over the years. He had hoped that Mr. Mugabe would not leave office until the issue was properly addressed. He says that it was an issue important to the former president too, and he wished that he had been able to deal with it effectively.
Father Mukonori says that he was, initially, approached by white farmers to help with the land issue, but later talks broke down because white landowners did not live up to their part of the deal. “My business is to get people together and to get them talking…. I engage government, I engage parties and I engage individuals—the president included.”
In the post-Mugabe era Father Mukonori will likely still have influence. He has been meeting with Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister who had led the opposition to Mr. Mugabe through the Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe.
Father Mukonori says that Mr. Tsvangirai wants to discuss a way forward for the country with the new president. But on the day of their second meeting, the newly inaugurated president announced his cabinet. Mr. Tsvangirai’s wish “would have been that they discussed the issue before the new president announced his new government,” he says.
Although Father Mukonori has the support of his provincial, not everyone is comfortable with his role. He has been criticized inside and outside of the church. It cannot be denied, however, that over the years he has helped many people and facilitated many meetings and encounters between unlikely rivals. He helped many who were arrested unjustly get released.
It is easy to point fingers and disagree with him. Father Mukonori, however, understands how the politics of his country works and has dared to minister in a complex and tricky political reality. Listening to him carefully reveals that he is, at heart, trying to be a pastor.
Correction (12/15/17; 1:46 p.m. ET): Father Mulonori was misidentified as the superior of the Jesuit Community in Zimbabwe; he is the superior of the Jesuit Community in Chishawasha.