‘If you talked nonsense to Mugabe, he would say ‘nonsense!”

Robert Mugabe’s long-time confidante, Jesuit priest Fidelis Mukonori, shares with DW his recollections of the late former Zimbabwean president.

Father Fidelis Mukonori shot to international fame in 2017 when he mediated between Robert Mugabe and the military generals who had taken control the country. The negotiations saw the ouster of Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for nearly 40 years.

Mukonori had been close to Mugabe for decades, having negotiated talks in the 1970s between guerrillas and colonial ruler Britain that led to independence in 1980 and saw Mugabe’s transformation from rebel leader to prime minister and president of Zimbabwe.

As Zimbabwe prepares to bury Mugabe, who died aged 95 in Singapore where he was receiving medical treatment, DW talked to Mukonori in Harare about his memories of Mugabe.

DW: How would you describe Robert Mugabe?

Fidelis Mukonori: As a man who had a vision, who believed he had a mission. To some he was a liberator. When you liberate people, you liberate people from other people. To those whom you liberate, you are a liberator. Those whom you liberate from will call you a terrorist.

People have started calling Mugabe a dictator because of the human rights situation in the country. How do you assess that?

Portrait photo of Fidelis Mukonori wearing a priest's collar and black robe
Fidelis Mukonori, seen here in a photo from 2017, had known the late Robert Mugabe for more than 40 years

Fidelis Mukonori, seen here in a photo from 2017, had known the late Robert Mugabe for more than 40 years

There are things he could have done better. There are things he did well. We have to accept those things which he did well. … Remember, he was leader of the ruling party and head of the state. Those structures and functionalities were supposed to keep Robert in check. Did they?

Did they?

Well, ask them, they are still alive. There are structures that are supposed to exist – the three pillars of the state. The executive, which he was, and the other two.

What kind of legacy is being left by the late Robert Mugabe?

What Robert Mugabe did in liberating the country, that’s a legacy. The structures pertaining to education – making it universal, health – making it universal, human development and structural development. Those stand for themselves.

There is word that Mugabe died a bitter man. Could this be so from your interaction with him in his last days?

Human judgment has its own frailty. He never mentioned to me that he was bitter. But with friends, with colleagues, with family members, you have to realize that people can be people. And at times, even as comrades, you can disagree, and at times, you can completely disagree. For him at 95, he was old enough to understand that.

Perhaps you could share a bit of the lighter side of Robert Mugabe. 

He knew how to sing. He enjoyed classical music. What he enjoyed most was debating. Bring an argument and then you will see the full Robert. Any issue – no matter how deep or how simple it is, he gave you his side of the story and would win the point.

In other words, he was a philosopher. He would take an issue from an philosophical point of view, from an anthropological point of view, from a political point of view. He would give you all the necessary dicta of how to argue issues and would stress that there was a logic and you have to follow logic.  if you are not prepared, you realize that. If you talk nonsense, he would say, ‘nonsense!’

This interview was published here by DW and it has been edited for clarity.