How A Priest Convinced Robert Mugabe To Step Down

Dec 17, 2017
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It's been almost a month since the army seized control in Zimbabwe, bringing an end to Robert Mugabe's 37-year rule. Key to his exit, a Jesuit priest who's also had a decadeslong role in Zimbabwe, helping to resolve the country's defining crises and conflicts. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tells us about the clergyman who talked Mugabe into stepping down.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Father Fidelis Mukonori is a youthful 70, jolly and rotund. The Jesuit priest is in charge of a Roman Catholic mission outside Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. Across town, with the military in control, anger on the streets demanding Robert Mugabe's departure and his fellow Catholic under house arrest. Mukonori says everyone was seeking a peaceful way out. That moment came a week after the military takeover when Mugabe signed the resignation letter.

FIDELIS MUKONORI: And as soon as he finished the signature, the face just glowed, really a sign of saying, it's done. I've done what I have to do.

QUIST-ARCTON: As heavy seasonal rains hit the roof over the veranda, Mukonori told NPR Mugabe didn't blink when, early on in the negotiations, the mediators presented him with an 11-point list of grievances from the military hierarchy.

MUKONORI: He didn't complain about those issues. He accepted because he saw the seriousness of the issues. The president kept very calm all the time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mukonori says former first lady Grace Mugabe was also present at times and made occasional comments. But...

MUKONORI: We were not negotiating with Grace. We are negotiating with the commander in chief, Robert Mugabe, whom the soldiers wanted alive and to have a good end.

QUIST-ARCTON: At one point during the mediation process, the priest says Mugabe asked to speak to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president he'd fired who's now president. It was this dismissal that triggered Zimbabwe's political crisis and the whirlwind developments after Mugabe had ditched Mnangagwa in favor of his wife, who appeared determined to succeed her husband as president. Fearing for his life, Mnangagwa fled to neighboring South Africa. Mugabe asked to speak to Mnangagwa, and the priest dialed him up.

MUKONORI: So they discussed for 10 good minutes, really, what I call a heart-to-heart talk. It would feel that the two were feeling each other. The president kept saying come, come home. Why did you go to South Africa? Because I was planning to meet you after the dismissal and talk with just the two of us.

QUIST-ARCTON: For Mukonori, negotiating Mugabe's exit was not the toughest mediation he's been involved in, he says. That came towards the end of Zimbabwe's liberation war of independence in the late 1970s. The priest says in 2000, white farmers implored him to intervene to end Mugabe's often violent seizure of industrial farms, then the backbone of the economy. After disputed elections in 2008, Mukonori was also involved in early negotiations to establish a power-sharing government between Mugabe and the opposition.

MUKONORI: I never doubted we will succeed.

QUIST-ARCTON: The clergyman also helped to document evidence of mass killings by the military 5th Brigade Mugabe unleashed in the early 1980s on thousands of opposition supporters in Matabeleland, a brutal crackdown reportedly orchestrated by Mugabe's trusted lieutenant at the time, Zimbabwe's new president, Mnangagwa. He denies these accusations. The jovial priest chuckles and smiles easily through the conversation. He's just published a memoir about his experiences called "Man In The Middle." On his latest mediation efforts, Mukonori says Mugabe did not choose to leave office the way he'd intended, but it was time.

MUKONORI: Yes. It was the best thing he could have done. The man had served 37 years. And definitely, it was time for him to rest. He deserved the rest. I was relieved when he signed. It was good. My job was done.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mukonori says mutual trust, respect, honesty and friendship helped him persuade Mugabe to go. The priest believes he still has a role in Zimbabwe as co-founder of the nation, though he acknowledges Mugabe made major missteps along the way. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.