Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Archbishop Prays for Mugabe's Death

Leading critic of president says peaceful revolution impossible in Zimbabwe.
By Fred Bridgland

Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, the most outspoken critic of President Robert Mugabe within Zimbabwe, has withdrawn his appeal to the people of his country to stage a peaceful uprising to overthrow Mugabe, whom he accuses of having widely rigged parliamentary elections last March.


On the eve of his receipt of the Robert Burns International Humanitarian Award – a Scottish prize - Archbishop Ncube told IWPR, “I have to admit that the people are so oppressed and full of fear that there’s no possibility of an uprising.


“If it happened now, it would be worse than Uzbekistan. They would be shot.


“People are so desperate they just don’t know where to turn. The [opposition] Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] just wants the ordinary people to lead the revolution, without making any sacrifice themselves.


“People are in neutral until some new leader strikes a chord. Meanwhile, we’re all being held to ransom by one despot. So that’s why we’re hoping he’ll evacuate this earth.”


At his Easter Sunday Mass earlier this year in Bulawayo’s magnificent St Mary’s Cathedral, Ncube told the packed congregation, with agents of Mugabe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, sitting in the rear pews, “I hope that people get so disillusioned that they really organise and kick [Mugabe] out by a non-violent, popular mass uprising. People have been too soft with this government. So people should just pluck up a bit of courage and stand up against him and chase him away.


“I am not advocating violence. I am simply backing a non-violent popular uprising, like that in the Philippines in 1986 and such as Ukraine recently. Somewhere there shall come a resurrection in Zimbabwe.”


Ncube, who is archbishop of Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, was selected for the Burns Award by a panel headed by Lord David Steel, former leader of the British Liberal Party and the first speaker of the Scottish Parliament. Ncube won against other nominees who included Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi and former United N troop commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire.


The Burns Award is named in honour of Scotland’s most renowned poet Robert Burns. Interrupting the archbishop as he studied Burns’ most internationally famous poem, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, IWPR interviewed Archbishop Ncube in Edinburgh on the eve of the May 20 award ceremony at Culzean Castle on the west coast of Scotland.


In his acceptance address, Ncube said, “I receive this award on behalf of many others who work for peace in Zimbabwe. I also receive it on behalf of the suffering people of Zimbabwe.


“The president of Zimbabwe is also called Robert, like Burns – yet he, unlike the poet, is lacking in compassion and feeling for others. Burns had a hard life and understood the lot of the common man. 'A Man’s a Man for A’ That' portrays the dignity of the common man. He calls on human beings to be brothers and sisters and to support one another through respect, love and service. There is no greater message in the world than that.”


Ncube, a frail, soft-spoken, slightly bumbling man who was once a goatherd has become the biggest thorn in the Zimbabwean leader’s side.


He told IWPR, “We’re all praying that the Lord will soon take Mugabe away. Everyone is fed up with him, including his own [ruling ZANU PF party] people. We’re all hoping against hope that something will happen.”


Archbishop Ncube, aged 58, is 24 years Mugabe’s junior. It’s one of the great traditions of African society – a custom widely and cynically abused in modern times – that younger people must respect their elders. But Ncube regards Mugabe with utter contempt.


Mugabe splutters back, in attacks full of rage and wild allegations. According to Ncube, Mugabe has denounced him as a HIV-positive homosexual who has raped and impregnated nuns, and has also accused him of “Satanic betrayal” for campaigning against English cricket tours of Zimbabwe.


Mugabe also accuses the archbishop of working with UK prime minister Tony Blair to overthrow the Zimbabwean leadership. Ncube shrugs this off. As far as he is concerned, the more international leaders who condemn Mugabe the better.


His advice for the British prime minister is, “Simply say to Mugabe, ‘Look after your people’. Blair should say, ‘Your people are starving. Your people have no jobs. Your people cannot afford housing. Three-and-a-half million Zimbabweans, 20 per cent of the population, have fled the country. It’s all because of you. It’s all your fault. Stop blaming other people. It’s you who has destroyed Zimbabwe, and it’s deceitful and lacking in all objective truth to say otherwise’. He should just tell him off, just like that.”


Archbishop Ncube ruminated on what Jesus might have said if he was an itinerant preacher in Zimbabwe today, “Because Christ was God-centred and compassionate, he would condemn the way the government uses every opportunity to oppress the people.


“I think he would condemn especially the use by Mugabe of food for political purposes” – a reference to the president’s use of scarce food in last March’s parliamentary election to coerce village people into voting for ZANU PF.


“Christ would condemn the violence, widespread rape and torture by government agencies and the youth militia,” he said.


The archbishop is particularly distressed by the 50,000-strong National Youth Militia - Mugabe’s widely feared personal stormtroopers who have been compared with Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts. The Youth Militia, known as the Green Bombers for their bottle-green uniforms, and after a particularly unpleasant local blowfly, chant slogans in praise of Mugabe on parade and end with denunciations of Blair.


Ncube said Mugabe had brainwashed young people in the Green Bomber camps. “They specialise in violence,” said the archbishop. “This is killing off the souls of young people.”


Ncube recently accompanied a 19-year-old Green Bomber deserter, who gave his name only as Wesley, to safety in Johannesburg.


With the Archbishop standing next to him, Wesley described to reporters how he and about 100 other Green Bombers, high on marijuana and beer, had attacked a white-owned farm near Beit Bridge in southern Zimbabwe.


“We surrounded the farm and after entering the house we tortured him [the farmer],” said Wesley. “After that his wife was raped and we raped his daughters. They were aged seven and twelve, and the youngest one was around four years old.”


The Green Bombers, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, then locked the family inside the house and lobbed petrol bombs through windows.


“The family didn’t survive,” said Wesley. “We burned them all. I feel terrible for the things I have done.”


The archbishop said, “I don’t think Christ would have survived in Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s government doesn’t like people who speak the truth. Plenty of people [who criticise the government] have died mysteriously. Christ wouldn’t have had a chance.”


This raises the question why the Archbishop himself is still alive and able to travel freely to Scotland to receive his award.


Ncube says there have been many plans for his assassination, with agents of Mugabe’s CIO warning him, "We can kill you and bury you in a shallow grave.”


He went on, “But I have also been tipped off by people in state intelligence who have cautioned me, ‘Don’t move here, there. Don’t move at night, don’t move alone’. CIO agents follow me everywhere.”


Ncube has lined the walls of St Mary’s Cathedral with posters not only of traditional Christian saints but also of modern civil rights heroes such as Nelson Mandela, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The latter has described Mugabe as “bonkers”, and was in turn denounced by the Zimbabwean president as “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop”.


The archbishop believes he has survived because of direct warnings from the late Pope John Paul II to Mugabe, who was brought up a Catholic by his mother.


“Mugabe obviously still fears the Catholic Church,” one senior Zimbabwe journalist told IWPR. “If [MDC leader] Morgan Tsvangirai or anyone else said the kind of things the archbishop says they’d have been in the slammer that night.”


Ncube dismisses Mugabe as a “lip-service” Christian. “He’s a mere murderer watching his people sink,” said the archbishop. “The way he has killed people, what kind of Christian is that? Many of his MPs are big killers, and he has never reprimanded them.”


Turning to Zimbabwe’s immediate problems, the archbishop said the greatest need was for the western democracies to donate food in great quantities before hundreds of thousands of people die of starvation in the coming months.


Although Mugabe told the West before the March election not to foist food on Zimbabweans – “We are not hungry. We don’t want to be choked. We have enough.” – he is now sending out subtle messages that the country is broke and needs emergency food aid.


Presented with the argument that sending food now would only prolong Mugabe’s reign, Ncube responded, “The West will fail - even though it’s not really its responsibility to feed the Zimbabwean people - if it declines to give food aid.


“If the food is refused, the people will just die quietly because at the moment they have no effective leader against Mugabe. I believe a refusal will mean the common people suffer, not Mugabe. He doesn’t care if they die. Didymus Mutasa [Mugabe’s food and security minister] said it would be easier to govern the country if half the people died of AIDS.


"Just because Mugabe is a deceitful, cunning and sly criminal, the world must not let the people starve.”


Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of southern Africa, producing abundant crops that made the country self-sufficient in food while earning foreign exchange from huge exports. However, the agricultural economy has completely collapsed in the past five years, as a result of the anarchic invasions of mainly white-owned commercial farms launched by Mugabe in 2000 and exacerbated by the failure of this year’s rains.


The archbishop cautioned against the international community allowing Mugabe to politicise food donations, “The world’s leaders must insist that the food be distributed to all and sundry.


“The government must not be allowed to control the distribution. That must be handled directly by the [United Nations] World Food Programme or by trusted organisations like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services.”


Fred Bridgland is an IWPR editor in Johannesburg.