Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Dr Nkomo: Had to Learn to Be Military Commander
July 8, 2017
Opinion & Analysis
By Yoliswa Duba
Zimbabwe Chronicle

On The late Vice President Dr Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo

IN his autobiography, The Story of My Life, the late Vice President Dr Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo recounts on how he had to learn to be a military commander.

Dr Nkomo, who was the commander of the Zipra forces during the country’s protracted liberation struggle, says although he carefully left the day-to-day command of the men to senior soldiers, he regularly visited the training camps and bases.

“When negotiations broke down, I went to the soldiers and said I had done what I could, it was up to them now. I emphasised that they were not fighting to do me a favour nor I them; we were in it together for our country,” says Dr Nkomo.

He says he did his best to keep the forces supplied with material to fight with and see to it that it was fairly distributed.

“It was up to them to put those supplies to good use. Our lads came from poor homes where blankets and clothes were highly prized possessions. I had to make sure such things were for military use, not for giving to girlfriends,” says the late Father Zimbabwe.

The boys, he said, had no money and were tempted to sell a blanket or a pair of boots to buy a present for a girl or to get a smoke of marijuana.

“They were all volunteers who had chosen to leave home to fight; they had to be motivated not ordered about. We had more volunteers than we could feed, clothe and arm,” says Dr Nkomo.

As a result, there were allegations from Western journalists visiting their transit camps in Botswana, that they were kidnapping young people from the schools to turn them into fighters.

Instead, Dr Nkomo says, they tried hard to persuade the lads to stay and finish their studies but they would not.

“Botswana, with its long, open border with South Africa, was terribly vulnerable to attack and President Seretse Khama could not allow guerilla camps there. We had to charter aircraft to lift our refugees out of Botswana into Zambia – I am afraid we still owe the Zambian government several millions of dollars for the help they gave with that,” says Dr Nkomo.

But, at one point towards the end of the war, transport difficulties, caused largely by South African disruption of traffic, led to a genuine shortage of food throughout Zambia.

People were going hungry in the camps and officers in the army continuously reported that morale was suffering badly.

“Without a regular ration of the sadza that was their staple diet, the men would get out of control. I went straight to President Kaunda and told him of the danger. He knew his own people were short of food, that discontent was growing and production suffering. But he picked up the telephone and gave an order. For the coming weeks all supplies of food for the civilian market were to be diverted to the Zimbabwean camps, in consultation with my staff,” says Dr Nkomo.

This act of generosity by President Kaunda, who was prepared to put his own popularity at risk for a cause he believed in kept hope in the Zipra camps alive.

Aside from ensuring his forces were fed and clothed, Dr Nkomo had other unique challenges to deal with.

Thousands of young refugee girls insisted on volunteering to fight but there was no place for them all.

“It was not the girls’ fault, but the presence of young women in a camp of young male soldiers caused tremendous trouble. Fortunately, we had splendid women to face the challenge of organising the girls,” says Dr Nkomo.

Through help from international organisations, Victory Camp school was set up for the girls outside Lusaka.

There, they got a better education than they would have done at home.

“Some we did train to use weapons and employed as camp guards but they were a tiny minority. The one thing I regret about our volunteers was that their military discipline became almost too strong. Our tactic was to move in small groups against the enemy, so each man had to be ready to take over command as soon as the man above him had been knocked out of the fight; I always emphasised that to the lads when I spoke to them before going out on operations,” says Dr Nkomo.

But the discipline was so strong that individual soldiers would not answer him directly, they always waited for the most senior person to answer and refused to speak on their own initiative even to their commander-in-chief, says Dr Nkomo.

He says his only training for the role of commander-in-chief was that of a social worker.

“I tried to approach the job dispassionately, realising that everyone in an army has a role to play. Even visiting the wounded I tried not to appear upset if I saw a fine young man who had an arm or a leg; I just said it was a soldier’s job to suffer for his nation.”

Dr Nkomo says he was worried about and worked to solve his soldiers’ individual problems – how to get artificial limbs and how to readapt to family life after a wound.

“But I never allowed myself to show distress. If the wounded men became demanding, ordering the nurses around and insisting on special treatment, I always told them to respect their colleagues, that everyone had a necessary place in the national struggle; getting wounded did not win any privileges when everyone was doing his best,” says the late nationalist.

Most of their fighting was with small arms and simple weapons. The AK riffle became every young man’s dream – stubby and reliable.

It was apparently far better than the long Nato rifle carried by the Rhodesian forces.

“Transporting heavy weapons through the Rhodesian air cover was terribly risky and it was rare that we brought off conspicuous triumphs like the rocketing of the soil storage camps in Salisbury and in Bulawayo – the Salisbury tanks burned for a week, a symbol of our success, but the Bulawayo reserve was unfortunately empty when Zipra hit it,” says Dr Nkomo.

But their success against the Rhodesian Forces was far greater than they allowed to be known at the time.

Also, they could not claim the credit they deserved because they needed to keep secret the fact that they had been given some Soviet surface to air missiles, Sam-7s.

“We deployed them first in defence of our camps in Zambia and caught the enemy by surprise. The first time we used them we knocked down two of their strike aircraft, the second time we got four,” says Dr Nkomo.

He says those who lived through the war were hardened by it and those who died were their close friends.

-This article is a special tribute to Dr Nkomo on the anniverary of his death.

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