Nduduzo Tshuma, Political Editor
THE Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and present-day Russia played a crucial role in assisting Africa and Zimbabwe in particular in the fight against colonialism that brought independence in 1980, the late National Hero Dr Dumiso Dabengwa said.
In a paper titled, “Relations between ZAPU and the USSR, 1960s–1970s: A Personal View,” for the journal of Southern African Studies in 2017, Dr Dabengwa said Russia was committed to the emancipation of colonies from colonial rule.
“In my experience of relations with the USSR, I think our alliance was beneficial. The USSR was absolutely committed to the total emancipation of all colonies from colonial rule and oppression. As such, we had lots of appreciation for their role in assisting us to liberate ourselves.
“The USSR was crucial in helping us get rid of colonialism in Africa: they were genuine in their determination, and therefore prepared us not only for conquest in the battlefield, but also to run and rule Zimbabwe efficiently and effectively once it was independent,” said Dr Dabengwa who underwent training in intelligence.
“The ‘Cold War’ between the Soviet Union and the West certainly had an impact on our liberation struggle, such that we were used as pawns in Africa’s entire decolonisation process. Be that as it may, we still remained non-aligned, but will certainly not hide our gratitude to the Soviet Union for the massive support throughout our struggle for self-determination.”
Dr Dabengwa, the Zapu and Zipra Intelligence Supremo said in 1963, Zapu decided that the best course of action to dislodge the Rhodesia colonial government was to provide military and political training to its party.
He said arrangements had been made by the Zapu leader Dr Joshua Nkomo for such training programmes before the party was banned in 1962.
“Since Zapu was seeking to train revolutionaries who would fight Britain for their independence, most western countries were not eager to provide such training. However, communist and socialist countries, such as Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba, were willing to provide both military and political training,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“It is important to stress, given the Cold War politics of the time, that Zapu did not initially choose countries because they were socialist but because they were willing to help Zapu to achieve its goal of an independent Zimbabwe. To avoid detection, Zapu members left for these countries in groups of between six and twenty, depending on the type of training.”
Dr Dabengwa said before he went to the USSR for training in 1964, he had established himself in the party’s sabotage operations coordinated under Cde Findo Mpofu, who had received training in Ghana during the days of the National Democratic Party, targeting farms and factories and bringing down telegraph poles and electricity transmission pylons.
At one point, Dr Dabengwa said he was sent to transport sabotage material from Lusaka that had been bought in the Congo after the Katanga war.
“It was precisely this background – the ability to carry two full suitcases of grenades inside a passenger train and land them at a siding before Nyamandlovu station without detection – that qualified me for selection for training in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In fact, this was now my second trip of successfully bringing in war material from Lusaka without mishap. Recruitment of volunteers to undergo training was done in small groups of two or three,” said Dr Dabengwa.
He said in September 1963, Akim Ndlovu, Luke Mhlanga and himself were instructed to find their way to Lusaka, Zambia but when they arrived they found that their group was late for the 1963 training slot and would be processed for training in 1964.
“At the beginning of September, we were separated into three groups. Akim Ndlovu led a team to undergo military training in the Soviet Union. Luke Mhlanga was deployed for military training in China, and I led five others (three from Harare and two from Bulawayo) for military intelligence training in Moscow. So, the six of us flew from Dar es Salaam to Khartoum, and from Khartoum to Moscow. It was our first experience flying and it was at once exciting and overwhelming,” said Dr Dabengwa.
He said after they settled in Moscow, they started training which consisted political lessons, military training, and training in intelligence and counterintelligence tactics.
“Our political lessons were based on the theory of socialism and the history of the USSR, especially Russia’s role in the Second World War and the tactics it had used. While we did not believe that the final stage of communism envisaged by the USSR could be realised, we found the theory of socialism akin to the way most African communities set up their social structures and mores, and therefore in keeping with our traditions and customs.
“Consequently, socialism became a way of governing that we could use in the new country that we were fighting for.
“Perhaps most instructive and ultimately beneficial to us were the instructions on guerrilla tactics, which included sabotage and the manufacture and use of our own explosives,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“Our intelligence training focused on major disciplines of intelligence collection techniques. Our counter-intelligence training concentrated on efforts to prevent hostile organisations from gathering intelligence against our organisation, so that we could simply nip any plans against us in the bud.
“In other words, our counter-intelligence focused on knowing our enemies – what resources they had, what they knew about us, and so on.”
So rigorous was the training, Dr Dabengwa said, that there was little time for relaxation with lessons starting at 8am to 6pm and at times stretched to 8pm.
“The Russian method of instruction was not a top-down approach; we had a lot of input and there was much exchange of ideas. During our training, one incident that remained vividly embedded in my mind was the day when Nikita Khrushchev was elbowed out of the leadership of the USSR. In the first place, we were not forewarned about the cancellation of lessons that day. Breakfast had been served as usual, before we proceeded to the lecture room. An hour later, the liaison officer came to apologise because the instructors had been assigned elsewhere. He announced that we were free to spend the day as we pleased – either to read or play games. The next day we resumed our programme, but the timetable was slightly changed. We began with a political lecture, which had not been scheduled for that day.
“We had already known of events through watching the television the previous night. The political lecturer explained to us in more detail as to what had necessitated the change of leadership. We asked questions and made comments within bounds, careful not to be misunderstood and accused of interfering with their internal affairs. During the next few days, TV news items continued to justify the political move taken. Even waiters in the canteen started opening up to give their views, which, although in support, were critical of the manner in which the change had been made by the government,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“The main purpose in training was initially to enable the party to produce a group of men who would be the vanguard of a guerrilla army – well-trained and self-sufficient, with no troop back-up at the rear. These groups would train intelligence and small guerrilla units inside Rhodesia to lay the groundwork for larger, platoon-size guerrilla units and later for a regular army. From my point of view, this initial training gave us an ideal framework for setting up the party’s intelligence wing. This assisted us in planning and executing military operations within the country. It also equipped us with sufficient basic understanding of what to expect from the Rhodesians, who already had an unfair advantage over us as they were being supplied with intelligence by the west – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bloc.”
Dr Dabengwa said after the six months’ training, they returned to Zambia at the end of 1964 and met with other groups who had undergone military training in other parts of the Soviet Union like the Crimea, as well as countries like China, North Korea, Cuba and Egypt forming a total of more than 100. “We were instructed by J.R.D. Chikerema (then head of Special Affairs) to discuss and agree on the establishment of a formal ZAPU military wing, which would utilise the different approaches to warfare that we had gained in the countries that we had trained in. We spent two weeks engaged in daily, highly charged debates amongst ourselves, with each group making its presentation and recommendations on what approach to use in initiating our armed struggle against the repressive Smith regime.
“If there was anything that kept us going no matter how hard things were, it was the unflinching determination for freedom, and, looking back, that was a seed that was planted early on in my life of taking the issue of freedom personally enough to fight for it. It is interesting to note that the ability to articulate their thoughts clearly and the ability to maintain calmness when everyone else was getting emotional and even, at times, aggressive and violent, all sprouted and indeed paved the way for the leadership role for those who were finally selected as commanders.
“Arguments varied from strategies and ideologies used mainly in the Chinese, Cuban and North Korean revolutions based on the experiences of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung. An interesting fissure from the debates was the near splitting of us, in the heated debates, into the brave on the one side and the cowardly on the other. Conflict arose due to the different points of view expressed on the way in which the armed struggle had to be set in motion,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“There was consensus on the need to have in place a command structure, but some suggested that this structure should dwell on the idea of entering into the country to establish a base for conducting operations – the Che Guevera style. Those who argued that this would be suicidal, as the base was likely to be a priority target for attack by Rhodesians, were labelled cowards.
“Later on, as part of military intelligence, it became second nature, a conditioning as it were, never simply to follow some of the ambitious and extreme examples of revolutionary conduct just like that, but to rather adopt a calculated, step-by-step and responsive approach until we gained a foothold in the country. Otherwise we could be annihilated, considering the strength, resources and control enjoyed by our enemy.”
Dr Dabengwa said after all the exhaustive arguments they managed to reach a compromise on a sober and mature start the armed resolve to free our Zimbabwe. “At the beginning of 1965, we produced the structure of the first military wing of ZAPU, and had the first commanders appointed to lead that structure. Once a consensus was reached on the structure and recommended approach to commence operations, leaders of all the groups travelled to head office in Lusaka to submit their planned strategy. Appointments were later made by comrades J.R.D. Chikerema and J.Z. Moyo to forge alliances. I became the Chief of Intelligence, with the responsibility for reconnaissance and infiltration of personnel to establish contacts for small guerrilla units,” said Dr Dabengwa.
Dr Dabengwa said after the initial training in the USSR and other countries in the 1960s, ZAPU’s elementary training was done in Zambia, Angola and Tanzania, the years that followed saw them expand relations with the USSR once more.
“More courses were offered in the USSR for further training of ZIPRA cadres in other specialised military and intelligence disciplines. There were also scholarships offered for academic studies in various fields, including medicine, economics, finance and engineering,” he said. “In 1978, when ZAPU embarked on its new strategy, the ‘Turning Point’, the USSR and Cuba offered us military and intelligence experts as our consultants The Turning Point saw us deploy regular army battalions on the northern front, across the Zambezi valley, in order to establish semi-liberated zones in the Hurungwe, Gokwe, Nkayi, Lupane and Tsholotsho areas. The strategy was to occupy and defend the semi-liberated areas and thus allow guerrilla units to move inland, along the high plateau, and eventually liberate and occupy the major cities of the country.”
Dr Dabengwa who was part of the Lancaster House conference in 1979 passed through Moscow to compare notes on the potential tactics that the British might use, and what outcome to expect.
“Joshua Nkomo himself understood intelligence from his encounters with the Rhodesian security agents. He devised his own methods of countering their tactics: playing music when in suspected bugged set-ups was one of them. Lancaster House was an appropriate venue for the British, who had through years of experience developed all sorts of bugging devices with which to corner their opponents.
“We were aware of that and warned our side to take necessary precautions and to leave out secrets and very confidential matters for discussion in safe environments. The Soviets assigned to me a London resident consultant who became available for me throughout the duration of the talks. The assumptions of our Soviet advisers were very close to the final conclusion, and they were confident that the Patriotic Front would win the day as long as we remained a team.”