In the middle of May, 1979 Raul Valdez Vivo set out from Havana on a mission which almost turned Southern Africa into world’s number one international flashpoint.
Vivo, one of the top men in the Cuban Communist Party was in charge of foreign affairs and his aim was to persuade the African nationalists fighting in Rhodesia and the leaders of Front Line States-Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana –to agree to the setting up of a “Government Of Independent Zimbabwe” on soil then held by the guerrilla movements over the border from Mozambique.
At that moment, the guerrilla war was it height .Bishop Muzorewa had just won an election under Ian Smith’s so called ‘internal settlement’ and Britain, in the first day of the Thatcher Government was making noises about legitimising his regime.
The Cubans argued once the Muzorewa Government was sworn in on June 1, several Western governments might recognised it. So a few days before Vivo went to Mozambique to see President Samora Machel and Robert Mugabe, then based in Maputo as joint leader with Joshua Nkomo of the Patriotic Front.Vivo told Machel : “ We should act to forestall the internal settlement.
The story is told in a book published on the birth of Zimbabwe- “The Struggle for Zimbabwe” by journalists David Martin and Phyllis Johnson (Farber and Farber).It was the first book to be published since Zimbabwe independence that traces what exactly happened on the African nationalist side during the long years of the Rhodesian war.
Vivo’s plan never came off. The frontline states had for long been trying to bring together the quarrelling factions of the Zimbabwe guerrilla movement and in particular to coordinate the main structure of Nkomo’s ZIPRA army based in Zambia and Mugabe’s ZANLA based in Mozambique. It had been a long and frustrating exercise and right till the end of the war they never were coordinated.
Realising through bitter experience that Zanu would never accept Nkomo and Zapu would never accept Mugabe as overall leader , the Frontline States had recently suggested a new organisation with Nkomo as chairman and Mugabe as secretary general , but with Mugabe in charge of security and defence.
In Dar-es-salam Nkomo had had thrust the Frontline states document away across the table. Vivo’s plan-based on the Frontline States earlier accepted formula –was that Nkomo and Mugabe should be taken into a guerrilla –controlled area of Zimbabwe before Muzorewa was sworn in and there announce the formation of a nationalist government Nkomo would be the leader and Mugabe in charge of defence.
Journalists would be taken in to record the ceremony. The Cubans believed some 60 socialists countries would then recognise this as the legitimate government of Zimbabwe and the West would be put on the spot.
Vivo said President Mengistu of Ethiopia, President Neto of Angola and President Kaunda of Zambia all supported the plan-and so did Nkomo. He asked Machel to call a summit with Menguistu present to announce recognition of the government .
In his talks with VIVO, Mugabe was cautious .He did not give an answer but said instead that he would discuss it with his colleagues .Mugabe recalling the meeting after independence , said they had to consider what it would mean in terms of the struggle and in terms of unity between themselves.
He said: “And so we went to discuss it and we felt it was a non-starter…. Fortunately for us Joshua turned it down. I wonder why … was it because the exercise was to be from Mozambique and in our liberated Zones?”
Vivo’s mission collapsed. Nkomo refused to go to Machel’s summit, so Neto said he would not go. Ten minutes before Kaunda and Nyerere were due at Maputo airport Vivo sent a message to Machel saying there was no point in his returning to Maputo.
Machel told the Cuban ambassador: “Am I supposed to be the fool in the middle of all this “. Tell Fidel Castrol I ‘m extremely angry “ . At Maputo airport the Russian ambassador handed Machel a massage from Mengistu saying he was too busy to come.
The mission was a fiasco for Vivo. He was sacked from his post in the Cuban Communist Party.
As authors Martin and Johnson point out , “ No countries recognised the Muzorewa Zimbabwe-Rhodesia authority”. No country recognised the new government and in Britain the Thatcher government began to reassess its position in light of the then looming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lusaka two months later.
At Lusaka was born Commonwealth plan, the Lancaster House Conference and the peace that was to come only six months later.
The book should be an important source for students of the politics of the guerrilla war .What the Vivo episode shows is how anxious were the Zimbabwean nationalist movements , even after many years of hard struggle and frustration to avoid entanglement in plans that would turn Southern Africa into another Middle East or Vietnam.
Robert Mugabe and Millitary leaders like Josiah Tongogara who died in a car accident before the ceasefire and about whose role the book reveal, remained their own men.-a fact that has been amply proved since Mugabe took office as Prime Minister .