By Douglas Rogers
What apparently took place at Robert Mugabe International that afternoon might one day be taught in military academies or espionage school. It was a turning point in the great game: an operation so stealthy, flawless and precise that hundreds of people in the crowded airport at the time appeared to have no idea it had even happened.
They saw nothing. No one in the country knew, and even the team in Johannesburg was unaware of what had gone down until days later. Zimbabwe’s military is a dark and brutal force and when they strike it’s usually with raw power and much spilling of blood. The airport operation, however, was more akin to light-fingered jewel thieves pulling off a sneaky heist.
No military official has spoken on the record about the operation so we are left with media reports, eyewitness accounts and interviews for this book with an anonymous retired senior military officer. In years to come the full truth will emerge, but let’s see what we can make out through the shadow and fog.
It is learned that General Chiwenga is due to land in Harare on the afternoon of Sunday, November 12th, 2017, on a commercial flight, thought to be the 17.10 Emirates EK713 from Dubai. What day he has left China is unknown, but it’s likely he stopped in Dubai en route to meet with another senior military commander who is said to have been there: Air Marshall Perence Shiri.
Shiri going to Dubai the exact weekend Chiwenga flies via Dubai to Zimbabwe seems too convenient for it not to have been planned.
The Dubai–Harare flight stops briefly in Lusaka, Zambia, Zimbabwe’s neighbour to the north. Chiwenga had originally toyed with the idea of disembarking there and travelling to Zimbabwe by car, across the Zambezi River, but, after consultation with fellow officers, the plan was shelved as too risky. He flies on to Harare.
What makes this move so much more daring is that he knows the danger that awaits him there.
According to many news reports, sometime earlier in the week, the President has met with his Police Chief, Augustine Chihuri, a Mugabe loyalist and G40 ally, and instructed him to arrest Chiwenga on his return from China.
The rumours that Chiwenga has been, or will soon be, fired (some spread by Kasper) have reached such fever pitch that Mugabe and G40 cannot risk having him back in the country, a free man in charge of a 30,000-strong military.
They already know a coup is possible; ED’s dismissal and rumours of Chiwenga’s – no matter how inaccurate – have made the coup scenario greater.
Chihuri knows the stakes: stop Chiwenga at all costs.
It was assumed by now that if the factional political war broke out into actual war, it would pit the military against the police, particularly the paramilitary PSU – the Black Boots. When he learns what flight the General is on, Chihuri dispatches a crack PSU team to Robert Mugabe International Airport.
Exactly how many are dispatched no one knows, but eyewitnesses recall seeing a dozen police vehicles in the parking lot that afternoon. Chihuri almost certainly knows there will be soldiers coming to meet Chiwenga, so he needs a sizeable police presence to counter that.
Where they are posted at the airport also remains unclear; it’s likely some are at the end of the exit bridge, should he disembark with regular passengers, some at the VIP terminal, a single-storey building nestled between the international and domestic terminals, but most are probably on the tarmac because the General is likely to step out of the aircraft onto the air bridge, take the immediate exit door down the stairs and hop into a waiting limo which will drive him to the VIP terminal.
Chiwenga’s flight crosses the Zambezi into Zimbabwe airspace at around 4pm, unseasonal grey clouds on the horizon, sun sinking low to the right. Is he anxious in first class, sweating through his suit? Or is he relaxed, tucking into another Johnny Walker Blue, confident of the outcome?
Likely the latter, because he and his fellow officers know the outcome before the operation has even begun.
Aware of the police plans, an 18-member 1 Para special forces team, a spin-off of the Rhodesian Selous Scouts disbanded at independence, has prepared itself at Inkomo barracks, west of Harare. 1 Para are part of the Parachute Regiment established in 1980 by Colonel Lionel Dyck, a Rhodesian and later Zimbabwe military officer, and apparently a friend and sometime business associate of ED.
As with the Selous Scouts, whose training methods they follow, 1 Para are adept at blending into civilian populations and operating at close quarters in public spaces.
The team leaves the barracks armed with handguns and rifles, but disguised in overalls – the uniform of National Handling Services (NHS), the ground operator and baggage handler at the airport, who have been persuaded to cooperate. The soldiers wear their military fatigues beneath the overalls.
They probably get to the airport via the freight terminal, really an assortment of privately owned and managed businesses 250 yards west of the main terminal, one of which, Airline Ground Services (AGS), has unrestricted access to the apron and direct access to where passenger aircraft park.
According to one witness, an employee of a freight company, there was a back-up plan should things go awry: at about 2pm on Sunday afternoon, he sees five armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and two armoured vehicles, about 100 troops between them, drive through the cargo village towards AGS, where they occupy the facility… If the 1 Para action went wrong, or they heard gunfire, these soldiers would be the cavalry, racing down the runway to tip the scales.
As it turns out, they are not needed.
When the plane lands and begins to taxi towards the terminal, a command is given.
What happens next might as well take place in cinematic slow motion: the special forces draw their weapons from under the overalls and aim them point blank at every member of the PSU team. Taken completely by surprise, the police are instantly disarmed and detained, their weapons tucked away in bags.
Outside, in the parking lot, another team – probably MI – clamp every police vehicle. The PSU are immobilised before Chiwenga has even got up from his seat. Then, when the aircraft doors open, his security team board the plane, find him, and escort him away to a waiting armed escort on the runway.
It is all over in minutes, not a shot fired, exactly as Chiwenga expected.
There are police roadblocks between the airport and the city but the General’s convoy does not slow down. It storms right through them straight to King George VI barracks, army headquarters in suburban Harare, just north of State House, the President’s official residence, and not far from Pockets Hill, the studios of the ZBC.
From there, according to the retired officer, Chiwenga makes a phone call to President Mugabe.
“What have you done?” he asks, his voice deep, gravelly, seething.
“What do you mean?” says the President.
“Why did you try to arrest me?”
“I know nothing about it.”
Chiwenga slams the phone down.
G40 have made their second mistake, and it’s much bigger than letting ED escape: they have allowed the General back in the country and he is furious.
The rest of the country will soon be hearing from him.
- TWO WEEKS IN NOVEMBER: The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe. A book by DOUGLAS ROGERS, 2019, Chapter 13.