Simon Muzenda

Simon Muzenda, vice-president of Zimbabwe

Born: 22 October, 1922, in Gutu, Zimbabwe

Died: 20 September, 2003, in Harare, aged 80

SIMON Muzenda was the second most powerful man in Zimbabwe after the president, Robert Mugabe, his close friend and colleague for three decades.

The seriousness of Muzenda’s long illness had been kept secret for fear of the struggle that his death would trigger among the ranks of the ruling ZANU Party to succeed 79-year-old Mugabe when the president dies, retires or is deposed. Only two weeks ago, the information minister, Jonathan Moyo, dismissed reports that Muzenda’s condition was critical and said he was making "remarkable progress".

Muzenda was an absolute Mugabe loyalist whose ruthlessness in both liberation and post-independence politics sometimes surpassed that of his mentor. Muzenda was not a man to be crossed lightly.

When bloody internal fighting broke out in Zambia among exiled ZANU guerrillas in 1975, after the assassination of the then ZANU president, Herbert Chitepo, Muzenda backed Mugabe against Ndabaningi Sithole, thus mapping the fate of the final years of white-ruled Rhodesia and the first 23 years of Zimbabwe independence.

The question of who killed Chitepo is one of the most explosive and dangerous issues in the violent world of Zimbabwean politics. Many quietly point the finger at Mugabe and Muzenda, though the question is unlikely to be finally answered until both men are dead.

The immediate consequence of Muzenda’s death is to reduce the chances of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the speaker of parliament, succeeding Mugabe. Mnangagwa, as head of the security services, co-operated with Muzenda, a member of the majority ethnic Shona group, in the early 1980s in the military crackdown on the Ndebele people of western Zimbabwe: an estimated 30,000 people were slaughtered by the army’s North Korean-trained 5th Brigade. The death of the much-feared Muzenda seems certain to embolden more "dovish" candidates for the succession.

Muzenda was born in the Gutu district, near the southern town of Fort Victoria, now called Masvingo. He trained in South Africa as a carpenter before returning to Rhodesia and joining the militant British African Voice Association, a prototype trade union that protested against the Native Land Husbandry Act which confined Africans to tribal trust lands and forced them to cull their cattle herds.

Muzenda was imprisoned several times before being released into exile in 1975. He paved the way for Mugabe, released later, to travel to Mozambique where the guerrilla wing of ZANU established its headquarters and military bases. After Mugabe’s release, Muzenda was elected vice-president of ZANU in 1977, a position he held until he died.

At pre-independence election rallies in 1980, at the end of the Rhodesian War, Muzenda was constantly at Mugabe’s side, raising his leader’s arm in a clench-fisted salute to enthusiastic black crowds. He was rewarded by being appointed deputy prime minister and then vice-president when Mugabe became state president. Muzenda’s role in government was murky - as was his responsibility in the murderous internal politics of the exiled liberation movement.

It was Muzenda who ordered the deportation earlier this year of the Guardian’s veteran American-born correspondent, Andrew Meldrum, a permanent resident of Zimbabwe and an early ZANU sympathiser who had reported from the country for two decades. Muzenda ignored a High Court ruling that Meldrum’s expulsion would be illegal.

In 2001, Muzenda wrecked a $240 million loan deal from Spain when, in a row with the then finance minister, Simba Makoni, the vice-president tried to divert the funds to a dam project in his home district, where he had seized two large white farms. Before the deal collapsed, at least $20 million in a preliminary payment was believed to have been deposited in one of Muzenda’s overseas bank accounts.

Also in 2001, Muzenda was involved in a clash with Zimbabwe’s last white chief justice, Anthony Gubbay, who had ruled several of Mugabe’s misuses of power illegal. He met Muzenda to ask for more security for judges who were receiving death threats from militant "war vets", but the vice-president said the government had little faith in the judges and Gubbay was subsequently sacked.

Muzenda was a leading proponent of the mass confiscation of white-owned farms, and in 2000, when ranchers Martin Olds and David Stevens were shot dead by "war vets", the vice-president said: "Those two farmers who were killed had provoked the former guerrilla fighters, and it [their murders] should not be regrettable."

Muzenda died at the main Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. No cause of death was given. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that he had been brain dead for several weeks and had been kept alive on life-support systems while infighting about the succession went on behind the scenes in the secretive ZANU system, now more secretive than ever following last week’s banning of the only opposition daily newspaper, the Daily News.

He returned home from treatment in China in July and was immediately admitted to the coronary care unit at Parirenyatwa.

He is survived by his wife, Maudy, three sons and three daughters.