No one yet knows how the 37-year reign of President Robert Mugabe will end, but many are hoping a Jesuit priest will lead the way to a peaceful transition of power in Zimbabwe.
The Rev. Fidelis Mukonori on Wednesday began to mediate between Mugabe and the military shortly after the country’s generals put the 93-year-old authoritarian leader under house arrest.
Mukonori, 70, the Mugabe family’s longtime spiritual adviser, is trying to negotiate a deal that would transition Mugabe out of power or send him into comfortable exile, perhaps in neighboring South Africa.
The priest first met Mugabe, a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant country, in 1974 at a Jesuit social service agency outside the nation’s capital, Harare, where Mugabe’s sister worked.
The priest has served as the first family’s chaplain for all Mugabe’s years in office, which have been marked by political and economic turmoil.
Mugabe to many is still the hero of a revolution that overthrew white majority rule. But he is also widely blamed for the nation’s economic tumult and reviled by those who resent the strong and sometimes violent arm he has used to retain power.
Mukonori, though, has tried to portray Mugabe in a more sympathetic, religious light.
Many people do not know this side of Mugabe, the priest in 2015 told The Herald, a national newspaper in Zimbabwe.
“I think very few people have the time to understand him and how spiritual he is,” Mukonori said.
“Robert Mugabe moved in the battlefield with the rosary in his pocket. Robert Mugabe would be saying his rosary sitting in the car, Robert would say his rosary flying on the plane.”
Mugabe’s mother had given him the rosary when he was going to war, telling him that he had no other weapon to offer him protection, according to the priest.
“Pray your rosary,” the priest said Mugabe’s mother told him.
Mugabe was born at a Catholic mission station and attended a Jesuit school in Zimbabwe, which was then known as Southern Rhodesia.
Even before 1980, when the current nation of Zimbabwe was founded and Mugabe became its first prime minister — and then president — Mukonori has been by his side.
The priest, who hold a master’s of theology from Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology in California, aided in the birth of Zimbabwe as its founding was negotiated in London, with the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement.
More recently, Mukonori has served on a commission drafting the country’s new constitution.
This week, the generals said they seized power to end corruption in the country, which was plunged into political turmoil earlier this month after Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa had been in a power struggle with Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to succeed her husband.
Mugabe is apparently insisting that he be allowed to serve his full term as president. General elections are set for July 2018.