General's death marked by many mysteries
Harare - An inquest to clear up the cause of a fire that killed an influential former general in Zimbabwe's army has left many questions unanswered, amid suspicion he was assassinated.
The last testimony to a commission of inquest on the death of Solomon Mujuru, aged 66, was given on Monday. The magistrate heading up the investigation would not say when a final report would be issued.
Mujuru, a veteran of the liberation war against the whites-only government in former Rhodesia, was regarded as one of the most influential and wealthy figures in the southern African country.
Observers considered him a king-maker within the ruling Zanu-PF party. He was reportedly pushing for his wife, Joice - one of two vice-presidents - to become the country's leader after long-serving President Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's president, aged 87 and believed to be in poor health, has stated his intention to retain his seat and contest the next election.
The country will likely go to the polls this year or next, although political squabbling has prevented a date from being set.
One evening in August 2011, the retired general - who owned mining interests in the south of the country - is said to have gone to a local bar. Mujuru drank whiskey with other patrons before announcing he would turn in for the night at his nearby farm.
In the middle of the night, police guards awoke to find Mujuru's house an inferno. The general was declared dead and an inquest was opened into the incident.
Highlighting his popularity across the country's political divides, Mujuru's closed-casket funeral drew tens of thousands - one of the largest such gatherings in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
The former guerilla commander - who seldom spoke and cut an enigmatic figure - had a reputation as one of the few within the ruling party who would criticize Mugabe to his face.
“The Mujuru affair has the potential to severely destabilize Zanu-PF in the months before the election,” warned a Western diplomat, requesting anonymity. “They really needed a clear-cut outcome of accidental death.”
A police statement at the opening of the inquest stated there was no evidence of foul play, but the 37 witnesses who gave testimonies at the hearings painted a more complex picture.
During the three-week inquest it emerged that the police had mishandled crucial evidence, using a contaminated plastic shopping bag to bundle up the remains of Mujuru's carbonized body.
His security guards were unprepared for the fire, lacking even radio equipment to call for help, the commission was also told.
The fire department too was tardy in responding. The truck that eventually arrived was useless, as it had a leak in its water tank and showed up empty.
Further fueling suspicion of foul play, Mujuru's housekeeper, Rosemary Shoti, said she heard gunshots two hours before the fire was discovered. An AK47 assault rifle lay near the burned body.
Police pathologist Gabriel Alvero even admitted he was uncertain the corpse he examined was that of the general, as he lacked equipment and access.
Critics of Mugabe, including some former fighters in the liberation war, say they would not be surprised if scores were being settled.
They cite a long list of prominent political figures who they claim were killed by Zanu-PF since the battle against the white minority-led government kicked off in 1975.
Magistrate Walter Chikwanha, in closing the testimony phase of the inquest, also rejected calls by Mujuru's family for the body to be exhumed for independent examination. - Sapa-dpa