He was one of Zimbabwe’s most revered independence warriors, a multi-starred general who guided Robert Mugabe to power 31 years ago. He was also one of the few men bold enough to challenge him.
And so when Solomon Mujuru, a senior MP in Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, died in a fire at his rural farm near Harare earlier this month, few people were surprised.
Just as a car crash killed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife Susan two years ago, it has never been unusual for politicians and their loved ones to fall victim to unfortunate accidents in Zimbabwe.
The police account of the fire that killed Mr Mujuru on August 15 states the blaze was started by a candle, lit by household staff following a power cut.
But ever since, rumours about the circumstances in which he was found have circulated, with many struggling to believe that an experienced bush combatant in the liberation war chould have been vanquished by a domestic mishap. Instead, the fear is that his death may mark the start of a violent power struggle within Zanu PF, as talk of Mr Mugabe’s failing health focuses minds on his succession.
“The feeling across the country, wherever you go, whoever you talk to, is that he was murdered,” said one senior Zimbabwean politician. “No one wants to talk about this in public because there is so much tension.”
Mr Mujuru, 62, who was the first commander of the Zimbabwean army following independence in 1980, was a stalwart of Zanu-PF.
His wife, Joyce, currently services as the party’s vice-president and is considered a favourite to take over the party one day, albeit with her husband as the power behind the throne.
However, the faction that the couple led within the movement was considered moderate–especially when it came to doing business with Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party, with which Zanu PF currently shares power.
As such, Mr Mujuru posed a direct threat to Zanu PF’s hardline wing, who see Mr Tsvangirai and his followers as Western stooges bent on bringing British colonial rule.
Last week, as speculation about foul play intensified, Mrs Mujuru added her voice to the growing chorus of doubt, saying publicly for the first that there were questions that needed to be answered.
Why, his widow asked, did nobody alert her husband when the house was guarded by both police and private security staff, and flanked by a village of farmworkers’ homes? And why did he not simply clamber out of the window in their ground-floor bedroom, used frequently by their grandchildren to come and go?
“For a military man, it’s so weird that he could have failed to escape the fire,” she remarked during an official visit to the Zimbabwean women’s football team, which was filmed by the state broadcaster.
What is known is that earlier that evening, Mr Mujuru, a lover of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, had enjoyed a few tots with friends in a nearby hotel. But he broke his usual habit of overindulging because he was due to be up early.
His farm is said to be on a special electricity grid reserved for VIPs which ensures they are never affected by the power cuts that blight ordinary Zimbabweans’ lives.
But on the night in question, the power had been shut off. When Mr Mujuru went inside, reports claim, he left groceries he had bought and his mobile phone in his car.
Wilfred Mhanda, a fellow liberation army commander, believes he was attacked the moment he entered the house.
“There must have been some people waiting for him inside the house,” he said. “The fire was just to mask the evidence.”
It was not until 3am that the emergency services were called, and when a fire engine arrived an hour later, it had no water to douse the flames.
By that time, a pile of ash and bones was all that remained of the General’s massive frame.
The farm’s white former owner, Guy Watson-Smith, who was forced to leave by Mr Mujuru’s men during Zimbabwe’s violent land seizure programme a decade ago, remarked: “Our house was a single storey building, roofed entirely with asbestos sheeting, and with walls of brick and cement. All that could have burned was roofing timbers and ceilings, and to imagine the fire spreading quickly without help is hard to do.”
One explanation for how the fire spread is contained in a highly-classified, preliminary intelligence document which Zimbabwean newspapers claim to have seen, in which Zanu-PF sources suggest the general was murdered and his body then doused with gasoline. Pathologists consulted by The Sunday Telegraph say that his body is unlikely to have been reduced to ashes without the help of an accelerant.
Diehard supporters of Mr Mugabe felt that Mr Mujuru wanted to steer Zanu-PF on a more moderate course, away from the uncompromising stance of the current leader.
But with the 89-year-old dictator looking increasingly frail in recent months–he is said to be receiving treatment for cancer–many believe that the behind-the-scenes power struggle for the succession is already underway.
The main contenders were Mrs Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current defence minister, who ran Zimbabwe’s ruthless central intelligence organisation when it was accused of the massacre of some 20,000 political opponents of Mugabe in the 1980s.
Tendai Biti, the MDC’s Finance Minister in the coalition government formed with Zanu-PF in 2009, was among the first to implicate Zanu-PF, saying they had taken to “roasting” their opponents.
Mr Biti later withdrew his comments, and many politicians do concede that there may be suspects outside of their world. Mr Mujuru had previously quarrelled with a neighbouring farmer about wages for workers, while his business dealings in Zimbabwe’s controversial diamond mines could also have made him a target.
But privately, some politicians believe the responsibility for Mujuru’s demise could lie directly at the door of the president himself.
“Mujuru was the last remaining person within Zanu-PF who was able to speak out against Mugabe during politburo meetings,” one told The Sunday Telegraph.
“His death, whether an accident or an assassination ordered from the very top, benefits Mugabe more than any other individual.”