BSR: Old battles – When Joshua Nkomo nearly lost his seat


In 1983, just three years after independence, the new Parliament of Zimbabwe had to deal with a matter concerning the tenure of one of its members’ seats. The member in question was no ordinary man. That man was Dr Joshua Nkomo, a doyen of the liberation struggle. He was widely referred to as Father Zimbabwe on account of his pioneering role in nationalist politics. This BSR is an account of the battle over his seat. 

Dr Nkomo was the leader of ZAPU, the other half of the Patriotic Front, which together with Robert Mugabe’s ZANU negotiated as a pact at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference which paved the way to independence in 1980. Had things gone to plan, the two would have fought the election together in 1980. The reasons why the Patriotic Front didn’t survive Lancaster are outside the scope of this BSR. 

Nevertheless, Dr Nkomo had been part of the new government in 1980, after the new Prime Minister Robert Mugabe put together a government of national unity, a sensible move after a highly divisive and acrimonious war. However, pre-existing tensions had escalated in those early years leading to the sacking of Dr Nkomo from the government in 1982. 

Mugabe claimed that Nkomo and his party had kept arms caches to rebel and overthrow his government. Key figures in ZAPU were arrested and detained for long periods. The emblematic names were Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, the leading figures of ZIPRA, the military wing of ZAPU during the war.   

Why the liberation icon fled Zimbabwe

The circumstances that led to the situation in Parliament in 1983 were sad and have to be seen within the context just described. Dr Nkomo had fled Zimbabwe five months earlier, fearing for his life after a raid at his home in Bulawayo by members of the security forces. Two members of Dr Nkomo’s team were killed during that raid. Dr Nkomo believed the state was after his life. Knowing the state as most Zimbabweans do now, only regime enablers would question his view. At the time, though, many outside his party might have ridiculed and dismissed his claims.

This was also the time of the Gukurahundi genocide in Matelebeland and the Midlands provinces. This remains a deep and unhealed wound on the nation’s conscience. In many ways, everything that has happened since that period becomes easier to understand when one has a better understanding of the violent and callous nature of the state during Gukurahundi. Men and women were buried alive. They were forced to dig their graves. Women were raped and sexually abused. There are gory stories of pregnant women who were bayoneted by the soldiers. It has always been an incorrigibly violent state.

It was in this context that Dr Nkomo skipped the border, first into Botswana and later, to the United Kingdom. The irony is impossible to ignore. Here was a giant of the liberation struggle, fleeing the country he had helped to liberate and finding refuge in the former colonial power. These contradictions in the very early years foretold a grievous future for the new nation. As Nkomo himself wrote in his memoirs during that exile, he realised that a country could be free without its people being free.

One of Mugabe’s ministers, Dr Herbert Ushewokunze taunted Dr Nkomo, saying he had skipped the border disguised as a “fat old woman”. This taunt, which must have hurt Dr Nkomo, was vehemently rejected. ZANU ministers and supporters took delight in mocking the elder statesman. This particular trait, which remains evident to this day in our politics, has deep roots. Regrettably, it has become a societal problem with crude exchanges evident across the political landscape.

Going after Nkomo’s seat

The result of all this was that having gone into exile, Dr Nkomo had missed several sittings of Parliament. In terms of the constitution, an MP could lose his seat if, without leave of the Speaker or President of the Senate, he or she was absent from Parliament for 21 consecutive sittings and the relevant House resolved by a simple majority of its total membership that the seat should be vacant. There is a similar provision in section 129(1)(f) of the current constitution.

After it became clear that Dr Nkomo had missed 21 consecutive sittings, ZANU PF moved a motion to have the seat declared vacant. The motion was moved by Dr Eddison Zvobgo, who was the Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.

However, after two days of intense debate in early August 1983, the motion was adjourned for two weeks. Critics charged that the move to unseat Dr Nkomo was motivated by tribalism. The ZANU PF government argued in return that it was absurd to insinuate tribalism where a member had breached the rules. The then Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Herbert Ushewokunze argued that Parliament must defend the principle that the people in his constituency had the right to representation. He is quoted as describing Dr Nkomo as a “phantom, non-appearing member suffering from paranoia”.

Dr Nkomo had an unlikely ally in former Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Douglas Smith. His view was that the key issue was whether Dr Nkomo’s absence was forced or voluntary. Smith argued that the central question was whether Dr Nkomo was a refugee who genuinely feared for his life. He would, therefore “not support the motion unless he was convinced there was no problem” reported The Star newspaper of South Africa on 5th August 1983.

As it happened, Dr Nkomo returned from exile on the 16th August 1983, just a day before the debate concerning his seat was due to resume. When he was asked about the debate at a press conference on the day of his arrival, Dr Nkomo said, “My vacant seat is not the problem. What made me leave it vacant is the problem”. He was referring to both the political problem and the personal safety concerns that had prompted him to flee.

Tactical games

It seems that the adjournment had been a tactical move made in anticipation of Dr Nkomo’s return. The motion to unseat him was being used as a political weapon to get him to return home because his controversial departure and subsequent exile was hurting the new government’s image. At that time, despite the on-going Gukurahundi, Mugabe was the golden boy of the international community who could do no wrong, and even if he did, he was shielded.

For his part, Nkomo’s return was also a tactical move to forestall the attempt to expel him from Parliament. In her memoirs, Judith Todd wrote that Nkomo had returned to “pre-empt moves to expel him from parliament.” The weaponization of the law had worked to draw ZANU’s difficult opponent back into the country.

On 17th August 1983, Dr Nkomo returned to Parliament for the first time in 5 months. The motion to unseat him was withdrawn, a move which according to The Star newspaper of 18th August 1983 drew “cheers from all sides of the House”. That all sides of the House welcomed the withdrawal suggests that even ZANU’s MPs were relieved that they did not have to vote on the difficult motion. Some may not have agreed with their party’s course of action.

However, while thanking him for returning home, Dr Zvobgo criticised Dr Nkomo for “doing a disservice to the country by fleeing to Britain”. This confirmed that the exile had hurt the government. “He said that we intended to kill him … Some of our enemies abroad were beginning to believe him,” Zvobgo told Parliament.

The debate

The initial adjournment of the motion over Dr Nkomo’s seat was described by The Washington Post on 5th August 1983 as the outcome of “two days of acrimonious debate” in which MPs’ speeches focused on “attacks and defences of Nkomo”. One of the government ministers, Kumbirai Kangai went on the attack describing Dr Nkomo as “a treacherous man, a coward, a man who has an insatiable lust for power.” 

However, other MPs defended the veteran nationalist. “What is wrong with Zimbabwe today that you cannot respect the father of Zimbabwe?” asked ZAPU MP Ruth Chinamano. “It is a pity that a man who opened the eyes of many to the fight for independence is now being thrown out,” she lamented during the debate, referring to Nkomo’s pioneering role in the struggle for independence.

Dr Zvobgo, a lawyer by training, argued that the letter of the law had to be followed. He cited provisions of the national constitution which stated that an MP could lose his seat if he missed 21 consecutive sittings without leave of the Speaker and Parliament resolved to expel him. He reasoned that if members did not support the motion, they would be setting a dangerous precedent concerning compliance with the constitution.

Dr Zvobgo was supported by his counterpart at Home Affairs Minister, Dr Herbert Ushewokunze who, according to the Washington Post on 5th August 1983, painted the dire picture that if Parliament “should solicit us to breach the constitution, hell will be let loose … We can rule by the sword”. These statements suggested a government party that was keeping a rigid line concerning enforcement of the Constitution. Ironically, they already ruled by the sword given that Gukurahundi was already raging in Matebeleland and the Midlands provinces.

Why the motion was withdrawn

So why did the government withdraw the motion, when it had a large parliamentary majority to take the seat away from Nkomo? ZANU PF had 57 seats out of the 100 seats in the House of Assembly and it only needed a majority of 51 MPs for the motion. There were several reasons for the withdrawal of the motion.

One reason was forbearance. Forbearance means the fact that one has the legal power to exercise a power does not mean they must use it. They can choose to forgo the power if such a course will make things better and insisting on using it might only make things worse. There was a view that unseating Dr Nkomo would only worsen tense relations between the government and the main opposition party.

There is some evidence that the government wanted to give the appearance of forbearance. A spokesperson for the government, John Tsimba, was quoted in the Washington Post of 18 August 1983 as saying the government had withdrawn the motion to demonstrate that it “can be magnanimous”. It saw the withdrawal as a conciliatory gesture to the opposition. Rigid insistence on enforcement of the provision would have been read as vindictive. After all, Dr Nkomo had returned.

This is related to the second reason, which is that strategically, the threat of expulsion had achieved its purpose, which was to get Dr Nkomo to return from self-imposed exile which was hurting the government’s reputation. The Christian Science Monitor reported on 18th August 1983 that the government “would have pressed on with the expulsion move had Mr Nkomo stayed abroad”. This means had Dr Nkomo not returned, it is unlikely the government would have exercised forbearance.

With Dr Nkomo back home, there was more advantage to be gained by showing magnanimity than by insisting on enforcing the rule. The government was keen to create an image for the international community as a tolerant democracy. A senior ZAPU MP, Josiah Chinamano had warned during the debate that “The marathon debate is doing incalculable harm to Zimbabwe” (as quoted in the Washington Post). Zvobgo had also explained the harm that the government felt on account of the exile.

A third reason for withdrawing the motion was that the government had no guarantee that it would get the majority needed to carry the motion through. While ZANU PF had a solid parliamentary majority in theory (57 out of the 100 seats) there was no guarantee that they would all support the motion. Less than 40 of its MPs had attended Parliament during each of the two days of debate, prompting adjournment on both occasions. There was, therefore, no guarantee that in practice, the ruling party would muster the majority required to support the motion. Failure would have been embarrassing for the government.

The final reason was that the government recognised the futility of unseating Dr Nkomo as it would only trigger a by-election, which by all accounts, he would win again. Government spokesperson, John Tsimba thought it would not only be pointless to unseat Dr Nkomo but it would also have the unintended effect of giving him a political advantage. “If Nkomo had run and won again, the common man might have thought he had won a great victory”, Tsimba is quoted as having said by the Washington Post on 18th August 1983. It was better to let him keep his seat than risk a second embarrassing defeat by the veteran politician.


I have referred to this episode as one in which a legal power which could have been used but was nevertheless not applied. While various reasons explain why the government did not rigidly insist on using this power, it is fair to say that to some extent, forbearance and common sense played a part.

The fact that fewer than 40 members of the ruling party were attending Parliament for the debate could have been overcome by applying the parliamentary whip if the ruling party had wanted to unseat Dr Nkomo. After all, he had missed 21 consecutive sittings and there was prima facie a case for removal. The government could have insisted on applying the law, regardless of Dr Nkomo’s return.

But it would have been pointless in the end except a minor inconvenience for Dr Nkomo having to campaign again. The government would have had to spend money on a useless by-election.

The difference between then and now is probably that there are more spitefulness and a breakdown of parliamentary norms. It seems there were MPs then who despite being in the majority were prepared to exercise independent thought. The bonds of the liberation struggle and respect for Nkomo meant that some were less prepared to be vindictive.

Things began to change at the end of the 1980s when ZANU PF introduced the “Tekere clause” allowing a party to recall an MP from parliament on grounds that the MP would have ceased to be its member. It was a response to the firing of Tekere from ZANU PF. Ironically, apart from death, this has become the most common way to end an MP’s parliamentary tenure. It is the weapon of choice when a political party wants to make a political statement and punish a member. Both the major political parties in the current Parliament have made extensive use of it and it has led to much litigation. Its deployment has contributed to the breakdown of traditional parliamentary norms.

The case of Dr Nkomo is a reminder that it is possible to strike a balance between a strict reading of the law on the one hand and the flexibility of practical political considerations on the other hand. In other words, forbearance can be the better course where a strict application of the law will only make things worse. Ultimately, good politics and good governance is about the reasonable exercise of discretion.

Archival Sources

Nkomo is facing ouster from Parliament New York Times, 26th July 1983

Vote on ousting Nkomo from Parliament is put off Washington Post, 5th August 1983

Nkomo allowed to remain in Parliament Washington Post, 18th August 1983

Zimbabwe ends attempt to expel Nkomo as MP Christian Science Monitor, 18th August 1983

Nkomo back in the fold as expulsion big is withdrawn The Star, 18th August 1983

Nkomo flies home to warm welcome The Star, 17th August 1983

Nkomo to be fined if he returns – Mugabe The Star, 13th August 1983

Nkomo to keep seat – for a while The Star, 5th August 1983