Nikita Mangena: The military strategy genius
ON July 26, 1978, tragedy befell the Zimbabwean armed struggle when Cde Rogers Mangena or Alfred Nikita, the commander of the Zapu’s armed wing, ZIPRA, died. He was killed by a landmine planted by Rhodesian soldiers at Kabanga near the Zambezi in Zambia. Cde Mangena popularly known as Nikita Mangena, the first ZIPRA commander was appointed at the military wing’s founding.
The title given to him then was Chief of Staff. The title of commander was reserved for the president of the party, the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo. Cde Nikita Mangena and other members of the Zipra High Command then namely Cdes Cephas Cele (personnel and training), John Dube (operations), Jabulani Ncube (medic), Lameck Mafela/Lookout Masuku (commissariat), Gordon Munyanyi (military intelligence, reconnaissance and communications) and Report Mphoko (logistics) built ZIPRA from scratch to be one of the strongest liberation armies in Southern Africa.
Before that, Zapu’s armed wing fell under the Office of Special Affairs, which was commanded by Cde Ackim Ndlovu.
Zipra was a fully-fledged department of the party as per the “proxy” document of 1971.
Cde Nikita Mangena was withdrawn from Morogoro/ Tanzania, where he had been a training instructor and appointed to perform the daunting task of commanding ZIPRA. He and his High Command took reins of a ZIPRA wing that had a handful of fighters, a few guns and ammunition.
From late 1971 to early 1972 Cde Mangena with less than 20 fighters to deploy into the battlefield was bold to take the offensive. The few other fighters were confined in Tanzania.
Despite these overwhelming difficulties that were facing him and his colleagues, he forced the Rhodesian forces to go into a defensive mode.
The Rhodesians introduced a patrol boat on the Zambezi River. They asked for the South African forces’ assistance who had to leave in a hurry after some heavy losses.
They even closed the Rhodesia/Zambia border in 1973 in a desperate move to try and arm-twist Zambia to stop the Zipra offensive.
During operations, the first adversary of Zipra fighters was the Zambezi. ZPRA fighters had to conquer this river before anything else. To former Zipra’s the Zambezi will always be a liberation shrine.
The intensity of Zipra operations were hindered by means of fording the Zambezi. It was until the Zipra High Command under Cde Nikita Mangena decided to solve the problem once and for all.
It was decided that it reinforces its flotilla boats. The command came up with an unorthodox source for reinforcement.
Zipra forces were unleashed to bring back boats from Rhodesia for its use.
I recall once we closed a fishing camp on the Rhodesian side of the Kariba by taking eight boats and most of the workers. The tactic was to wait for the workers in the evening as they took their turns in taking a bath at a makeshift bathroom at the camp.
The worker would take his bathing tin while Zipra fighters waited patiently until the worker applied soap on his face.
The jolly singing worker would be surprised, his mouth then gagged, his face voluntarily wiped off of soap so that he would follow the proceedings, a short political lecture would be given and he would then be politely asked to volunteer to join the armed struggle.
Anyway by then it would have been proved beyond reasonable doubt to him that volunteering was a patriotic option.
Not surprisingly everyone volunteered. On the following morning the managers of the camp found the camp empty and boats missing. Then from here the engine powered boats became Zipra marine vessels.
Some of the people who helped build the Zipra Navy through this unorthodox method were Joash, Joshua Mpofu and others. The naval equilibrium was then changed in favour of Zipra and the Zambezi was conquered.
Cde Nikita Mangena was a visionary commander. Under his command Zipra mapped out a clear strategy — a strategy that kept everyone on the same footing.
This meant all the Zipra departments developing a strategy at the same pace. There is always a danger of a strategy losing its momentum due to the lack of jelling together of its executors.
Cde Mangena and his command worked tirelessly to accomplish the goals it had set on time. The training, intelligence and reconnaissance, deployment and logistics were well synchronised.
Cde Mangena and his command made sure that Zipra guerrillas were well trained, kitted, armed, disciplined and were re-supplied properly. In our liberation war there was always a danger and temptation to deploy too many troops than the system could support.
This could lead to guerrillas roaming their operational areas without ammunition, additional operational orders and any other Head Quarters Support. Cde Mangena’s command tried their best to guard against this.
When the co-relation of forces was highly not in their favour, Zipra conducted highly mobile warfare. This involved mine warfare, ambushes and night raids, hit and disappear /lighting raids.
Most of the operations were executed in the evening. This denied the Rhodesians the advantage of air superiority. The Rhodesian air force was not equipped for night fighting.
In fact the Rhodesian forces were forced to adopt night fighting by Zipra forces. The Rhodesians preferred to initiate their attacks at first light. This gave them the advantage of calling for air support.
When Zipra had built enough forces it then started attacking bigger enemy installations and at the same time denying the enemy the ground they would have captured.
The Zipra High Command under Mangena sent cadres for officer training and conventional training for the troops as early as 1977 in preparation for the conventional warfare stage of our armed struggle, although Zipra training syllabus always had a conventional aspect.
Cde Mangena always said conventional forces are needed for the final push in a war of liberation. Two training camps were opened in Boma (Angola) and Mulungushi (Zambia)
This was the introduction of the battalion concept. The battalions were finally formed early 1979.
The battalion concept was nothing new in Zipra except that this time it was on a massive scale. The first Zipra battalion was formed in 1977 to drive back Rhodesian forces who had crossed into Zambia targeting GC-B, a region that was commanded by incumbent Zimbabwe National Army commander, Lieutenant General Philip Valerio Sibanda.
This was also to test the strength of the Rhodesians if it came to conventional warfare. The operation was successful and the enemy was driven back. There were lessons lent by Zipra from this operation.
Nikita Mangena’s vision was unwinding like clockwork. Further than building a force that would drive the Rhodesian army from its operational area and defend it, Zipra was also through Nikita Mangena’s leadership preparing for urban warfare.
Small groups were deployed into urban areas under Zipra mid 1976. These were, however, bigger than those that had been deployed by the Office of Special Affairs in the early 1960s.
Special affairs had deployed individual saboteurs. The Rhodesians reacted to this Zipra deployment by massively deploying the Special Branch (Rhodesian intelligence). Rhodesia was put onto a war footing.
All government institutions were restructured for the war. The Selous Scouts unit which was formed in 1973, was re-organised to cope with this new terrorist approach. Captured guerillas used to fight their comrades.
At the end of 1977 the urban warfare strategy was revisited. Previously urban units were formed from the guerillas who had undergone the usual military training.
This approach was discarded after the realisation that the urban environment needed some special training. The department introduced urban warfare in its syllabus.
The most effective command style is being firm and fair. Cde Nikita was just that — firm and fair. Once he decided that any field commander who wanted reinforcement would have to bring an equal number of recruits.
The first victim of what some considered a hush policy was Brig General Colin Moyo (Rtd). He responded by mass recruitment and the other field commanders throughout the country reacted in the same way putting pressure on our training department.
However, more training facilities were opened in Zambia, Angola, Libya, Ethiopia, Romania and other socialist countries to satisfy the field commanders. Mangena ordered that every soldier be issued with one operational weapon.
Loss of the weapon would result in the soldier getting another from the enemy. Zipra would only arm the soldier with a grenade. The Zipra command under Cde Mangena pushed for its soldiers to be included in all educational scholarships.
He demanded total commitment, efficiency, initiative and courage. If he felt one performed below his/her expectation he would really come hard on the individual or unit.
He expected his subordinates to execute their tasks efficiently. Cde Mangena demanded leadership qualities and proper execution of his orders. I experienced his wrath when I was involved in an operation which was considered to be of strategic category. The operation was completed, the target destroyed, but he felt that the time taken to complete the task was not up to Zipra standards.
Although we were later congratulated we were first grilled for taking too much time.
He did not forgive slackness. Cde Mangena wanted everybody’s activity to contribute towards Zipra’s grand strategy. He put a lot of effort to the development of Zipra, hence he and his command pushed for the slogan “everything for the front” by the party.
This meant that Zipra soldiers were to be first in the distribution of resources. He initiated the publication of ZPRA Weekly, the Zipra Combat Diary.
The weekly published the combat activities in Zopra operational areas. It became the combat soldier’s mouth piece. It narrated his day to day achievements.
Cde Nikita Mangena was also a disciplinarian, he demanded total discipline from Zipra ranks. The high discipline he demanded was frustrating to rogue elements, reactionaries and those infiltrated into ZPRA ranks by the enemy.
Mangena built a Zipra which worked hand-in-glove with the masses. Those who joined it had to raise their bar of dedication to sacrificial level, be prepared to stop the enemy bullet with their chest if need be for the liberation of Zimbabwe.
Discipline had to be kept high to protect Zapu and Zipra’s relations, with the host countries, masses of Zimbabwe and our revolution.
Counter revolutionaries found it difficult to operate effectively in such a well-disciplined organisation.
Cde Mangena was great a motivator. He did this by regular visits to the camps and bases.
He instilled a sense of self-belief into the comrades when things looked gloomy.
He inspired a small number of Zipras who were available in the early 1970 to confront the well-equipped Rhodesian army and bring it to its knees. He dared the well armed Rhodesian army with ill-equipped guerillas.
Cde Mangena was so engulfed by the revolution that he even named his son and daughter Lotshe and Leillah respectively. Lotshe was the commander of Induba regiment under King Lobengula and Leillah was named after a Palestinian heroine who was recently invited to South Africa by its parliament.
Cde Mangena with his colleagues, Cele, JD, Gordon Munyanyi and Mphoko were the architectures of ZPRA. Cde Mangena dedicated every atom of his body to the liberation of Zimbabwe.
He was a military genius. He is a revolutionary icon. He will always be remembered. May his soul rest in peace.
Cde Rogers Mangena popularly known as Alfred Nikita Mangena
Cde Alfred Nikita Mangena