I LISTENED dumbfounded as the assassin in front of me casually discussed the measly £450 bounty on my head.
Luckily for me, the man had ignored requests by feared Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s nephew to kill me, all because I had politely enquired after his family.
It was the year 2000, and I was working as editor of Zimbabwe’s biggest selling newspaper The Daily News.
The role pitted me against Mugabe, who saw the paper as a mouthpiece for opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – who had very nearly beaten him in elections that year.
Little did I know when I took the role that it would lead me to be arrested six times, dodge death when an assassin climbed into a lift with me and escape a bombing which tore the paper’s offices apart.
All because Mugabe, who died aged 95 earlier this month, feared the message of change my paper was spreading.
An iceberg of corruption
My history with Mugabe started much earlier though – our first meeting was in November 1988 at State House, his residence in the capital city Harare.
Mugabe was then a popular, but much feared, President whose government was increasingly being accused of corruption. He challenged critics to provide evidence of any accusations of sleaze levelled against his ministers.
So I did just that. At 37, I was the editor of a daily paper called The Chronicle which had become known for investigative journalism and we’d been looking into corruption among the Mugabe government.
We called it the Willowgate Scandal.
So on that November morning as we waited to speak to Mugabe – who had been the country’s Prime Minister up until the previous year, when he became the powerful executive president – I was anxious.
The previous month, we’d published sensational details of alleged corruption involving several of Mugabe’s much-feared ministers.
Suffice to say, he was not amused by the turn of events and invited all editors from the state-owned publishing company my paper belonged to for a meeting.
It soon became clear that I was the subject of the hastily convened gathering.
“Which one of you is Comrade Nyarota,” Mugabe enquired.
I identified myself, and he quickly asked exactly what Willowgate was about.
Realising only the truth could save me from calamity, I gave Mugabe a comprehensive run-down and explained that what we had unearthed so far appeared to be only the tip of a massive iceberg of corruption.
Some of his honourable ministers were fraudulently acquiring cars at factory price from Willowvale Mazda Motor Industries, a partly state-owned car assembly plant.
As vehicles were in high demand, they were selling them on at exorbitant mark-ups.
One minister bought 36 cars, another got a Toyota Cressida semi-luxury sedan and sold it later the same day for four times as much.
Mugabe not amused
Mugabe listened in dumbfounded silence.
When he finally spoke, he expressed concern that such serious allegations against his cabinet ministers had been published without warning.
But he conceded he couldn’t stop us making the investigation public.
He may have sounded conciliatory, but I knew Mugabe was far from amused.
Sure enough, the following month I was removed from my position, with Mugabe saying I’d been “overzealous”. My deputy Davison Maruziva only lasted a couple more weeks.
A review into our allegations vindicated us and prompted five cabinet ministers to resign. One killed himself not long after.
It was against this backdrop that Mariziva and I set up The Daily News, backed by British investors, in 1998.
We wanted to change the landscape of reporting in Zimbabwe, and it seemed the public agreed as the paper became the most popular in the country within a year.
This was at a time of deep unease within the country, with opposition party MDC gaining traction, the electorate rejecting a new constitution completely and the controversial invasion of white-owned farms spearheaded by people loyal to Mugabe.
Public feelings towards the President and his government were becoming increasingly hostile against a backdrop of soaring unemployment – at 50 percent – rocketing fuel prices leaving even those with jobs struggling to get to them, severe shortages of basic commodities and low standards of living.
‘An assassin was sent to murder me’
The fearsome president dismissed our paper as an MDC mouthpiece with links to the West. We denied both charges.
Then came the parliamentary elections of June 2000.
It was the first time his ruling Zanu-PF party were challenged by a powerful opposition – Mugabe won, taking a reduced majority of 63 seats compared to the 57 won by the MBC, which had been in existence for only nine months.
Some observers attributed Mugabe’s slim victory to electoral fraud and intimidation of voters. Thousands of people were murdered, abducted, assaulted or arrested in an orgy of political violence.
Rural people lived in fear of marauding Zanu-PF youths. Opposition party activists and journalists were arrested, mostly on spurious grounds.
I was arrested on a total of six occasions, with the police normally coming for me under cover of darkness.
Then, a month after the election, an assassin was sent to murder me.
Bombing the printers
I came face-to-face with Bernard Masara in the elevator of our office building.
While I didn’t know this smartly-dressed stranger, I greeted him and asked about the health of his family, before leaving the lift as he carried on his journey.
Two days later Masara sat in my office, with my deputies present, and admitted being hired by the Central Intelligence Organisation to eliminate me.
He said he had kept me under surveillance for two weeks and had even visited my home. But our encounter in the lift and my genteel demeanour had changed his attitude towards his assignment.
To prove his point he called his handler, Innocent Mugabe, the CIO deputy director, on the phone. Innocent was President Mugabe’s nephew, the son of his sister.
We listened awe-struck as my would-be assassin and his handler haggled over the bounty on my head – Z$200 000, roughly £450 in today’s money.
“It was just the two of us in the lift,” Masara told my deputies. “He asked me about my family. I decided I was not going to let him be killed.
“I realised he was different from the man that had been described to me.”
And so my life was spared. The CIO chief died in a car crash a short while later.
Then, on January 28, 2001, the totally unthinkable happened – security was breached at our printing factory and a massive bomb explosion totally wrecked the Daily News printing press.
The bomb was detonated by remote control and fortunately no one was killed or injured.
I was away visiting my village when the incident happened, but my heart sank when I visited the scene of senseless destruction.
Information Minister Prof Jonathan Moyo had ominously threatened the demise of a newspaper in just this way.
The security guards noted the registration number of the assailants’ vehicle as it sped off and we gave it to the police, but no one was ever held accountable.
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Far from scaring me into submission, I vowed this dastardly act would not silence our newspaper.
By early next morning it was back on the streets, with the defiant headline “Daily News Press Bombed”.
Antagonism between the government and the newspaper escalated afterwards, with Mugabe banning The Daily News outright in September 2003.
It was effectively silenced for seven years, but I remained dedicated to uncovering the truth about what was happening in Zimbabwe – and making sure the public heard it too.
Geoffrey Nyarota is the author of The Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe.