Selous Scout's Last Mission: Three Sips of Gin
SELOUS SCOUTS’ LAST MISSION: KILL ROBERT MUGABE
By Tim Bax
It was late 1979, and the internationally-brokered peace talks between the Rhodesian government and the two leading terrorist factions, Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), were well under way. It was clear that the talks would culminate in a “one man, one vote” election being held, resulting in black majority rule and the birth of a new country, Zimbabwe, rising out of the Rhodesian ashes.
Both terrorist leaders had already made known their precondition; any settlement would have to involve the disbandment of the Selous Scouts. Such was their fear and trepidation of the unit that not only did they want it disbanded, but they wanted its members expelled from the country. The writing was on the wall and I began to make plans for Carol and me to leave Rhodesia and move to South Africa.
Another of the provisions of the settlement talks was that both Nkomo and Mugabe would be allowed back into the country to start campaigning for the new elections to be held in mid-1980. Their respective terrorist forces, or guerrilla armies as it had become vogue to call them, would be restricted to a number of designated assembly areas located throughout the country. It was against this backdrop that Andy Samuels and I were called one morning into the office of the new Commanding Officer of the Selous Scouts, Lieutenant Colonel Pat Armstrong.
“Chaps, we’ve been given the task of killing Mugabe. There’s only one proviso—it has to look like an assassination attempt by renegade members of Nkomo’s ZIPRA.” Andy and I looked at each other in astonishment.
“What are you waiting for, chaps? I have a week in which to get back to COMOPS with your plan. We haven’t got much time.”
“That’s crazy,” said Andy. “The gooks in the assembly areas will run riot.”
“As soon as Mugabe is dead, the plan is for the Air Force to bomb the assembly areas, killing everybody inside.” Pat Armstrong spoke with conviction. “Any that survive and who make a run for it will soon be hunted down and killed.”
“What then?” I asked. “I suppose Prince Charles will fly in, we’ll all doff our hats and sing God Save the Queen! Sanctions will be lifted and the rest of the world will shrug their shoulders and say, ‘It’s the African way’.” I was anything but convinced.
At this late stage, the plan simply didn’t make any sense. However, we accepted that for such a bizarre plan to have been hatched, COMOPS must know something that we didn’t.
The plan we developed was simple and carried with it a high probability of success. Best of all, it wouldn’t leave any trace of having been initiated by the Selous Scouts. Mugabe was due to attend an election rally in the southern city of Bulawayo within two weeks. Thousands were expected to attend. We got one of our black pseudo-operators accredited as one of the few news reporters able to gain entry into the tightly guarded security area containing the platform and podium from which Mugabe would speak. The operator carried with him a Russian-made tape recorder, the microphone of which would be placed with the other microphones into which Mugabe would be speaking.
The difference between our microphone and the rest was that ours was filled with a shaped charge full of high explosives. Andy and I would position ourselves on a small hill approximately a mile away from the stadium in which the rally was to be held. We would have with us a portable radio tuned to a station that was to broadcast the rally live. As soon as we heard Mugabe begin his speech, we would simply detonate the explosive charge inside our microphone using a remote detonation device. The result would be like a powerful shotgun shell being discharged into Mugabe’s face from a distance of a few inches. At the same time, an explosive charge inside the tape recorder would detonate, completely destroying it. Our operator would then slink away in the ensuing mêlée.
The plan was fine tuned, rehearsed and eventually submitted to COMOPS for approval. Two days later we were given the go-ahead for its implementation. Our pseudo-operator was deployed and had no difficulty getting through security and into the tightly cordoned area from which Mugabe was to speak. Andy and I, situated on a nearby hill, waited for the rally to begin, nervously chewing on stalks of grass as we counted down the minutes. Thirty minutes before the rally was scheduled to start, the high frequency radio which linked us to our headquarters squawked into life. It was Pat Armstrong.
“It’s imperative that you abort the operation. Did you copy?” Pat kept repeating the message over and over with greater urgency.
Andy and I looked at each other, almost unbelieving. “Did you hear that, Andy? They want us to abort.”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” replied Andy, still chewing on his grass. We had gone this far in planning and implementing the operation and Andy was determined it would continue.
“Perhaps the Air Force has just realized they don’t have enough bombers to destroy the assembly areas,” I suggested, mockingly.
The next message forced even Andy to listen. Pat Armstrong informed us that the operation had been leaked by somebody in COMOPS and that Mugabe’s security detail had been made aware of the plan. At that very moment they were removing all microphones from the podium and Mugabe would speak using a bullhorn. Even if we detonated the charge, it would explode harmlessly away from its intended target.
It was the ultimate betrayal and I knew at that moment all was lost. Somebody at COMOPS was feeding details of our top secret operations to British intelligence, who in turn was passing it directly to Nkomo and Mugabe. The finger ultimately pointed firmly in the direction of Ken Flower, the Director of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organization, who was privy to the planning of all our external operations. I wondered for how long the deceitful man had been betraying the trust of the Rhodesian people, and jeopardizing the lives of her brave soldiers.
Some weeks later, Andy and I were again called into Pat Armstrong’s office. The elections had just been held and there was a prevailing concern at COMOPS that, against all expectations, Mugabe had won a landslide victory. Ballot papers from the elections were stored in vaults kept in the basement of Salisbury’s Anglican Cathedral until counting could begin. The three of us discussed a COMOPS plan to place explosive charges inside the basement of the cathedral to blow up the entire building. The ballots would be destroyed and a new election would then have to be held. Before electioneering began, the rampant intimidation which had resulted in Mugabe’s sweeping victory would be addressed.
Andy and I looked at each other, then at our new commanding officer. All three of us shook our heads in an emphatic NO! We would not be party to any more bizarre plots hatched by what appeared to us to be an increasingly irrational command at COMOPS.
Three months later, on 12 July 1980, I resigned my commission from the Rhodesian Army. I had already been asked by the South African Defence Force to assist in forming the nucleus of a copycat regiment of the Selous Scouts in the sparsely populated northeastern part of South Africa near a town called Phalaborwa. It was a task I accepted with a degree of trepidation, only because I was aware of the vast cultural chasm that existed between the Rhodesian and South African armies. Carol and I agreed to give it a go for an initial period of a year.
A month after I resigned, we placed our household furniture into storage in Salisbury with instructions on where we could be reached. Then we loaded our Datsun 120Y with sufficient personal effects to sustain us until we could get settled and headed south into the sunset. The roof rack of the car was so overloaded with suitcases and drooping canvas valises that it looked like a giant bird had just defecated on it.
“It looks rather disgusting and vulgar,” remarked Carol, winding up her window. “Do you think they’ll let us through the border?”