From prime choice to rotten

HARARE - For Anglican leaders choosing a new bishop for Harare diocese in 2000, Nolbert Kunonga was a safer pick given the political breeze at the time.

Church leaders, including outgoing bishop, Jonathan Siyachitema, had for years suffered the discomfort of watching Tim Neill, the man tipped to become the next bishop turn into a rabid critic of President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

 The church, which for years had kept politics at arm’s length, was firmly on a collision course with the political establishment with Neill at the centre of it.

 At St Luke’s Greendale parish where he was based, Neill led a multi-racial congregation at a time when whites were under attack. He would regularly invite political and human rights activists to speak at the church, not least Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, an opposition leader at the time.

But that was the least of the church and political establishment’s concerns.

 Neill went on the forefront of the anti-Mugabe campaign.

 Calling on Mugabe to “go now”, Neill once said: “To me, this man (Mugabe) is a bully, and Zimbabweans need others to help us get the bully off us. It is like at school, you need the help of others to deal with a bully.”

 That kind of bravery cost him the Anglican job.

 Meanwhile, on the opposite number, another sort of bravery paid off.

 Kunonga, whom Neill said was not on the shortlist for the bishop’s job, suddenly appeared on the scene, having left his New York base where he was teaching theology at a seminary run by the late cult leader Rev Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

 He controversially won the vote held on December 22, 2000 in Gweru. So “popular” was Kunonga that other clergymen went to Neill to prod him to accept the election result.

 But in a flash, from violent farm invasions to disputed elections, anything done in Zanu PF’s name came with “heavenly anointing” while Mugabe became “God’s second son” after Jesus, according to Kunonga’s gospel.

 Statements in support of Mugabe and Zanu PF as well as racist attacks on whites became routine, so did violence and, as we know now, sexual abuse of children at an orphanage seized by Kunonga.

 “If I am a puppet, then I am a proud and educated puppet,” he once said during a tragicomic reign during which he ordained as priests top Zanu PF officials such as the late Vice President Joseph Msika.

 Maybe Kunonga felt a need to repay.

 According to Neill, Zanu PF actively blocked his election while security agents helped Kunonga win.

 The Anglican clergy refused to entertain Neill, instead clinging to their man, Kunonga. Neill said some Anglican bishops and priests even came to him asking him to accept “defeat” and embrace Kunonga but he refused.

 Many of them are ruing that decision today.

 Men of cloth who once stood by Kunonga began to see the evil hand but it was too late. Kunonga was firmly in charge and running the church down.

 In response to charges that Kunonga’s election had been rigged, Sebastian Bakare, a long-serving Anglican clergy, was quoted as saying in 2000: “There is no way the counting could have been rigged.”

 In 2007 Bakare, was to be shipped from Manicaland to Harare to deal with the turmoil caused by Kunonga’s rogue status and the two became mortal enemies with Kunonga regularly harassing Bakare’s followers.

Another CPCA clergy, Godfrey Tawonezvi, the Masvingo bishop, is one of the happiest people around after the Supreme Court ruling.

He has every reason to be, as his diocese suffered some of the worst harassment from Kunonga.

Yet, a decade plus ago, Tawonezvi was like a torch bearer of the Kunonga campaign, circulating a letter which accused Neill of practising racism, a message that resonated well with the man today considered a rogue bishop.

Kunonga, the man trusted to lead the church away from the politics Neill had dragged the Anglican Church into is leaving having achieved turning the once mighty institution into a Zanu PF arm.

Church leaders such as Bakare and Tawonezvi, who later suffered his brunt, could be asking themselves: “What the hell had we seen in Kunonga to trust him that much?”

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