Nairobi — In the Zimbabwean context of needy and brutalized citizens, a broken political opposition, silenced independent media and repressed civil society, the Catholic Church's relentless voice against misrule remains Robert Mugabe's worst headache.
Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo has for years represented that voice and embodied the desire of the Zimbabwean people for a truly democratic and prosperous nation.
His resignation on Tuesday over unproven allegations will no doubt shock many people who looked up to him for inspiration amidst the tragic reality of Zimbabwe. Catholics, ordinary Zimbabweans and all civic forces that have refused to die under the Mugabe onslaught might feel abandoned.
This is especially because, in the wider context, Archbishop Ncube's departure follows months of a fierce and open clash between President Mugabe and the Catholic Church over the country's political and economic crisis. Did he succumb?
In April, the Catholic bishops issued their strongest-ever pastoral letter in which they laid responsibility for the dizzying crisis squarely on the shoulders of Mugabe. The letter received acclaim throughout the Catholic world.
With diminishing access to food and other necessities, widespread human rights violations, crumbling social services and a restive populace, the bishops said, the situation had reached a flashpoint.
Shortly after publication of the letter, independent reports spoke of efforts by the country's security to block distribution of copies of the document. A United Nations humanitarian news agency reported ruling party militia intimidating rural Catholics.
President Mugabe not only dismissed the pastoral letter as "political nonsense" but also warned the bishops that they had "chosen a dangerous path" and vowed to "deal with them accordingly."
The threat did not silence the Church, however, particularly Archbishop Ncube who continued his fearless denunciation of the regime, once even suggesting that foreign powers should invade Zimbabwe to depose Mugabe and save the suffering population.
In July, Archbishop Ncube for the umpteenth time asked Mugabe, whom he called "a megalomaniac", to step down, as he launched a scathing church report detailing state brutality in his country.
Within days, state media was awash with dramatic reports and graphic pictures detailing an illicit affair between Archbishop Ncube and the wife of a junior state employee working in the archbishop's office.
Ncube's lawyers and civic groups dismissed the allegations as an orchestrated attempt to embarrass the archbishop. The Southern African Catholic bishops saw in the allegations attempts to divert public attention from the terrible political and economic crisis facing the country.
Less than a fortnight ago, the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe came out in strong defence of Archbishop Ncube, saying the accusations against him were "outrageous and utterly deplorable" and "constitute an assault on the Catholic Church."
Now Archbishop Ncube has stepped down over what, he said, "was obviously a State-driven, vicious attack not just on myself, but by proxy on the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe."
He said he does not want his fellow bishops and the church to suffer further attacks, nor does he want it to appear as if the Catholic Church was being tried for adultery.
But has he abandoned the struggle for a better Zimbabwe? Has he betrayed the cause?
"I remain a Catholic Bishop in Zimbabwe, and will continue to speak out on the issues that sadly become more acute by the day," Archbishop Ncube said.
Today's Robert Mugabe is far cry from the charismatic, Jesuit-educated African nationalist who promised his people freedom, prosperity and justice at Independence 27 years ago. Instead he is the cause of his own people's sufferings.
Archbishop Ncube's pledge to continue the struggle should energize Catholics and all Zimbabweans as they work harder to bring to an end the tragic crisis in the once prosperous Southern African nation.