Vice — President John Nkomo (78) died at Harare's St Anne's Hospital yesterday afternoon aggravating the bruising battle for the vice-presidency among Zanu PF heavyweights from Matabeleland who started jostling for the post as his health deteriorated.
Nkomo becomes the fourth vice-president to die in office after Joshua Nkomo, Simon Muzenda and Joseph Msika.
He had been ill for some time and was reportedly suffering from prostate cancer.
Sources told the Zimbabwe Independent Nkomo was rushed to St Anne's at around 8pm on Wednesday after his condition deteriorated.
Nkomo arrived at the hospital in an ambulance accompanied by a nurse, nurse-aid and security details and was immediately whisked on a stretcher into the hospital's Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on the first floor of the building.
The sources said Nkomo could not talk and was struggling to breathe.
He was promptly put on oxygen to aid his breathing but his condition continued to decline culminating in his death at around midday yesterday.
State security agents had visited the hospital an hour before Nkomo arrived and ordered staff to clear the ICU saying a high profile person was coming for treatment.
"Patients were moved from the ICU to the Critical Care Unit (CCU) opposite the ICU," said a hospital official. "The CCU has the same facilities as the ICU so patients' health was not compromised."
The ICU was sealed off after Nkomo's death as security agents took control of the ward. State security agents were milling around outside the hospital throughout the day yesterday.
Several ministers and security chiefs rushed to the hospital after receiving news of Nkomo's death. Among the first to arrive after receiving the news were Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, State Security minister Sydney Sekeramayi, and Transport and Communication minister Nicholas Goche.
The commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, and Zimbabwe National Army commander, Lieutenant-General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, were also at the hospital.
Although St Anne's gives between 30 minutes and one hour to remove a body because the hospital has no mortuary, Nkomo's body remained on his death-bed until President Robert Mugabe arrived at about 3.45pm, almost three hours after his death.
Mugabe had earlier held a meeting with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, MDC leader Welshman Ncube and the cabinet committee on the constitution to resolve the impasse in the constitution-making exercise.
Mugabe spent about 15 minutes at the hospital before Nkomo's body was removed by Doves Funeral parlour shortly after he left.
Mugabe had earlier announced Nkomo's death at a press conference called by Global Political Agreement principals to announce a breakthrough in the constitution-making exercise.
"We have lost Vice-President Nkomo," said Mugabe. "He was suffering from cancer and we heard his situation had become worse from yesterday (Wednesday) when he was taken to St Anne's Hospital; that's where he passed away this morning (Thursday)."
"I want to express on behalf of government, cabinet and Zanu PF our sincerest condolences to his family, to his dear old mother, relatives and all his friends. We have lost a real revolutionary, a fighter for freedom, a friend of the people and a lover of children. He will be clearly missed by all of us."
The United States embassy's public affairs section sent a condolence message to the Nkomo family saying he had played an important role in the country.
"Whether as a teacher, a politician, an advocate for Zimbabwe's Independence, or as a public servant, Vice-President Nkomo was a patriot who dedicated his life to Zimbabwe's sovereignty and prosperity," the embassy said in a statement. "As a leader of PF Zapu and Zanu PF, Nkomo played an important role in shaping the course of Zimbabwean history."
Nkomo's death is likely to destabilise Zanu PF ahead of crucial elections this year, given jostling for his position started long before he died.
Zanu PF national chairman Simon Khaya Moyo is favourite to land the vice- presidency because of his current position in the presidium, but he may still be contested by Mines minister Obert Mpofu whose influence in Matabeleland has grown rapidly triggering a standoff with some party heavyweights.
Mpofu calls himself "Mugabe's ever obedient son" but has never been a favourite of most Zanu PF heavyweights from Matabeleland largely because he floor-crossed to Zanu PF prior to the signing of the Unity Accord in December 1987, and is thus viewed as a sellout.
His biggest weapon, however, appears to be the grassroots support he enjoys in the region, especially in Bulawayo and Matabeleland North.
Together with Naison Khutshwekhaya Ndlovu, who was the Zapu chairman when the Unity Accord was signed in 1987, Mpofu expressed an interest to succeed the late Joseph Msika as vice-president in 2009, but Nkomo landed the position by virtue of his seniority.
But the battle may include people from other regions given that some regions have over the last few years questioned why the VP position is reserved for someone from Matabeleland. The Manyikas and the Karangas have been demanding a balance in the presidium arguing they have been left out for a long time.
What they said about Nkomo's death
Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa described Nkomo as a unifier and sober politician.
"He has been ill for some time and although we complain when someone goes but there are instances where he has been going through a lot of pain and you feel that death comes in as a relief," he said.
Zanu PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa said Zimbabwe had lost a dedicated leader.
"The party has lost a powerful leader who played an important role during and after the liberation struggle," he said.
The MDC-T said Nkomo was a reconciliatory man who did not engage in politics of vengeance "like some of his colleagues in the party."
"We are saddened by the death of VP Nkomo, he was a reconciliatory man and not a man of violence," said MDC-T spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora.
"His politics was different from that of his colleagues which is that of blood. He was a reconciliatory man and befittingly he was leading the leading the organ on national healing."
Water Resources minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo (MDC-T), a cousin to Nkomo said the death was "devastating to the family".