Zimbabwe: Who is the Catholic priest behind Robert Mugabe?

Father Fidelis Mukonori, a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe and close confident to Robert Mugabe, is leading the mediations between the 93-year-old ruler and the military chiefs who have taken control this week.

The aim of the talks is to ensure Mugabe's peaceful exit and the installation of his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fired last week, according to Reuters' sources. But the president, who has been in power since British colonial rule ended in 1980, is refusing to negotiate after signalling he wants his wife Grace to succeed him.

Fiddles Mukonori (second from left), on his installation as director of works at Silveira House, Zimbabwe.Silveira House

Father Mukonori is a Jesuit priest and has been chaplain to Mugabe and his family since he came to power. Their friendship goes further back to the 1970s after the former guerrilla fighter was released from prison under Ian Smith's regime in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

During the struggle against Smith, Father Mukonori would travel around the country as part of his role in the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Rhodesia, documenting the details of the civil war. That information was then passed to Mugabe.

Since independence, Father Mukonori has worked with The Center for Peace Initiatives in Africa (CPIA) and has given the blessing at each anniversary celebration, adamant in his support and approval of the leader. In his 2012 book, The Genesis of Violence in Zimbabwe, Mukonori describes Zimbabwe's history since 1879 and argues the country must be honest about the tragedies in its past if it is to become peaceful.

Describing one of his first meetings with Mugabe in 1974, Father Mukonori wrote in Zimbabwean newspaper The Sunday Mail: 'I saw a simple, unassuming person one could listen to intently. This person before me was totally different from the one described in the Rhodesian media.'

He said: 'One would have imagined that President Mugabe and Vice-President Joshua Nkomo were man-eaters, but to the contrary, I met a soft-spoken gentleman.'

Later in their friendship, he described when he realised Mugabe should be leader.

Fidelis Mukonori looks on as Robert Mugabe consoles then Vice-President Joice Mujuru during the burial of her husband, the late Retired General Solomon Mujuru, in Harare in 2011.Flickr / Abayomi Azikiwe

'President Mugabe was his usual calm self. He never displayed anger or vengeance despite having spent 11 years in prison fighting the unjust system.

'He once said, "The evil is in the system. These white people happen to be the ones in charge and to be offshoots of a generation that colonised us. But it is the system that we are fighting. The fight is not about colour or race."

'That impressed me very much.'

As a spiritual leader to Mugabe Father Mukonori saw his faith side which he insisted was genuine.

'Robert Mugabe moved in the battlefield with the rosary in his pocket. Robert Mugabe would be saying his rosary sitting in the car, Robert would say his rosary flying on the plane. He flew thousands of miles every year during the war. He was a moving target all the time but he always prayed,' he said in an interview with Zimbabwe's national newspaper, The Herald.

'I don't think people knew how much he dedicated himself to the spiritual life which he still believes very fervently, very strongly today. The number of attempts on his life, the number is incredible; during the war, after the war: is it his own cleverness, is it the excellence of his State security apparatus? I am sure it is God who has saved his life.'

Despite his chaplain's involvement, Mugabe is refusing to co-operate and insists he will stay on until the elections next year. 

'It's a sort of stand-off, a stalemate,' a source told Reuters. 'They are insisting the president must finish his term.'

The army's takeover signalled the collapse in less than 36 hours of the security, intelligence and patronage networks that sustained Mugabe through 37 years in power and built him into the 'Grand Old Man' of African politics. But the 'Old Man' is proving difficult to displace, and despite Father Mukonori's efforts, little progress has been made.