Amid cries of jubilation from hundreds of supporters, opposition leader Joshua Nkomo returned to Zimbabwe today issuing a fervent plea for solidarity and sacrifice to reunite his politically divided homeland.
"Let us not go back to history, but let us look forward to what we are trying to achieve," Nkomo told followers who gathered outside his Harare home hours after his arrival from London this morning. "We have our problems and they cannot be solved by anybody but ourselves."
Nkomo, returning after five months of self-imposed exile, alternated between reconciliation and defiance as he appealed for "selflessness" in overcoming Zimbabwe's problems. "We must not be frightened that we will lose face," he said at a press conference.
But at the same press conference, he lashed out at a reporter for a government news publication who questioned Nkomo on a claim that soldiers had killed his driver during the March raid on his Bulawayo home that triggered his flight into exile. In fact, the driver was wounded, not killed.
"Let us not go back into bodies," Nkomo retorted, "because if you start talking about bodies there will be a lot of bodies here."
He also denounced security restrictions, dating back to the days of white minority rule but still enforced by the black majority government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, that could prevent Nkomo from holding rallies here. "This is why I'm talking about a solution to end all this nonsense that remains," Nkomo shouted to cries of support from his followers.
It was a bittersweet homecoming, filled with both triumph and uncertainty for the 66-year-old patriarch of the independence movement who fled across the border to Botswana in March, claiming Mugabe's government was seeking his death.
Nkomo returns at a time when Mugabe appears to be in firm control of the government and is pressing forward with his often-stated determination to turn Zimbabwe into a one-party state under his Zimbabwe African National Union. It is unclear what role, if any, Nkomo and other leaders of the opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union would play in such a political system.
Nkomo also faces a series of personal uncertainties, beginning with the possibility that he may be expelled from Parliament Wednesday because of his prolonged absence. Government officials have said they would press forward with the expulsion move despite his return, although there was official silence on the matter today.
In keeping with a previous pledge by officials, there were no police at Harare airport for Nkomo's arrival this morning. But Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze, who is in charge of police matters, accompanied Nkomo on the flight from London.
Nkomo laughed off the possibility of parliamentary expulsion. "Don't worry about the parliamentary seat," he said. "The seat is not the problem. The problem is that which made me absent from the seat."
While Nkomo shrugged off the possibility that he would be arrested, his eldest daughter, American-educated Thandiwe Ndhlovu, said she and the rest of the family were worried. "My mother is so worried she didn't come," said Ndhlovu, who was the first to greet her father as he emerged from the airplane. "She was afraid they'd arrest him at the airport."
Airport officials greeted Nkomo's arrival coldly. He was denied use of the VIP lounge and was detained in a curtained-off customs office for more than an hour while officials pored through his belongings, including six suitcases and a large array of electronic equipment such as a tape recorder and video cassette player.
But despite the long wait for clearance, Nkomo's supporters were enthusiastic. As he left customs and made his way into the airport lobby, supporters broke into hand claps and high-pitched shouts of delight. Nearly 100 were present even though the homecoming was only announced publicly yesterday.
Nearly three hours later at Nkomo's compound in the western suburb of Highfield, hundreds more supporters, many dressed in faded orange T-shirts with Nkomo's face on the front, gathered to hear their leader talk to the press.
Nkomo dismissed the differences between himself and his longtime rival Mugabe, saying that if he could manage to work together with former prime minister Ian Smith, who had jailed both men for nearly a decade before independence, he could work with Mugabe.
The opposition leader recalled the days when his forces and Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union were united in the effort to overthrow Smith and form a coalition government. The coalition held up for less than two years after independence.
"I was the biggest believer in the Patriotic Front," said Nkomo, referring to the coalition between himself and Mugabe. And in a less-than-veiled reference to the prime minister, he added, "Those who murdered it, I'm not one of them."