It was a moment that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe clearly relished. In a tone of quiet triumph, he announced to a packed Salisbury news conference last week that coalition partner Joshua Nkomo and two other members of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union
(ZAPU) party had been sacked
from the cabinet. They had been “caught red-handed,” he declared, plotting to overthrow the government. The evidence: massive caches of arms discovered in raids by government troops on ZAPU-owned farms.
But if Mugabe was pleased to be rid of Nkomo after 22 uneasy months together, his equanimity was not shared by the majority of Zimbabweans. Fear was widespread that the final rupture of the uneasy alliance between the rival groups, formed originally to overthrow Ian Smith’s white minority government, would lead to open warfare between them. Scarcely less alarming for Mugabe’s political opponents were signs that the ouster was part of the ruling Zimbabwe African National
Union (ZANU) party’s avowed long-term goal: creation of a one-party state.
The twin threat was uppermost in the mind of British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington—mastermind of the 1979 Lancaster House agreement on black majority rule—as he arrived in Salis-
bury this week for urgent talks with Mugabe and Nkomo. The most immediate worry was that Nkomo’s former guerrillas, many of whom have been integrated into the fledgling army, would revolt on a scale surpassing their sixday rampage near the city of Bulawayo
last year. That uprising, sparked by Nkomo’s demotion from
interior minister to minister without portfolio, cost a total of 150 lives. Last week’s developments were far more humiliating, and in their wake Nkomo did nothing to allay fears of rebellion. Meeting with reporters in Salisbury, he dismissed Mugabe’s charges as a pack of lies and warned: “One hopes there is no strife. But it is still too early to believe that it can be avoided.”
There seemed little doubt that Mugabe’s move would heighten § long-smouldering tensions be| tween his Shona followers and I Nkomo’s minority Ndebele s tribe. The day after Mugabe’s ^announcement, 3,000 jubilant 2ZANU loyalists converged on his I Salisbury office. But on Satur-
day there was a counterdemonstration. And in Matabeleland, the Ndebele stronghold, lingering resentment at ZAPU’s poor showing in the 1980 elections—it gained only 20 seats in the 100-seat parliament—was deepened by the realization that the party had been effectively stripped of cabinet responsibility. (One ZAPU minister stayed on, but his future remained uncertain.) Moreover, observers were quick to point to the sequence of events leading up to Nkomo’s ouster as evidence of Mu-
gabe’s long-term intention. Only weeks before, Mugabe had invited ZAPU to merger talks with the declared aim of forming a one-party state. Nkomo spurned the offer, and in reaction, it is argued, Mugabe decided to rid himself of the man he described as “a cobra in the house.” He ordered raids on ZAPUowned property, which netted a huge haul of arms: 7,000 rifles, 327 rocketpropelled grenades, more than one million rounds of ammunition and 25 SAM-7 ground-to-air missile launchers.
There were plausible explanations for the stockpiles. One was that ZAPU wanted them for defensive purposes: in case ZANU supporters should attempt to intimidate voters in the 1985 elections as they had in 1980. But Mugabe chose to believe otherwise and used the discoveries as the reason for expropriating ZAPU holdings and expelling Nkomo from the government.
Now, since ZANU holds a 57-seat majority in parliament, Mugabe can govern without the support of ZAPU or the whites’ Rhodesian Front. And few observers doubt that his program includes the scrapping of the constitution, by administrative decree if necessary.
Still, Mugabe must steer a careful course toward his objective. For one thing, he must not frighten away the massive foreign aid that he needs to carry out his social reconstruction programs. Nor can he afford to accelerate the already substantial exodus of whites—currently running at 1,500 a month—which is creating a severe shortage of skilled manpower.
But for the moment, the greatest threat to Mugabe’s political timetable is the possibility of an outbreak of tribal bloodletting. At week’s end, an intense debate was under way in government circles as to whether Nkomo and other top ZAPU officials should be prosecuted for involvement in the alleged conspira-
cy. If the decision goes in favor of a trial, few observers doubt that Nkomo’s supporters’ response would be violent.
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