Mugabe's tightrope gets shakier

The analogy between Robert Mugabe, prime minister of Zimbabwe, striving hard to maintain political balance, and that of a professional tightrope walker may be overworked -- but it is nonetheless valid.

Since winning the Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) independence elections at the end of February, Mr. Mugabe has battled to retain the middle ground as part of his proclaimed policy of reconciliation and rehabilitation.

It is difficult to fault his performance, which has served to confirm the widely held pre-election assessment of the Zimbabwean leader that he was -- and is -- by far the most able of the country's political leaders.

Indeed, so impressive has his performance been that one senior white official commented recently: "Robert Mugabe is the one man that is capable of holding the show together. If he were to go, then who knows what would happen. . . ."

However, Prime Minister Mugabe today is confronted with an array of pressing problems -- some of them from within his own party and government, some from outside. Included among the latter is an unexpected critical outburst from Gen. Peter Walls, the former Zimbabwe (and, earlier, Rhodesia) military commander.

Some of Mr. Mugabe's problems, such as the black-white friction and the competition between the two wings of the Patriotic Front alliance, were always predictable, but others, far less so. Certainly few would have predicted at the time of the elections that within five months of taking office Mr. Mugabe would face growing problems within his own party between the radical and moderate elements.

This highlights the interaction between the premiers' own determined effort to hold the middle ground and the consequences this has had on some of his more radical and younger supporters.

Some political analysts here are bemused at the naively gleeful reaction from many whites to the recent arrest, on a murder charge, of Cabinet Minister Edgar Tekere, the leader of the radical wing within Mr. Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

Mr. Tekere is very popular with the younger element in the party -- as witnessed by the demonstration last weekend by some 200 black students demanding his immediate release from jail and also within the guerilla assembly camps where there are some 22,000 ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) guerrillas.

White delight and, indeed, any expresion of pleasure at Mr. Tekere's predicament from the rival Nkomo wing within the coalition government can only further embarass Mr. Mugabe. He probably does not wish to be portrayed as the man who is trusted both by the whites and Joshua Nkomo, which might result in alienating some of his own grass-roots support.

One indication of this situation is apparent from the speculation here that should it be necessary to replace Mr. Tekere as powerful secretary-general of the ruling party, Mr. Mugabe is no longer in favor of his close ally, Dr. Eddison Zvobgo, but instead of someone less closely aligned with the Mugabe "centerists."

In addition to the unfortunate Tekere affair, Mr. Mugabe had had to grapple in recent days with an astonishing and ill-timed outburst by General Walls, the country's former interim military commander. General Walls, who also had been commander of the Rhodesian security forces in the seven-year guerilla war, was a surprise choice -- but a popular one with the whites -- as head of the joint military command when Mr. Mugabe took office in March.

The general's continued presence at the military helm was seen as an important bulwark to white confidence. Then, last month, the general announced that he was quitting as of July 29, claiming that there were no political reasons for his premature retirement.

The task of integrating the three former armies -- the ZANLA guerrillas loyal to Mr. Mugabe, the ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Liberation Army) guerrillas of Mr. Nkomo, and the former Rhodesian security forces -- was going sufficiently smoothly for him to retire, General Walls said.

But this week, in BBC television interview and subsequently on Radio South Africa, the general adopted a very different attitude, warning that civil war in Zimbabwe was "a distinct possibility" and that the country would have to go "through the rapids" before it could achieve stability.

On South African television the general added that there was a possibility that majority rule would "fail" in Zimbabwe. The next few months were crucial, he said, pointing out that a great deal could depend on the ZANU-PF party congress, which could be held later in the year.

"Sooner or later Mr. Mugabe has got to show exactly where he stands," General Walls said. "He cannot be with the hares and with the hounds at the same time."

The general admitted, too, that when he learned of the election results he had asked the British prime minister to annul the voting. There had been some "pretty bloody clashes" between the Nkomo and Mugabe guerrillas, he said, resulting in "many deaths."

Not surprisingly, these comments went over very badly with the Zimbabwe prime minister. Mr. Mugabe was reportedly "dismayed" and "upset" at the general's statments. More important, probably, is their impact on two considerations that are increasingly vital tot he country's economic prospects.

The first is how the whites will react to the general's gloomy assessment of the political future. The second is what impact will his comments have on international investment interest in Zimbabwe.

The immediate reaction is that his statements are likely to have had a negative effect both on white morale on investor sentiment. This is a great pity, as Mr. Mugabe's first budget, presented to Parliament late last month, went some way toward rehabilitating business confidence.

Precisely why General Walls decided to give vent to his personal feelings since his resignation remains unclear. The effects have been anything but helpful to the cause of moderation which he claims to support.

A further worrying aspect for Mr. Mugabe and for all concerned about the stability of Zimbabwe high court judge in which Mr. Tekere was seeking bail.

Judge Tony Smith said in his judgment refusing bail to the minister of manpower planning and development that the prosecution opposed bail because "there are various places in the country to which the police did not have free access because the persons in control would not allow it." This apparently is a reference to guerrilla assembly camps, in which the ex-guerrillas are in control.

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