Zimbabwe to cut Army size but will soldiers stay calm?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Almost two years after independence, Zimbabwe still bristles with military personnel. The armed forces number about 60,000 men -- one in every 125 persons.

The staggering size of those forces -- for a nation at peace -- is put in some perspective when compared with the army of Zimbabwe's neighbor, Mozambique. Mozambique has only about 30,000 in its military, and it is at war with an internal guerrilla resistance movement.

Only a few months ago, Zimbabwe completed the delicate process of integrating competing guerrilla forces into a national Army. The Army also includes whites the guerrillas formerly fought against.

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Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe now must reduce the size of the military, which everyone agrees is far too large. Maintaining calm among the demobilized soldiers, as well as those remaining in service, will be one of Mr. Mugabe's major tasks this year.

The job has become all the more important in light of the recent political upheavals here. Last week Mr. Mugabe fired his chief political opponent, Joshua Nkomo, from his Cabinet position of home affairs minister.

Mr. Nkomo and three other Cabinet ministers were dismissed for alleged involvement in the storage of large amounts of arms for an eventual attempt to overthrow the government. They are all members of ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union), which has ruled Zimbabwe in coalition with Mr. Mugabe's party.

The integration of troops loyal to Mr. Nkomo with those serving Mr. Mugabe during the guerrilla-war years is still regarded by knowledgeable military analysts as ''fragile.'' Violence broke out between the two factions a year ago.

The government took a firm disciplinary line against that outbreak. And that earlier crackdown is one reason military analysts cite when asked why there is calm in the military ranks after Mr. Nkomo's firing.

These analysts also say the armed forces' only response to the Nkomo firing has been higher-than-normal absenteeism among soldiers. Among some officers affiliated with Nkoma, there has been an inevitable concern about their future.

It remains to be seen whether the discrediting of their political party boss creates longer-term rifts in the military between those loyal to Nkomo and those loyal to Mugabe.

Also important will be the way ''demobilization'' is handled this year. The government plans to reduce the military to a level of 42,000 at a rate of some 1 ,000 a month. As one analyst says, these former soldiers ''could become a recipe for dissident activity'' if not effectively integrated into civilian life.

Recognizing that, the government is demobilizing carefully and slowly. So far it is voluntary: Soldiers wishing to leave receive $250 a month for two years and training for new jobs.

The balance of strength in the Army rests with Mugabe's former guerrilla forces. They number some 33,000, compared to 22,000 who previously served ZAPU leader Nkomo. There are an estimated 2,000 whites in the service. The balance is made up of blacks from the former Rhodesian Army.

Prime Minister Mugabe has also moved to bolster security forces loyal to himself by having a separate brigade of some 5,000 men trained by North Korea. North Korea is also equipping the brigade.

Perhaps as a reassurance to the minority white population, the commander in chief of the defense forces is a white -- Gen. Sandy McLean. Of the four major generals of the Army, two are white, another comes from the former ranks of Mugabe's guerrilla forces and the fourth is from Nkomo's combatants.

So far Mugabe appears to have suffered no significant political setback so far from his actions against Nkomo. There has been no major exodus of other ZAPU members from government. One ZAPU minister has resigned, and a deputy minister has announced he will stay.

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