Zimbabwe's opposition leader sees bitter lessons for his country

Joshua Nkomo, Zimbabwe's 70-year-old opposition leader, is baffled by the government's current crackdown on his party, which it accuses of supporting antigovernment gunmen known here as ``dissidents.'' I really don't know what is going on, said the veteran leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) in an interview. ``I don't think they are aware that they are destroying this country.''

Dr. Nkomo was reacting to the closure of ZAPU offices at the direction of Home Affairs Minister Enos Nkala, the detention and release last week of the party's secretary general, and the dismissal of six ZAPU-controlled district councils.

The growing conflict between Nkomo, the popular leader of Zimbabwe's minority Ndebele people, and Mr. Nkala - one of only two Ndebeles in the Shona-dominated Cabinet - has paralleled a sharp deterioration in relations between ZAPU and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. It is a conflict many Zimbabweans fear could tear this country apart.

Gazing out the window of his office, Nkomo seemed finally to be growing weary of his life-long political career. ``I would love to settle down, but I am not able to because I am pushed around like a football,'' he said.

Nkomo remembers Zimbabwe's independence from white-ruled Rhodesia in 1980 as ``the pride of my life.'' But the seven years since then have taught him bitter lessons.

``I have seen things I never thought I would see. I thought the detentions without trial and the states of emergency would be lifted,'' Nkomo said. ``At times we have handled things worse than any other African countries.''

The government's language against ZAPU has been toughening since last April, when Prime Minister Robert Mugabe broke off merger talks with Nkomo's party. Last week Nkala likened ZAPU to the hated South African-backed rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), which Zimbabwean troops are helping to fight in Mozambique.

Today, 25 years after being banned by the Rhodesian government, ZAPU seems to be on the ropes again. Its support is largely confined to the southwestern region of Matabeleland and parts of Midlands Province. In two national elections, ZAPU has failed to seriously challenge ZANU at the polls.

Government officials have repeatedly accused ZAPU of aiding dissident gunmen involved in a series of murders since April. The government claims some of the gunmen are disgruntled ex-ZAPU guerrillas. But many Ndebele believe the gunmen include police agents who provide the government with a pretext for cracking down on ZAPU to pursue its goal of establishing a one-party state.

``Is it not that there are certain people who want to preserve the dissidents for political reasons, to pull them out when they need them and later put them away?,'' Nkomo said. ``It has become a ritual.''

Despite ZAPU's current troubles, Nkomo professed faith in Mr. Mugabe's desire for a fair party merger. He said ZAPU was awaiting new ZANU proposals - though several informed sources say merger talks are effectively dead.

``A united Zimbabwe would be very positive in this region,'' he said. ``With the situation in Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia, we would be a kingpin in the region.''

But Nkomo's optimism appears to be waning, as his Ndebele people battle their fifth year of drought and a growing fear that the government's promised security sweep against the dissidents will crush civilians in its wake as it did in the mid-1980s.

``During the independence struggle, I told the people `you will be free' and that `you will have your own government,''' he said. But are these people free when they are done harm by their own government? Now we say, `That's in the past, let's come together.'''

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