MOST African nations have found it difficult if not impossible to move from the independence that follows years of colonial domination to full democracy. Zimbabwe is the latest to join the 35 African nations choosing single-party systems. The hope in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, is that such a retreat from political pluralism will reduce ethnic strife and shore up national security. The goal, though not the means, is worthy.
But ultimately the success of the merger of Zimbabwe's two political parties will hinge on how fully Robert Mugabe, former prime minister and now executive president, distributes positions of power among the Ndebele-speaking opposition forces and the extent to which their views are listened to and acted upon.
Under the accord, Joshua Nkomo, long Mr. Mugabe's chief rival, becomes a vice-president and second secretary of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Unity Party. That move is a good start. So is Mugabe's appointment to important Cabinet posts of a handful of former members of the Zimbabwe African People's Union, Mr. Nkomo's party.
If a more unified government and citizenry evolve from the new political solidarity, Zimbabwe's move could pay off. The changes by Mugabe's Marxist government have not been strictly arbitrary; the way for each has been paved by legal shifts in the nation's British-drafted Constitution. But the history of one-party states in Africa is not promising, in terms of an eventual move either to political pluralism or toward greater economic and social progress.
More important, for instance, to Zimbabwe's economic progress than the political agreement is the cultivation of a more welcoming attitude toward foreign investment and some give by labor in Zimbabwe's artificially high wage scales. The new political unity is also unlikely to reduce the economic and military investment Zimbabwe now makes in its fighting with South African-backed Renamo rebels in next-door Mozambique.