ZIMBABWE, a bellwether state in southern Africa, promises to leap backward into the ill-fated 1970s. Abandoning its eight-year-old multiparty government, and its envied position as a well-run, productive, new state, Zimbabwe intends soon to turn itself into a one-party socialist nation. The first big steps in that direction were taken at the beginning of this month when Prime Minister Robert Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first executive President, with far-ranging powers. A few days before he had successfully forged an alliance between his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU).
Since independence in 1980, the two longtime rivals for power and prominence in Zimbabwe's nationalist struggle had been bitter opponents. ZANU, dominant largely because of its firm base among the Shona ethnic majority, had swamped ZAPU, based on the Ndebele minority, in two elections. Dissident Ndebele, some with old Soviet-supplied arms and some with newly obtained South African weapons, had taken to the bush. In southwestern Zimbabwe they had attacked outlying farms. In the most recent outrage, Nov. 26, 16 missionaries and their children were hacked to death near Bulawayo.
Mr. Mugabe had been eager to fold ZAPU into ZANU for several years. After November's massacre, Mr. Nkomo and ZAPU were compelled to capitulate. Nkomo has become a member of Mugabe's Cabinet, and a vice-president. But ZANU and Mugabe are still firmly in charge of Zimbabwe's destiny.
Zimbabwe, although led decisively by ZANU since 1980, has so far been governed with few excesses, modest but real levels of participatory democracy, and comparatively limited abrogations of human rights. For a new state, the judiciary has maintained a healthy measure of independence.
Although the number of whites shrank dramatically after blacks gained power in 1980, many of those who left for South Africa have returned. Until late last year white farmers, the backbone of Zimbabwe's agriculturally based economy, were largely content. Unlike so many other African states, Zimbabwe and Mugabe had refused to subsidize urban consumers and instead raised prices for rural producers to or above world levels for major crops. Even amid drought, Zimbabwe had produced bumper crops of its staple maize, and also prospered from tobacco.
Mugabe has preached revolutionary socialism since his guerrilla days and during his seven years as prime minister. His jawboning, more than the actual operations of a generally orthodox and tightly run national financial regimen, drove valued foreign investment away. Now Mugabe, with more concentrated and potentially autocratic power, intends to implement full-fledged state socialism.
Mugabe is violently anticyclical. The Afro-socialist model has failed dramatically in Africa. Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, and many of the other large, socialist-inclined states are now energetically dismantling their state industries and farms and their overvalued currencies and import restrictions. They, and smaller states, are providing new incentives for farmers and entrepreneurs and are bemoaning the lost years of the '70s and early '80s.
Zimbabwe is now spending heavily on its armed forces and running current-account deficits for the first time; it hardly needs the new economic disincentives of revolutionary socialism, plus a ``leadership code'' of the kind that proved unenforceable in Zambia and economically debilitating in Tanzania.
Moreover, Zimbabwe is no minor state. After South Africa, it is the potential economic powerhouse of middle Africa, easily rivaling the Ivory Coast and Kenya. Yet Mugabe seems bent on undercutting the prosperity and confidence of his own regime.
Politically, too, Mugabe is leading Zimbabwe backward. Not too many African states have followed Botswana's steadfast multiparty model. Still, several one-party states have accepted the value of public participation and the need for competitive elections within the party, or have begun to slide away from autocracy toward new forms of national voting.
Zimbabwe's is a special case, too. South Africa is its neighbor. Mugabe and his government loudly condemn apartheid and white minority rule while they are extinguishing choice for their own people.
On all counts, Zimbabwe can do better. It has the best-educated constituency in Africa, a modern and successful economy, and a proud heritage of revolutionary struggle and, since independence, thoughtful and moderate leadership. Neither Africa nor the West should encourage Zimbabwe to turn its back on itself.
Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University.