HARARE, ZIMBABWE — PUBLIC accountability of elected officials is making significant gains in Zimbabwe. Revelations of corruption have given vent to unprecedented questioning of the government's integrity in Parliament and in the press over the past year. And a month-old investigation led a Cabinet minister to resign last week, the first such resignation for alleged wrongdoing since Zimbabwe gained independence nine years ago.
Many analysts also believe that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who so far has remained untainted by allegations of corruption, could use the investigation to force from office some of his more unpopular ministers.
The officials have been linked to ``Willowgate,'' a scandal in which they obtained cars for themselves and their friends from Willowvale Motor Industries, one of Zimbabwe's three vehicle-assembly plants.
Frederick Shava, the minister of state for political affairs, resigned after having given false testimony to the commission investigating the affair.
Mr. Shava said he stepped down because he had embarrassed the government and especially Mr. Mugabe. ``I failed him,'' he said. ``My conscience does not allow me to continue in this office of high esteem.''
His decision has put pressure on several other senior officials of the government and Mugabe's ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), to follow suit.
THE current investigation reflects a coming of age in Zimbabwe, a nation of 8.5 million people. Zimbabweans have focused increasingly on government activities since Mugabe signed an agreement in December 1987 to merge his ZANU-PF party with Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU.
Since then, the charges of government misdeeds have caught the imagination of a public facing new price increases and at least 30 percent unemployment. Last September, students at three university campuses in the capital demonstrated against corruption and drew sharp criticism from Mugabe.
But the Willowgate affair has provided ample ammunition to government opponents, such as Edgar Tekere, the gadfly of Zimbabwean politics. Foes charge ZANU-PF with abandoning its socialist principles and with being too friendly to wealthy businessmen.
Mr. Tekere was thrown out of the ZANU-PF central committee last October. But on March 2, he threw down his strongest challenge yet to Mugabe, saying Zimbabwe needed a new leader.
The Sandura Commission, the panel which is conducting the investigation, has heard testimony in Harare's High Court from six Cabinet ministers and a host of ruling party, government, and corporate officials. It is due to report to Mugabe on March 31.
Though several lower-ranking party and government officials are expected to fall, the question of who next will resign focuses on powerful members of ZANU-PF's politburo, including Maurice Nyagumbo, the party's third-ranking member, and the fiery defense minister, Enos Nkala. Both men have admitted obtaining vehicles for their friends - in Nyagumbo's case at least 60 - though they said they did not profit from the transactions.
Whatever the investigation's outcome, the final decision on who will retain their posts rests with Mugabe.
The brouhaha surrounding the affair could ultimately strengthen the prime minister's leverage over his unwieldy 29-member Cabinet, allowing him to sack ministers who have lost the public's confidence and who could undermine his intention to unify ZANU-PF and ZAPU at a national congress later this year.