Zimbabwe's need now

It was thought to be something of a diplomatic miracle when Britain worked out an agreement for the independence of Zimbabwe and a government of national unity was formed after free elections there. Hence it comes as no great surprise that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe is having his problems after only three months of majority rule. Moving from a white-ruled society to one in which blacks have full and equitable participation is a formidable task. The challenge for Mr. Mugabe and his political rivals will be to persist, however great the publicized difficulties. The challenge for the West will be to provide the aid needed to keep Zimbabwe on its moderate and nonaligned course.

The most pressing short-range problem remains that of integrating the two armed rival guerrilla forces into a new national army. Some 30,000 guerrillas remain under arms and there have been a few racial conflicts as well as considerable banditry. Lt. Gen. Peter Walls, the respected white military officer entrusted with the integration taks, was not able to make much progress and his retirement again confronts Mr. Mugabe with the delicate decision of appointing a commander who can both reassure whites and keep black rivalry from getting out of hand. If he appoints a black officer of his own camp, he risks alienating the forces of black leader Joshua Nkomo; if he chooses an Nkomo man, he risks weakening his own position. Hence he may find it politically expedient to select another white, perhaps a British officer, who has the authority and stature to bring the parties together.

Beyond the nagging military problem is the need to establish trust between the lieutenants of the two top black leaders. Mr. Nkomo, who was magnanimously -- and shrewdly -- brought into the government as home affairs minister, is said to be thinking of withdrawing from the alliance with Mr. Mugabe, partly because of sniping at him by other Cabinet aides to the prime minister. Probably much of this falls within the category of normal political infighting and should not be overestimated. Mr. Nkomo does still seem to be pursuing the approach of peaceful reconciliation, knowing perhaps that this is the only way to make black rule work. While Mr. Nkomo does control the more disciplined and well-organized guerrilla forces, he must reckon with the political strength Mr. Mugabe commands by virtue of coming from the Mashona people, who account for 80 percent of the nation's blacks.

More troublesome for the prime minister, in fact, may be the lack of control which he has over his own party. While Mr. Mugabe has for the moment abandoned his Marxist goals, firebrand leftists within his ranks are urging him to move faster in instituting socialist reforms and replacing white civil servants with blacks. This is precisely what would scare off the remaining whites still willing to give the new order a try.

What Mr. Mugabe appears to be doing is playing for time -- trying to produce some economic and social gains so that he can build up a moderate following in the electorate and ultimately put down the Marxist hotheads.* Overall, he is off to a remarkably good start. The white exodus remains disappointingly high but it is not quite at the record proportions during the guerrilla war. Those leaving, moreover, are not primarily from the business sectors or the farms. Farm production remains stable. And, while outside aid to Zimbabwe is nowhere near the magnitude once contemplated, the government is managing to attract aid and investment from the United States, Japan, and other Western countries.

Three months is hardly time enough to show substantive results. But in this crucial early period Prim Minister Mugabe has at least kept the country together -- and the Russians at bay. It would be foolish to ignore the dangers of civil war between black nationalists of differing philosophies or the political tensions inherent in what is essentially a tribal struggle. But the new Zimbabwean government must be doing something right when even former prime minister and now Parliament member Ian Smith is able to speak of the current stress on racial reconciliation as "a very pleasant change from what most of us expected c

It is be hoped that the two black political rivals will continue to see the wisdom of containing party antagonisms and working together as the best alternative to a civil war which could bring them both down.

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