Zimbabwe simmers down -- but basic dispute unsolved

Although the prospect of all-out civil war in Zimbabwe between the rival guerrilla armies of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and his political opponent, Minister Without Portfolio Joshua Nkomo, has receded, last week's fighting has raised grave doubts about the viability of the country's coalition government.

Mr. Mugabe's personal position may have been strengthened to some degree as a result of losses incurred by Mr. Nkomo's ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army) guerrillas, whom the government blames for starting the factional violence in which an estimated 150 people were killed.

But because last week's events suggest that Mr. Nkomo -- until now the undisputed leader of the Ndebele-Kalanga minority tribes -- has lost authority and control over the younger and more militant elements within his Patriotic Front (ZAPU) party, the 11-month-old coalition Cabinet may not survive very much longer.

In other words, although the danger of an immediate conflagration appears to have diminished, the solution -- separating the two forces -- is only a palliative.

For Mr. Mugabe, the harsh truth is that although he may have reaped some tactical gains from the new weakness of Mr. Nkomo's position, the six days of fighting last week jeopardized his two-prong policy of reconciliation and reconstruction.

The most obvious task in the field of reconciliation was the establishment of a nonpolitical national army that could be relied on in moments of crisis. Such a force was to be formed by integrating three separate armies -- his own ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), Mr. Nkomo's ZIPRA, and the remnants of the former Rhodesian security forces.

The announcement over the weekend that the ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas would be moved out of Bulawayo, the nation's second largest city, and placed in rural camps some 60 kilometers apart underlines the failure of the integration program thus far.

Furthermore, when the chips were down last week, Mr. Mugabe had to rely on the black regulars from the former Rhodesian African Rifles, led by white officers, to restore law and order. Clearly, the whole army integration process , which was due to be completed by August this year, will have to be revised and the timetable set back many months.

Although Mr. Mugabe's firm action to restore peace has pleased his supporters at home and reassured the country's 200,000 white minority, the fighting put Zimbabwe back on the front pages of the world's newspapers in an unfavorable light at a time when the new government was hoping for a good press prior to next month's Zimbabwe Conference on Reconstruction and Development.

This is a conference of aid donors at which Zimbabwe officials will be asking outside governments and aid agencies to provide almost $2 billion in aid for refugee and reconstruction programs and to pay for an ambitious rural development and land resettlement program.

In Salisbury it is believed that the government will be doing well if it manages to attract half the $2 billion it is seeking over the next three years. Private capital investment may have been seriously discouraged by last week's violence. At any rate, the government's apparent acknowledgement of this situation and its concern about how its image might suffer in the news media abroad were reflected in a clampdown on television footage shot by visiting cameramen. These have been confiscated in an effort to play down the extent of the fighting.

On the political front, the most immediate concern revolves around the position within Mr. Nkomo's party and its military wing. If Mr. Nkomo is unable to retain the confidence and support of the ZIPRA commanders and the rank-and-file ZIPRA troopers, then Mr. Mugabe's difficulties in controlling the men and integrating the army will proliferate.

Police sources say the evidence suggests that in most of the disorders around Bulawayo it was ZIPRA that shot first. But ZIPRA troops say they took to arms only when they heard rumors of a planned ZANLA attack on them. Mr. Nkomo's top aides s trongly deny that there was an organized revolt in any sense

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