Zimbabwe tribal rifts remain after year of independence

Here in the southwestern part of the country, Zimbabwe's first-year-of-independence festivities were muted, even somewhat strained, this past weekend.

The relative lack of exuberance in these parts points up a problem that Zimbabwe shares with much of post-colonial Africa --animosity between rival ethnic groups.

Zimbabwe, like most African nations, encompasses diverse ethnic groups. The most populous one is made up of Shona-speaking peoples, who total around 80 percent of the population. The other major group is the Ndebele, centered in the western part of the country and comprising just under 20 percent of the population.

The two groups have never been particularly close, but they did find common cause in seeking the overthrow of white-minority rule. But even in that undertaking they fought in two distinct guerrilla armies split largely along tribal lines.

Now, even after majority rule has been attained some people worry that unresolved tensions between the two groups are marring Zimbabwe's present -- and clouding its future. Specifically, a number of Ndebele people here seem alienated from the country's Shona-dominated central government and show little enthusiasm for celebration.

"It's tribalism," was the reply of one black Zimbabwean, queried over his concerns on the eve of the country's celebrations this past weekend.

Mutual distrust between the Shona and Ndebele, he said, is hindering the country's progress -- and diverting its leaders from the task of reconstruction after a bitter seven-year-long guerrilla conflict.

That he would use the word "tribalism" is in itself somewhat remarkable. For , in many African nations, there exists a polite fiction that there is no such thing as tribalism.

Some black Africans argue, with justification, that whites have historically sought to exacerbate tribal rivalries in Africa in order to sew divisions among the blacks and make the process of colonization easier. This "divide and conquer" tactic, they argue, is carried to its greatest extreme in South Africa. There, the white-minority government says that blacks have no claim to citizenship in the country as a whole, but only in circumscribed tribal reserves.

Some whites have undoubtedly exaggerated tribal differences among Africans, working factional conflicts to their own advantage. It is equally true, however , that some of independent Africa's most violent clashes have come about because of ethnic enmities stretching back perhaps over centuries. The Biafran conflict in Nigeria and the hostilities between Tutsi and Hutu in Burundi are two of the better-known examples.

Here in Zimbabwe, the problem has been nowhere near that serious. However, there have been some violent clashes in the country, the most serious of which occurred in and around this city. Some 375 people were killed in brutal firefights that erupted between members of Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA).

Mr. Mugabe referred to these clashes in his anniversary address to the nation , calling upon all Zimbabweans to work toward reconciliation -- not only between black and white, but also between different tribal groups.

However, at an independence-day luncheon, Mr. Mugabe complained that some foreign journalists had blown Zimbabwe's post-independence travails far out of proportion. Specifically, he criticized them for raising the specter of civil war.

"In fact, there was never the making of a civil war," he said, adding, "There were dissidents -- frustrated people -- showing that the government should pay attention to them."

Some analysts tend to agree. One Western diplomat terms many reports of difference between Shona and Ndebele "overblown." While there may be occasional flare-ups between the two groups, he says, "I don't think there's going to be a major conflagration."

One reason for that view: While tribal enmity at the grassroots level may be heated, the country's political leaders, for the most part, have avoided fanning them.

For example, Zimbabwe President Canaan Banana, in his independence day address, praised the country's diverse groups for striving to find accommodation with one another. Their efforts, he said, had worked to "seal the political volcano" that could have erupted here with the onset of majority rule.

There have been recent reports of efforts at political rapprochement between Mr. Nkomo and Mr. Mugabe's parties --tion between them. But not many observers expect that to happen soon.

For, as one well-placed government-watcher explains, both parties seem to favor the creation of a one-party state -- but each is waiting for the other to disband in order to bring that about.

"What we have in this country now are two one-party states, and it's going to take a while to change that," he adds.

If there exists in some minds a "Ndebele state" of Nkomo loyalists, then Bulawayo is its unofficial capital. Much of the black population here openly backs Mr. Nkomo -- and barely disguises its contempt for the central government in Salisbury, far to the north.

The attitude has not gone unnoticed. The government-controlled television service pointedly referred to a seeming lack of support for the independence anniversary observance, pegging the story on a paucity of banners, flags, and bunting in the downtown shopping area.

In fact, it goes quite a bit beyond that. One black African waiter complained that he was being forced to stop working on independence day -- even though it was a Saturday and a national holiday.

"Some of the comrades [former guerrillas] don't want to celebrate," reports one Ndebele woman. "They say there is no independence for them, so they have nothing to celebrate.

"Instead, they want to fight," she added.

The Nkomo ZIPRA guerrillas "say they have plenty of AKs [AK-47 assault rifles ] buried around here," says a white woman, adding "they say they won't be happy until they get rid of this government."

Mr. Mugabe is working to prevent further clashes by integrating his own ZANLA forces with Mr. Nkomo's ZIPRA cadres in a unified national army. So far, about 22,000 guerrillas --undergone retraining and integration. Mr. Mugabe says he hopes to have the integration process completed in the next five months.

But even if the process takes longer (and some experts opine that it will) most analysts say there is little cause for concern about the stability of the new Zimbabwe government.

One diplomat concludes that despite some factional schisms, "The basic viability and strength of the government remains intact."

Moreover, a government minister is now holding out the prospect that local elections here in Bulawayo -- postponed because of the earlier violence -- may be held soon.

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