Nkomo firing: Mugabe move toward a one-party state?

Early each morning cars queue up for gasoline along the wide boulevards of downtown Salisbury. Fuel is not plentiful here.

The reason for the lines, according to the Zimbabwe government, goes back to a deliberate slowing of rail delivery of fuel through South Africa last year.

Why? ''They don't want us to succeed,'' says a Zimbabwe Cabinet minister matter-of-factly, referring to the neighboring country to the south. Real or imagined, Zimbabwe perceives an almost constant threat to its own stability, not only from South Africa but from internal sources as well.

After 22 months at the helm of Africa's newest example of black-majority rule , and against a backdrop of years of guerrilla war, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe appears preoccupied with consolidating his power.

The latest and perhaps most significant step to squelch an alleged threat to the government has come against coalition partner Joshua Nkomo, whom Mugabe sacked from his Cabinet Feb. 17. Three other ministers were ousted with Dr. Nkomo; all were charged with stowing an ''astounding'' amount of arms, allegedly to topple the government. Nkomo denies the charges.

The move substantially weakens Mugabe's primary political opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Patriotic Front (or ZAPU, the Zimbabwe African People's Union), of which Nkomo is president. A coinciding Cabinet shuffle has strengthened Prime Minister Mugabe's grip on the government.

Whether this in fact creates greater political stability in the long run remains to be seen. Analysts here are divided over whether Nkomo will become more or less of a rival political factor operating outside the inner circles of Mugabe's government.

Yet seen in a broader context, the prime minister's move seems to further entrench suspicions, particularly among whites, about where he is leading the country they once ruled.

''We think he is one clever politician,'' said one white who believes Mugabe has deftly used the discovery of arms to move Zimbabwe closer to a one-party state. There are many other whites who share his sentiments.

In Zimbabwe's faltering economy of slower growth and high inflation, Mugabe can ill-afford to shake the confidence of the skilled white sector, analysts agree. An estimated 20,000 whites left Zimbabwe last year, higher than the total for 1980. Indeed, many of the government's ambitious and politically important economic plans, such as rural development and resettlement of poor blacks on new farm land, are being most hampered by lack of skilled managers.

Mr. Mugabe has long spoken of the need to unify the political parties of Zimbabwe through an essentially voluntary process of ''consensus.''

The 1979 London ''Lancaster House agreement'' guaranteed whites 20 seats in Parliament for seven years, but whites remain suspicious that the government may try to change the Constitution.

And while Nkomo has offered vague support for some future unification, he has resisted the possibility any time soon.

The sacking of Nkomo has ''removed the major obstacle to a one-party state,'' notes Eddie Cross, president of the Zimbabwe Institute of International Affairs. The impression is left that Mugabe is now seeking a one-party state by force, he adds.

''From our point of view, a one-party state is undemocratic and unnecessary, '' says a diplomatic source in Salisbury. ''But (the government) has always said the types of divisions that a multiparty state exacerbates necessitates a one-party system,'' he adds.

Tribal differences between the Shona peoples, represented by Prime Minister Mugabe, and the smaller Ndebele tribal group, represented by Dr. Nkomo, are seen by the government as generating continual conflict unless brought together under some political umbrella.

Analysts differ on the question of whether there is a genuine threat to Mugabe's government, but the prime minister is generally believed to be secure in power. At the same time there were plenty of signs of political strife preceding Nkomo's removal from the Cabinet.

Wally Stuttaford, a white member of Parliament, remains in jail under suspicion that he was plotting to overthrow the government in an alliance with the military wing of the Patriotic Front (ZAPU).

A huge green canvas hangs over the top of Mugabe's ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) political party headquarters in downtown Salisbury. It serves as a roof in place of the one lifted off by a bomb blast late last year.

The bomb was blamed on forces seeking to ''destabilize'' the country. Soon after the blast the government extended the emergency powers it inherited from the earlier white government that used them during the years of sanctions and guerrilla war that led to Zimbabwe's independence.

The most serious concern now is that Mugabe could ignite armed opposition from Patriotic FrO (ZAPU) members. It is only recently that the military wing of Nkomo's Patriotic Front (ZAPU9 was integrated into the national Army. Just one year ago hostilities between the Nkomo forces and those loyal to Mugabe broke into open conflict near Bulawayo.

Meanwhile, Mugabe has grown a bit more doctrinaire in his econnomic policies, say business analysts. He has labeled 1982 the year of ''national transformation'' - the aim being to put Zimbabwe on a more socialist path toward a more ''equitable distribution of wealth.''

Zimbabwe has so far enjoyed investor confidence from foreign governments. Pledges of some $1.8 billion were made toward reconstruction aid in 1980.

But a Western aid specialist here says foreign investors and governments are still looking for a clearer signal of Mugabe's economic plans.

''He still hasn't spelled out the role of the private sector,'' the aid specialist notes.

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