Mugabe has influence in Africa but is he in charge in Zimbabwe?

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is widely regarded as one of the most articulate African leaders. But does he always speak for his country? The possibility that Mr. Mugabe may not be in control of all the political levers at home is causing some uneasiness abroad.

The concern has arisen following a number of controversial decisions that this pivotal state in southern Africa has taken in recent weeks.

Policymakers in Washington and London are sifting through Zimbabwe's votes at the United Nations and its punitive actions against political opponents for clues as to whether Prime Minister Mugabe himself sanctioned those moves - or was preempted by more radical members of his Cabinet.

Those familiar with Mr. Mugabe's political philosophy have little doubt that when it comes to Zimbabwe's recent UN votes, which incurred Washington's displeasure, President Mugabe is the one who is pushing the buttons.

Zimbabwe's disapproval at the UN of the United States invasion of Grenada puts Mugabe in company with most third-world leaders. His rationale for abstaining in a vote on the Soviet downing of the South Korean civilian airliner was vintage Mugabe. He disapproved of the action, but he didn't like the way the debate degenerated into an East-West polemic. (And if there is one thing Mugabe has been consistent about, informed observers say, it is his insistence that the superpowers keep their rivalry out of the southern Africa theater.)

The logic may not have assuaged Washington. But the US State Department, recognizing Mugabe's critical role in development of a plan for Namibian independence, reversed an earlier impulse to punish Mugabe for the Korean airliner abstention by withholding some of its aid to Zimbabwe. An informed American source explains that Mugabe, an avowed African nationalist, ''is our badge of credibility on Namibia.''

Thus, despite his tart-tongued rhetoric, Mugabe is seen more as an asset than a liability. Both in Africa and the West, Mugabe is viewed as the one man who can deliver on his nation's promise to be an African showcase in a continent burdened by economic and political problems.

Rich in farming and resources, Zimbabwe has ''a human and physical infrastructure simply without parallel perhaps anywhere else in Africa except south of the border,'' according to Peter Hermann of the First National Bank of Boston.

Zimbabwe's high standard of expertise extends down even to the undersecretariat level. But it is Prime Minister Mugabe himself whom Africa experts see as the glue that holds the Cabinet together in a nation still emerging from the effects of years of guerrilla warfare. The prime minister is thought to hold the middle ground between the highly capable economic planning minister, Bernard Chidzero, on the right and the more radical members, such as Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze, on the left.

The small but economically productive white community, which once dreaded Mugabe's rise to power, now respects and even admires him. It tends to see him as a protection against leaders like Ushewokunze and Education Minister Dzingai Mutumbuka, who is pushing for vastly increased black enrollment in largely white private schools. This latter move, more than anything else, could tip the balance as to whether the majority of whites will stay on in the country.

In terms of intelligence and political acumen, Mugabe is seen as standing head and shoulders above his nearest political rivals. An American professor who knows him well says Mugabe is a highly principled leader, consistent in his political philosophy, and a man ''who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, and doesn't womanize.'' An American businessman familiar with the rest of Africa agrees. ''Compared to other Zimbabweans, Mugabe is a saint.''

But to what extent Mugabe dominates the scene as a result of his leadership qualities is still a matter of speculation.

Uppermost in the minds of everyone is whether Mugabe can control a Cabinet in which the voices of more radical members have become conspicuously louder in recent months.

''You have to realize this government is not a government. It is a coalition, a collection of revolutionary leaders,'' says a Western diplomat recently returned from Zimbabwe.

Some Africa-watchers suspect that in their capacities as Cabinet ministers some of these revolutionary leaders may be jumping the gun and taking it upon themselves to move forcefully against political dissidents or critics at home.

The recent actions these observers question include: (1)the detaining of the former prime minister, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, without evidence but on suspicion of being a threat to the state, (2)the immediate redetaining of white Air Force officers after they had been acquitted on procedural grounds of sabotage, and (3 )the overruling of a court decision to release Dumiso Dabengwa, a top military aide of Joshua Nkomo.

The Mugabe government was vindicated on the Dabengwa case, however, when Zimbabwe's Supreme Court upheld the government's right to keep him in detention. And in the case of the Air Force officers, the government recently released four of the seven who were detained without further trial under emergency powers.

Nevertheless, the continuing duel between the government and the courts raises fears among international legal experts concerned about the due process of law in Zimbabwe.

The informed speculation among experts familiar with Zimbabwe was that Prime Minister Mugabe may not have had prior warning of some of these actions. But once aware of them he may have chosen not to intervene, either through reluctance to show up one of his ministers or because of the political clout of the minister involved.

This latter scenario is thought to apply to Dr. Ushewokunze, who is generally regarded as ''the heavy radical'' in the Cabinet. An inflammatory politician, Ushewokunze is the Cabinet minister most feared by the white community. But he also has a strong populist base, and it is thought that Mugabe may not find it politically possible to rein him in.

It is Dr. Ushewokunze who ordered the redetaining of the Air Force officers after they had been acquitted. Significantly, the responsibility of the Home Affairs Ministry includes actions taken against political opponents.

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