Zimbabwe volatile, isolated at age 4

Zimbabwe celebrates the fourth anniversary of its independence today against a background of political dissent and economic strain. In addition, the country returned to the front pages of major international newspapers last weekend with detailed reports of brutality by armed forces against villagers in the troubled western province of Matabeleland.

The country's seven Roman Catholic bishops issued a statement accusing the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of killings, torture, beatings, and a policy of starvation.

This was promptly denied by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who accused the church of supporting the dissident Ndebele minority and the key opposition leader, Joshua Nkomo.

Also over the weekend, the British Sunday newspaper the Observer - which championed the cause of the black majority during the long war for independence - produced a detailed report of Army brutality.

Mr. Mugabe's morale seemed at least momentarily restored here, however, when the chairman of the British Lonrho group, which owns the Observer, telexed an apology to Harare publicly disassociating Lonrho from the report.

The editor who wrote the report, Donald Trelford, responded with a statement that he stood by it.

But overall the news article and similar stories in other British newspapers, coming on top of the church denunciation, further damaged the Zimbabwe government's international credibility.

Mr. Mugabe himself, like his white predecessor Ian Smith, advised the church to stay out of politics. He sought solace in the news that one of Joshua Nkomo's senior colleagues had quit Nkomo's minority Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZANU) to join Mugabe's ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZAPU-PF). But this was small comfort, given the likely international impact of the weekend reports.

The Zimbabwe media has still to publish the allegations, though it has reported the prime minister's denial of the atrocity reports and his criticism of the bishops.

Relations between the ruling ZANU-PF and Mr. Nkomo's party continue to deteriorate. The government is angry at Nkomo's decision to publish his memoirs in London on the anniversary of independence. In the book, Nkomo makes a number of allegations against the government, which Mugabe bitterly described as a pack of lies.

Nkomo's own political position seems far from secure, as the resignation of Construction Minister Callistus Ndlovu from his party this weekend indicates. The concern in Harare is that with Nkomo's waning prestige, the younger and more militant members of ZAPU will take control of the party. These members, unlike the moderate Nkomo, support the insurgents who have been fighting the government for more than two years.

For Mugabe, the fifth year of independence promises top be both tough and decisive. He is faced with a deteriorating economic situation, mounting unemployment, falling real wages and incomes, and a crisis of unfulfilled expectations among his grass-roots supporters.

The President says the security forces are getting the upper hand in Matabeleland, but political analysts here believe the heavy-handed tactics of the military have sowed deep-seated and lasting enmity between the majority and minority tribal groups.

Mr. Mugabe may well use the independence anniversary to seek a mandate for a one-party state at the next elections, due to be held within a year.

A Youth Congress will be held soon after Easter, followed in August by the full-scale Party Congress. There is speculation that immediately thereafter, Mugabe will go to the polls.

It is unlikely that voters will swing to the minority parties, either to ZAPU or to Bishop Abel Muzorewa's United African National Council. But there could be a drop in voter turnout, showing apathy and disillusionment.

Mugabe's difficulties are further intensified by economic constraints. He is unlikely to ease up in his austerity measures, which are designed to reduce inflation, correct a serious external payments deficit, and balance Zimbabwe's domestic budget. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund will probably demand tougher measures before it will grant any new loans.

Internationally, Mugabe has a major problem in the seeming success of South Africa's new political offensive. The policy has left Zimbabwe looking more isolated and vulnerable than before, sparking speculation that Zimbabwe's government, like that in Mozambique, will have to talk turkey with Pretoria before long.

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