Zimbabwe's main parties talk unification

Only a week after a top Zimbabwean government minister announced that the country's opposition party had to be ``wiped out,'' unity talks between the government and the opposition are under way. The main opposition party, led by Joshua Nkomo, has been engaged in a struggle for survival since last July's election victory by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's party.

The unification issue, political sources here say, has clearly made for a deep split in both parties: Mr. Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), and Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Such intra-party turmoil helps explain why Home Affairs Minister Enos Nkala, believed to oppose a merger of the two parties, let fly at ZAPU last week.

``We have been picking up a lot of ZAPU officials and whites who encourage or participate in dissident activities,'' Mr. Nkala said, adding, ``We want to wipe out the ZAPU leadership.''

Opposition to unification stems from two main quarters -- those who mistrust Nkomo and who fear that bringing him into the party will only create disunity within the ruling party itself, and those who see their personal political ambitions at risk in any merger.

It is difficult to envisage a durable and viable relationship between the two parties, given their long-standing record of antipathy going back more than 20 years. It is accepted, however, that a merger would provide some comfort for Nkomo in what many concede to be the autumn of his political career.

Merger talks have been in progress for more than a month and sources close to the discussions say that agreement has been reached on some important principles. These include ZAPU acknowledgement of Mr. Mugabe as president of the new, unified party and power sharing whereby some top government posts would be offered to ZAPU politicians.

But the sources say it is much more difficult to get a meeting of minds on policies and programs that might be adopted by a newly enlarged party. There is disagreement on where Nkomo would rank in a new structure. For the No. 3 ranking official in the ruling party, Maurice Nyagumbo, Nkomo's ranking is critical. Mr. Nyagumbo is a very close confidante of the prime minister.

Adding to unification difficulties are ZAPU demands for the release of all political prisoners, including six of its members, a political amnesty, and a free return of political exiles.

The problem faced by Nkomo's ZAPU party is that conceding could sow the seeds of its own collapse. The July elections demonstrated that the Ndebele people -- the majority tribe in Matabeleland Province, a Nkomo stronghold -- have a preference for Nkomo over Mugabe. But the Ndebele are a minority while Mugabe's Shona tribe are Zimbabwe's majority.

Ndebele loyalty could be jeopardized should ZAPU agree, not to a merger, but to a takeover. Also, there are very real doubts about Nkomo's ability to hold his party together if he accepts merger conditions that provide comfortable jobs for him and a few of his closest advisers but leave effective power completely in the hands of Mugabe's ZANU-PF.

The two parties were linked in a loose coalition during the guerrilla war against what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. The war culminated in the collapse of the minority white government and the granting by Britain of independence in April 1980. Mugabe's ZANU-PF won in the first elections in 1980 and increased its support in elections last July.

Unity would get Mugabe off two unpleasant hooks -- the dissident war in Matabeleland and the persisent pressure from his supporters to declare Zimbabwe a one-party state. In fact, he has little to lose given the likelihood that his party will effectively dictate the merger terms. Nkomo, sources here say, does run the risk of agreeing to a merger that would leave him with status and a government job, but no more power than he has now as an opposition leader, and that, they say, would be rejected by his party.

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