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Zimbabwe a Bitter Feud Continues

5 minute read
Jamie Murphy

For almost a decade, they fought against Rhodesia’s white minority regime. The alliance lasted through independence in 1980 and the renaming of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe. But then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, 61, and his former comrade-in-arms, Joshua Nkomo, 67, began to quarrel over the political spoils. Today Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) are locked in a bitter struggle for control of the country’s future with Mugabe and his dominant Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Says a Western diplomat in Harare, the capital: “Mugabe must often wish that Nkomo would just retire, but the old man refuses to go away.”

It seemed at one time that Nkomo and his followers were the major barrier to the once declared intention of Mugabe and ZANU to turn Zimbabwe into a one- party socialist state. But now Nkomo, ensconced in Matabeleland, his tribal home in the western part of the country, increasingly appears to many of his countrymen as more of a nuisance than the savior of Zimbabwe. There are several reasons for this, among them the fact that Zimbawe has begun to prosper economically. Also, Mugabe continues to court the country’s influential white farmers, and he appears to be backing away from his autocratic aims.

However, the political feud between the two leaders continues, reinforced by the rivalry between Mugabe’s 7 million-strong Shona tribe and Nkomo’s 1.5 million-member Ndebele tribe. It flared again last week. More than 4,000 policemen and soldiers, including the Zimbabwean army’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, sealed off Matabeleland’s main city, Bulawayo, and systematically flushed out so-called political agitators, criminals and dissidents. The soldiers arrested more than 1,300 people in house-to-house searches and at roadblocks.

Nkomo was nowhere to be found. Having heard in advance of the government action, he had left Bulawayo to drive to Harare, 250 miles away. At a press conference he denounced “the siege of Bulawayo” and accused the government of pursuing a deliberate policy of intimidation. To his chagrin, Nkomo discovered on his return to Bulawayo that during the crackdown, government forces had confiscated his bulletproof Mercedes-Benz sedan.

Almost from the beginning of the ZANU-ZAPU dispute, the Mugabe government / maintained that heavily armed followers of Nkomo, remnants of his old guerrilla units, were making Matabeleland unsafe with a campaign of antigovernment violence and banditry. That contention was underlined last week when the government announced that its forces had discovered six unmarked graves in the Lupane area of Matabeleland and unearthed the corpses of six foreign tourists, including two Americans, who had disappeared in the region in July 1982. Mugabe said that the band of 22 dissidents allegedly responsible for the murders was identified as having connections with Nkomo’s party. According to the government’s announcement, the leader of the rebel group had already been tried and sentenced to death for the killings of two white farmers in Matabeleland.

Last week’s crackdown was not the first time that Nkomo had felt compelled to leave Bulawayo. Two years ago, during a similar government sweep of the region, a fearful Nkomo fled to Britain and stayed there for five months. He returned to Zimbabwe after the government made it clear that he would not come to any harm, but the violence continued, leading to many deaths among supporters of both Mugabe and Nkomo. The latest government operation came in response to fighting last month between ZANU and ZAPU supporters that resulted in the deaths of three people in townships outside of Bulawayo. In nearby Hwange, five members of a second opposition party, Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s United National African Union, were dragged from a train and gunned down on the platform by young ZANU militants. ZANU members later announced that the action was to avenge the murder of several party supporters.

Bishop Muzorewa joined Nkomo in accusing Mugabe of harassment and brutality against his political opponents. Indeed, according to a U.S. embassy report on human rights in Zimbabwe, an estimated 5,000 civilians were arrested or detained by security forces in 1984. The Bulawayo raid, said Muzorewa, was a blatant attempt by Mugabe to intimidate the opposition before Zimbabwe’s first national elections since independence. The balloting was originally to be held this month, but delays in registering voters and drawing new boundaries for constituencies to allow for population shifts forced Mugabe to postpone the elections until June.

Despite the political strife, Zimbabwe has emerged as a surprising African success story. One blessing: after three devastating years of drought, the rains came last October and turned around the country’s predominantly agricultural economy. As the economy has improved, Mugabe may have had some second thoughts about trying to turn Zimbabwe into a one-party state. Said one government official, “When will people realize that the Prime Minister has no intention of forcing a one-party state on the people? Everyone knows that would be disastrous. If it cannot be done by the ballot box, it will have to be done by persuasion.”

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