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Zimbabwe one year after: Mugabe gains despite tests

Zimbabwe celebrates the first anniversary of its independence April 18 with Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government having consolidated its hold over the country.

For Mr. Mugabe himself, the first year of independence has been little short of a personal triumph. Despite two serious outbreaks of interfactional violence in the national Army, a sensational murder trial involving a senior Cabinet minister, and persistent military and political problems involving his majority ZANU-PF party and that of the minority Patriotic Front (ZAPU) party led by veteran nationalist Joshua Nkomo, the Zimbabwean leader has emerged stronger than ever.

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Indeed, he is building a reputation as one of black Africa's most influential leaders, particularly in the confrontation with whiteruled South Africa next door.

Ironically, though, as he has successfully overcome critical military and political disputes that only three months ago appeared to threaten the very survival of his administration, so his economic difficulties have grown. Even more ironic is the fact that the economic problems are those of excessive growth and expansion rather than of recession.

Rapid economic recovery characterized the first year of independence, during which real gross domestic product increased by more than 8 percent while exports rose nearly 30 percent, mining output by one-third, and manufacturing production by 15 percent. But these successes may not be repeated in 1981 due to severe shortages of skilled manpower, foreign exchange, and transport.

The first year of independence was largely taken up with strictly transitional problems and programs. The transfer of power has been substantially effected in the public sector. Not only do black Cabinet ministers head up all but one of the government departments but more and more black administrators are being drafted into top positions as "permanent" secretaries responsible for the implementation of political decisions.

Following the violent clashes between Mr. Mugabe's ZANLA guerrillas and Mr. Nkomo's ZIPRA men in November and February which claimed 375 lives, the prime minister's tough action to assert his authority (by using white-officered former Rhodesian regular troops of the Rhodesian African Rifles) has led to a stabler political climate.

The concern expressed early in the year that the military violence might escalate into civil war has receded and relationships between the two major political groups, certainly at top levels, are better now than for a long time.

In the past few days there has been growing speculation that Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Mr. Nkomo's Patriotic Front (ZAPU) will try to strengthen political ties. The defeat of Nkomo's ex-guerrillas in the Bulawayo fighting in February and Mugabe's crushing victory in the recent Salisbury local government elections in which his party swept the board, have confirmed Nkomo's essentially minority position and entrenched the prime minister's authority.

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As a result, some Nkomo followers are advocating a political merger rather than retaining the potentially unstable coalition administration which came close to collapse on more than one occasion on the past year. But at grassroots levels, relationships between rival supporters are not good and within Mugabe's ZANU, there is strong support --especially among the younger and more militant elements -- for the declaration of a oneparty state which would consolidate ZANU's position still further.

On the military side, some 22,000 guerrillas have been integrated into the new national Army and by the time the integration process is complete early next year, there could be some 60,000 men under arms. This is roughly three times as large as the Army size advocated by the team of British military advisers which is overseeing the integration exercise.

Such a large Army would impose a very severe burden on state finances at a time when the authorities are facing mounting pressure to curb excessive government spending. Already military spending is higher than during the guerrilla war, and the authorities are anxious to reduce the number of men under arms though it is felt politically impossible to do this until after the military integration exercise has been completed.

Then, a program of slow demoblization might be possible, provided jobs are available for the former guerrillas.

The successful recent donor-nation conference at which Zimbabwe raised a total of $1.9 billion, primarily for rural development, land resettlement, and training programs, might help absorb some of the former soldiers, but to date these have not been enthusiastic about employment in agriculture.

Actually, the government's agricultural strategy, which is the kingpin of the policy designed to speed up job creation and reduce wealth and income differentials in the country, is being recast. This is because of the obvious reluctance of the peasant farmers to be "collectivized" along the lines of the socialist policy framework outlined in the party election manifesto last year.

To date, farm policy has been extremely successful insofar as the commercial and peasant sectors are concerned. After an abnormally favorable rainy season, Zimbabwe farmers are busy reaping the largest maize crop in the country's history. It will approximate 2.8 million tons, nearly half of which will be available for export.

The maize situation highlights two tough economic problems that Mugabe will have to tackle after the anniversary celebrations. One reason for the doubling of maize output last year was the 40 percent increase in the guaranteed price for farmers. This implies a subsidy of some $75 a ton of maize, which could cost the country more than $140 million.

The nettle Mugabe is being advised to grasp by some of his policymakers is to increase the maize price, thereby reducing the subsidy. But this is politically unpopular since maize is the staple food of the black majority. At the same time, so serious is railway congestion that Zimbabwe is unlikely to be in a position to export even half its available surplus.

Race relations have stood the test of transition relatively well. Many whites have left, with the emigration figures showing a total outflow of nearly 21,000 people (about 10 percent of the white population) in the past 14 months. Indeed, recently the emigration rate has been regaining momentum as public servants, policemen, former soldiers, and bluecollar workers from the private sector seek new careers, mainly in nearby South Africa.

This outflow of white expertise and skills is creating major problems in the economy. One indicator is the fact that the national railways are short of 166 artisans, which is a major reason for the transport crisis.

The independence celebrations this weekend may well mark something of a watershed. With transition behind them, Mugabe and his Cabinet have to concentrate now on longer-term issues, including the restructuring of the economy so as to satisfy the grassroots aspirations of their followers.

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