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

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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.

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