The year-long drive by Zimbabwe's prime minister, Robert Mugabe, and opposition leader Joshua Nkomo to unify the country's two main political parties is in high gear following the release from jail of a leading opposition figure, Dumiso Dabengwa. Although both parties have preached for unity for years, steps toward an agreement have quickened in recent months with the worsening South African-backed war in neighboring Mozambique and with fears that South Africa would step up its alleged destabilization of Zimbabwe.
By freeing the charismatic Mr. Dabengwa, who was intelligence chief of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) guerrilla army before Zimbabwean independence in 1980, Mr. Mugabe cleared the last major hurdle to uniting his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) with ZAPU.
Dabengwa, considered by many to be heir apparent to ZAPU leader Mr. Nkomo, served four years in jail on charges of high treason. He was set free last Thursday along with four others who were accused in 1981 of espionage and illegal possession of arms.
Mr. Nkomo, once considered the father of Zimbabwean nationalism, has committed himself ``irrevocably'' to unification with ZANU. ``Now Nkomo realizes that all his efforts [i.e., political career] would have been in vain if peace is not reached,'' an analyst says.
ZANU, which split from ZAPU in 1963, launched its war against the then white-ruled government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from Mozambique and it attracted most of its support from the majority Shona people. ZAPU operated from Zambia, building its base among the minority Ndebele tribe in Matabeleland Province.
Since Zimbabwean independence, ethnic tensions have plagued the two parties, despite their similar commitment to socialism. There have also been personality clashes between Mr. Mugabe, a cool Marxist intellectual, and the more populist Nkomo.
ZAPU sources and independent observers say Mugabe has had to battle fears among some ZANU officials that they would lose their government jobs to more qualified ZAPU cadres if the parties united. And Nkomo has reportedly had trouble selling a unified party under the ZANU banner to his rank and file.
Although Dabengwa is believed to oppose a mere incorporation of ZAPU into ZANU, his release could be the key to easing opposition to unity in the ZAPU ranks, analysts here say.
``As long as Dabengwa remained in jail, there was an air of suspicion about the unity talks,'' says Nicholas Ndebele of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission. ``His release gives people the assurance that something is really being done.''
Out in the parched bushlands of Matabeleland, however, peasants seem more concerned about surviving their sixth consecutive year of drought than about negotiations over party unity.
The region's already strong alienation from the ZANU government, 300 miles north in Harare, is growing as a result of the state's failure to send speedy drought relief to the area.
Further, a new round of dissident attacks in the past month has spread a wave of tension throughout Matabeleland.
While many attacks are blamed on banditry, both government and opposition sources believe South Africa is trying to stir up trouble in Matabeleland. They say Pretoria is trying to pin down Zimbabwean troops needed to help the neighboring government of Mozambique in its battle with the South Africa-backed Mozambique National Resistance rebels.
The release of Dabengwa has heartened Zimbabweans who feared a last-minute snag in the unity talks. Such a snag, they say, could threaten Zimbabwe's relative political and economic stability.
``If we mess this up,'' Mr. Ndebele says, ``we might go down the drain that many African states have.''