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Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 01:06 GMT 02:06 UK

World: Africa

Nkomo death leaves troubled legacy

Joshua Nkomo's death could unleash simmering ethnic tension

By Grant Ferrett in Harare

There are fears that the death of Joshua Nkomo, a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, could re-ignite the country's political and ethnic hostilities.

Mr Nkomo died in hospital in Harare on Thursday at the age of 82.

As a vice-president, Mr Nkomo was able to control the simmering discontent in his home region of Matabeleland over the political and economic dominance of the Shona-led Zanu(PF) government of President Mugabe.

Now there are real concerns that the political vacuum and the loss of an Ndebele figurehead could result in an upsurge of violence.

"His term in office simply put the lid on so many issues," said Lupi Mashayakarara, political commentator and head of the Institute for the Harare-based Advancement of Freedom.

"Twelve years on, they could boil over once again."

Likely successor

[ image:  ]
The man widely tipped to succeed to the vice-presidency is the Home Affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa.

Like Mr Nkomo, Mr Dabengwa is a long-standing member of the cabinet but retains more support in Matabeleland than any other political figure from the region.

A former head of intelligence of Zapu's military wing, Mr Dabengwa fits the mould as a liberation fighter.

He was detained for several years in the 1980s, in spite of being acquitted on charges of treason.

Political observers suggest there could be potentially disastrous consequences if the president does not appoint Mr Dabengwa.

Sense of alienation

[ image: A warm man with a common touch]
A warm man with a common touch
Flags are flying at half-mast in Bulawayo, Matabeleland's main city, and the mood is restrained.

But many people there have long since abandoned any hope in the current generation of political leaders.

There's a growing sense of alienation in the region, particularly among young people, some of who attend football matches wearing shirts bearing a picture of a raging bull, the old symbol of Zapu, the movement founded by Mr Nkomo.

They've now set up their own movement, Zapu 2000, saying that the old leaders have had their day and done nothing for their people.

Although they deny there's an ethnic dimension to their party, the re-launched Zapu so far draws its support almost exclusively from Matabeleland.

Common touch

For many Zimbabweans, Joshua Nkomo will be remembered as a warm man with the common touch whose political career was fatally undermined by indecision.

The first leader of the Zimbabwean nationalist movement, Mr Nkomo spent his declining years as a wealthy but largely impotent political leader.

For many of his supporters in Matabeleland, he singularly failed to represent their interests in what was supposed to be a government of national unity.

When Mr Nkomo was made vice-president in 1987 under the National Unity accord, the price was, in effect, the take-over of his party by Zanu, and the creation of a de facto one-party state.

Many people in Matabeleland believed Mr Nkomo had sold out. He did little over the past 12 years to contradict that.

As Mr Nkomo's health has declined, there have been growing calls for his removal from office.

Other political leaders from Matabeleland suggested it was cruel to keep the obviously ailing nationalist leader in office.

Some wondered whether President Mugabe was deliberately trying to humiliate his old rival, who had difficulty walking and often appeared confused during his increasingly infrequent public appearances. His speeches were read by an assistant.

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