"I always felt that he was like gunpowder which hasn't exploded yet," said an African close to Edgar Tekere, the senior Zimbabwe government and party official who was arrested last week.

After months of warning firecrackers, however, the gunpowder exploded with a bang last Monday when police say Tekere murdered a white farmer.

The fallout for the fledgling nation of Zimbabwe and its first black-majority government led by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, is likely to be felt for months, both domestically and internationally.

Mugabe has been as close personal friend of Tekere since they spent a decade in prison together during white rule for political activities and then reorganized their party and guerrilla army virtually from scratch in Mozambique.

Tekere, 47, is manpower minister in the Cabinet and the number three official in Mugabe's ruling party. As party secretary general he was a strong power base, good relations with the military and was a potential successor to Mugabe.

Nevertheless, the prime minister, who has invested so much in projecting a spirit of moderation and reconciliation for his new nation, apparently has not raised a finger to block the prosecution of his controversial colleague on charges of murdering Gerald W. Adams, 68.

Mugabe reportedly has assured the police of his cooperation.

So far Mugabe has maintained total public silence on the incident, although his aides say he was visibly disturbed as he accompanied Mozambican President Samora Machel during a week-long visit here.

The nature of the murder charge must also be upsetting to Mugabe. It was alleged that Tekere and at least six of his supporters, mainly bodyguards, were responsible for killing Adams on a farm west of Salisbury during what appears to have been a revenge attack on some soldiers over an altercation at a party the previous night.

If true, that would lend credence to reports that Tekere has emotional problems made worse by frequent bouts of heavy drinking.

Tekere, who had frequent clashes with the white establishment since independence and was increasingly unhappy over Mugabe's moderate direction, appears to be a classic case of a revolutionary who was ideal for fighting a liberation struggle but ill-suited for the advent of peace and the need for rebuilding a war-torn country.

"There comes a time when events pass people by and you have to get out of the way," said an African diplomat who had worked with Tekere for years. "It looks like Tekere has already gotten off the train."

The Tekere case and its outcome are a litmus test for the new government on at least three levels: the image of the government internationally, the attitude of the 200,000 white minority the prime minister wishes to retain in the country and the role of Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

The arrest of a senior minister and party official on a murder charge could tarnish the nation's image and set back Mugabe's drive to gain large amounts of Western aid and investment to help rehabilitate the country after seven years of guerrilla war.

Some Western diplomats, however, agreed it was "reassuring" that Mugabe had so far stood aside and let the judicial system take its course when his party chieftain was arrested.

"By not doing anything, Mugabe sent a message," one diplomat said. Another took the view that the conduct of the case will give Mugabe the opportunity to demonstrate that a government minister cannot act outside the law and get away with it.

Many whites have registered satisfaction that the case so far is being handled normally although they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the outcome. In the four months since independence, whites often have complained that some of Mugabe's officials have been involved in incidents without being charged, and some felt the same might happen with Tekere.

"Unfortunately the incident comes just at a time when whites apprehensions [over such incidents] were dying out," a diplomat said.

The police, though refusing to talk officially, give the impression of having a strong case against Tekere.

A white criminal lawyer not involved with the case said, "The odds are strong that Tekere will be convicted." He noted that unless the police had compelling evidence against Tekere, they would not have moved so quickly against such a prominent figure nor sought -- sucessfully -- that he be remanded in prison for the maximum two weeks.

A murder conviction calls for the death sentence in Zimbabwe unless there are extenuating circumstances, which are very restricted.

The president can commute a death sentence but such a move, the lawyer said, would "cause an uproar among whites," many of whom strongly support capital punishment.

On the other hand, he said, "execution would cause an uproar among blacks," where there is bound to be some feeling that Tekere is a victim of white justice, that he did only what guerrillas had been order to do until a cease-fire offically ended the bloody struggle last December.

Several versions of the incident have circulated. The most persistent is that Tekere and other senior government officials were at a party last Sunday night on the farm when an altercation occured with soldiers assigned to guard a former military facility on the farm. According to the reports, Tekere and the other accused then allegedly returned to the farm Monday and carried out a military sweep during which Adams, the manager of the property, was killed.

Evidently, no contact was made with the soliders, who have been moved from the farm. The base facilities are badly shot up and many windows are broken while the farmhouse has a number of bullet holes.

It is known that Tekere missed a special Cabinet meeting convened by Mugabe for Machel at about the time the incident occured. Witnesses who saw the shootout said they saw Tekere's car speeding away from the farm. Police have not disclosed whether the witnesses have provided identities of any persons involved.

Scores of heavily armed police laid siege last Monday night to an apartment near the downtown area where Tekere and his bodyguards spent the night.

The minister talked briefly to the police and then a similar stakeout was held briefly Tuesday night at his home before he submitted to questioning and agreed to appear at the central police station Wednesday.

In between the two police actions, Mugabe reportedly summoned Tekere to his office Tuesday and is said to have asked the official what had happened.

The fact that Mugabe has taken no public action to protect Tekere is taken as an indication that the party secretary general admitted at least some culpability.

Mugabe's biggest dilemma involves the reaction within his ZANU-PF party where Tekere is reported to have strong following, although not enough to challenge the prime minister, who also serves as party president.

Observers say it is unlikely that the party will suspend Tekere until the results of the trial, which is not expected until mid-September at the earliest.

Mugabe may feel the need to acknowledge the incident in a circumspect manner, perhaps by naming a temporary replacement for Tekere in the Ministry of Manpower.

The government-owned radio and televeision ignored the murder for 48 hours and then gave it low-key treatment.

So far there have been no reports of demonstrations among the 25,000 Mugabe guerrillas still living restively at assembly camps eight months after the cease-fire.

About 150 university students staged a pro-Tekere march Friday but the police quickly contained it and arrested the students. Party cadre generally have not been forthcoming on the incident except to say it is "embarrassing."

Tekere appeared to use his arrest to try to rally support in an unusual way -- he changed into a combat fatigue uniform for the occasion. Party officials do not wear military uniforms, so his move was taken either as an act of defiance or as a silent statement of what he did was part of "the struggle."

The burdens of office have moderated some of the government's radically inclined ministers since independence but Tekere seemed to become more of a maverick and more isolated as he pushed for rapid change despite Mugabe's moderate approach.

Less than a month after the government took office Tekere said in an interview, "There must be no more talk of gradualism."

An Anglican by birth, Tekere took on the church by calling it "an instrument of oppression" and saying two leading white Anglican clergymen should leave the country.

Predictably, the white community was in an uproar. One letter writer to The Herald, Salisbury's daily newspaper, said Tekere should be called the "minister of hate."

Tekere also said Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Patroitic Front Party, which is in a loose coalition with ZANU-PF, should be "crushed" and that the predominantly white civil service had to be "tamed."

Tekere, one source said is "an intense, determined man who says what he thinks and doesn't care if people agree with him or not."

Mugabe owes a debt to Tekere, who crushed a dissident movement among members of his faction in Mozambique in 1978 when the party leader was in Malta for peace negotiations.

One of the first open indications of distance between the two men came a year ago in Lusaka, Zambia, at the end of the Commonwealth summit that outlined a formula leading to a settlement of the Rhodesia issue.

Tekere sharply criticized parts of the agreement at a press conference, flared at reporters who asked if his stand represented Mugabe's view and said he didn't need Mugabe's approval to issue a statement. It seemed, however, that this was a case of Tekere's temper getting the best of him.

Tekere showed his sensitivity to the mood of his leader last January when Mugabe returned from exile to a tumultuous welcome from a rally attended by about 250,000 people.

Mugabe usually keeps a tight rein on his emotions but he appeared about to crack during his speech when referring to the thousands of war dead. The articulate Tekere jumped up, made a short interjection and led the crowd in cheers, thus giving Mugabe time to compose himself.

Mugabe never said anything publicly against Tekere, but he did order the temporary withdrawals of a questionnaire the minister distributed to civil servants seeking to find out their qualifications.

There are indications that the friendship did cool somewhat over Tekere's habit of increasingly coming late for Cabinet meetings and for sessions of the party's central committee that he was supposed to organize.

Mugabe works long hours and maintains high standards while "Tekere found it difficult to operate within rigid hours, like 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.," according to an official familiar with both men.

Mugabe's style, however, is not to ride herd on his associates and their varying lifestyles.

At a recent meeting at his home the prime minister, a teetotaler, offered soft drinks. Tekere, obviously feeling at home, said, "No way, I want a beer."

Mugabe went to the kitchen and got his maverick minister his beer.