Prime Minister Robert Mugabe fired controversial Manpower Minister Edgar Tekere and demoted Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe's former coleader in the country's guerrilla war, in a wideranging Cabinet shake-up today.
The demotion of two critics who have support in different parts of the military demonstrated that Mugabe is confident that he is in firm command of the nine-month-old government and his own party despite occasional outbursts by his rivals.
Mugabe removed Nkomo as minister of home affairs with its control of the police to the low-key position of minister of public service. The move means Mugabe's party now commands all organs of state power, which Nkomo complained is in violation of an agreement made with his party when it entered into a nominal coalition government last April.
Nkomo's immediate response to Mugabe's shift was negative.
"I'm quite clear in my mind," he said in a telephone interview. "The whole thing is in complete violation of our understanding."
Mugabe could have serious difficulties if Nkomo or the military forces loyal to him reject the changes. Nkomo still has more than 20,000 troops nominally under his command until they are integrated into the new national Army along with Mugabe's loyalists and some forces from the former Rhodesian Army.
There are fears that some of Nkomo's forces will resume factional violence that peaked two months ago rather than accept the demotion of their leader.
Nkomo, however, left the door open for agreement, saying that he plans to call a meeting of the Central Committee of his party to discuss the changes. "I will put my position to the party leaders and they will put theirs to me," he said.
Many observers feel that Nkomo will realize he has no option but to go along and will convince his followers that Mugabe has made it easier by offering the Nkomo loyalists an additional ministry and deputy position in the shake-up.
Mugabe used the expansion of the Cabinet to give Josiah Chinamano, deputy leader of Nkomo's party, a position as transport minister, giving the party five ministries and three deputies among its 20 members of Parliament.
"You couldn't consider that an ungenerous offer and I don't think they will either," the prime minister said.
Mugabe also was considerate in his remarks about his former guerrilla ally, saying he thought it was better to remove Nkomo from his sensitive position because he faced mounting criticism for failing to change the formerly white-dominated police more rapidly. His plan calls for Nkomo to switch positions with Richard Hove, the current minister of public service.
In contrast, the prime minister was almost brusque when questioned about Tekere. He made his unhappiness with the outspoken secretary general of his party quite clear by failing to even mention his name in the list of Cabinet changes.
Dismissal of Tekere, recently acquitted on a technicality of murdering a white farmer five months ago, is likely to enhance the government's standing in the West and reassure the nervous white-minority population of less than 200,000.
It also demonstrates that Tekere has not been able to use his brief surge of mass support after his acquittal to challenge Mugabe for leadership and that Mugabe feels he has nothing to fear from Tekere's reputed popularity with the party's military.
Questioned about the reason for the firing, Mugabe simply said, Tekere "needs quite a lot of rest" after the ordeal of his murder trial. "I decided to give him that rest."
He denied that the minister was removed because of the murder incident, noting that Tekere was acquitted. The ousted minister was freed on the basis of a now-repealed immunity law imposed by the white government to protect officials involved in killing guerrillas or their supporters.
Mugabe reportedly is mainly annoyed with Tekere for his frequent criticism that the government is moving too slowly to end white influence.
The prime minister is involved in a balancing act between satisfying black aspirations and not causing whites to flee.
Mugabe even declined to say directly that Tekere would retain his party post. When asked, the prime minister merely said the changes announced today were confined to the government and did not involve the party.
Tekere was the only minister removed from the Cabinet in the complex reshuffle, which also involved the creation of two new ministries -- energy and women's affairs -- bringing the total number of portfolios to 26. Four ministers switched jobs, two deputies were promoted and two new faces are to join the Cabinet.
Nkomo later complained that Mugabe moved "without consultation or negotiation. I object to this strongly." He dismissed the additional seat in the Cabinet as "not important."
It was ironic that Nkomo and Tekere should undergo political demotion on the same day since they are bitter foes. Tekere has often said Nkomo should be "crushed."
Mugabe also announced that Emerson Mnangagwa, the minister of state in the prime minister's office, would be put in charge of integrating the armed forces and would chair the joint command established to carry this out.
This meant that Mugabe, who also serves as defense minister, was appointing a civilian to at least temporarily replace Lt. Gen. Peter Walls. aWalls, who commanded the Rhodesian forces and was retained by Mugabe in the same post, has been barred from the country after criticizing the government and disclosing that he had plotted a coup before the February elections that brought Mugabe to power.
In another change, Deputy Prime Minister Simon Muzenda relinquished his second position as foreign minister to his deputy, Witness Mangende.
The two white ministers in the Cabinet, David Smith and Dennis Norman, were not affected by the changes.