How Does One Man Revitalise the Economy of One of the World's Most Brutalised Nations?
|word count: 2006
African politics is not for the faint hearted. “Democracy” in most of Africa’s 53 nations is a quagmire polluted by a ruthless alliance of aging, corrupt dictators and oppressors, prepared to eliminate any opposition to their autocratic rule. Only the most dedicated and courageous people dare take on what is often referred to as “The Club of African Dictators”.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance is one of those people. Tendai Biti is a principled, respected man who has never been afraid to fight for democracy for his people. His appointment is key to the restoration of Zimbabwe’s ruined economy, the result of 29 years of ruinous policies adopted by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party.
Biti was appointed to the post in February 2009, when Mugabe agreed to a power sharing deal between ZANU PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. Elections held in March 2008 resulted in a clear win for the MDC, but Mugabe was unwilling to relinquish his 28-year grasp on power in Zimbabwe.
MDC’s leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdraw from the election re-run in July because of the organised violence perpetrated by Mugabe’s supporters against his supporters. Mugabe was immediately sworn in as president, but was forced into a power sharing agreement by Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries. Mugabe had little choice - Zimbabwe was experiencing hyperinflation and the country was bankrupt. The international community is unwilling to provide financial assistance to Zimbabwe because Mugabe and his cronies have, during their 28 years in power, looted the country resources and coffers. A unity government was the only way forward, and in February Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister.
Government ministries were shared by both parties. Mugabe’s shocking economic policies meant he had to relinquish the important Ministry of Finance in order to secure financial support and restore integrity to his government. Biti has risen to the challenge, but his appointment has not been well received by everyone.
In August a khaki-coloured envelope addressed to him was delivered to his home in Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare. The envelope contained a single live bullet and a handwritten note which read raira nhaka - shona words meaning “prepare your will.” Biti has spoken publically of his fear that both he and Tsvangirai could be assassinated by those determined to block any political reform in Zimbabwe.
"Tsvangirai is the face of change in Zimbabwe,” Biti told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “And change is a threat to those who have been benefiting from the status quo. Yes, we are at risk (of assassination) and I think we are being irresponsible by having the lax security arrangements we have, certainly myself. I don't think about my personal security, which I think is stupid, but that's the reality."
Born in 1966, Tendai Laxton Biti studied law at the University of Zimbabwe from 1986 to 1989. He was elected head of the university’s student union, where his leadership qualities where first proved when he arranged and led student demonstrations against the Zimbabwe government's strict censorship laws. After graduating with honours, he joined one of Harare’s leading law firms, Honey and Blankenburg. By the age of 26 he had been appointed the firm’s youngest ever partner. During his legal career he successfully represented some of Zimbabwe’s largest trade unions and handled labour and human rights litigation.
Biti moved into politics in 1999, when he helped found the MDC. He is the party’s Secretary General. The following year he was elected Member of Parliament for Harare East, a seat he still holds. He has served on parliamentary committees for Land, Agriculture, Water Development, Rural Resources and Resettlement and the country’s Defence and Home Affairs ministry. In 2007 he was one of many MDC members arrested and detained by Mugabe’s militia for organising a prayer rally in Harare’s Highfield township.
Threats of assassination first surfaced after the March 2008 elections. Biti remained outside the country in South Africa with Tsvangirai. At an interview before returning home in June he told the press he expected to be arrested, claiming the only crime he had committed was “fighting for democracy.” Shortly after his arrival at Harare International Airport his prediction was realised. His lawyers were denied access to him, and when the head of Mugabe’s police force said Biti would be charged with treason the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGhee, issued a statement expressing his country’s concern over the arrest and the concern that the document used as the basis for the treason charge appeared to be a forgery. Biti’s lawyer confirmed this opinion.
Two days after his arrest Biti appeared in court, having been interrogated for a full 24 hours immediately after his arrest. Later that month he was charged with “treason, communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the State, insulting President Mugabe and causing disaffection among the defence forces.” In Zimbabwe a conviction for treason carries the death penalty. Eventually all charges were dismissed.
At time of writing Biti has been at the helm of the Ministry of Finance for nine months. Prior to his appointment the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, had taken control of the government’s fiscal policies - with the support of President Mugabe. Gono, who is Mugabe’s personal banker, was appointed Reserve Bank Governor in 2003, and last year Mugabe re-appointed him for a further five year term, congratulating Gono for the way he has handled Zimbabwe’s economy.
Under Gono’s guidance Zimbabwe experienced the world highest hyperinflation, peaking at around 89.7 sextillion percent. This meant prices doubled every 24.7 hours. His policies resulted in shortages not only of cash and bank notes, but also of fuel and food. During this time Zimbabwe’s health, education and agricultural sectors also collapsed. Unemployment rose to almost 98 percent. Gono also ordered the police and army to arrest various businessmen, many of whom were detained in prison for lengthy periods.
One of Biti’s first acts as Minister of Finance was to suspend the worthless Zimbabwe dollar, and legalise the use of foreign currency. Within days the Zimbabwe dollar had disappeared, replaced by the British pound, the Euro, the South African rand and the United States dollar. Hyperinflation vanished, and within a month the country’s inflation was below twenty percent. Supermarket shelves filled with food and products previously only available to most people on the black market. Banks began to offer foreign currency accounts, and the black market, which had unofficially controlled the foreign exchange rates for almost ten years, disappeared.
It has been reported that Gono secured the scarce foreign currency for Mugabe and his allies, selling the money to them at the official rate of 30,000 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. This money would then be traded on the black market, for up to one trillion Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. The trillions of Zimbabwe dollars were then handed back to the Reserve Bank to purchase further foreign currency at the official rate. Many people became US dollar millionaires in several days because of the black market.
When foreign currency was not available, Gono would print more money in order to trade on the black market. When this was not sufficient he would simply withdraw the funds from private bank accounts, telling the account holders the money would be repaid when funds became available.
Biti is seeking to reduce the Reserve Bank Governor’s involvement in quasi-fiscal policies with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Amendment bill, due to be introduced to parliament before the end of this month (October 2009). Biti says the bill will restore credibility and legitimacy to the Reserve Bank, claiming Gono abused power through these quasi-fiscal activities, resulting in an almost omnipotent role in Zimbabwe’s economy.
“The Reserve Bank’s involvement in the economy was to the detriment of the treasury, to the detriment of everyone (except ZANU PF),” Biti told the United Kingdom-based newspaper The Zimbabwean.
Currently a verbose public feud is being reported in the newspapers between Biti and Gono over control of the recent allocation of US$500 million granted to Zimbabwe by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Gono told Reuters news agency that delays in distributing the loan were delaying the recovery of the economy. Gono wants the money distributed to the people who benefitted from the forced seizure of farms under Mugabe’s land acquisition program, implemented in 1999. Most of the farms are in the hands of Mugabe’s supporters, family and friends. Gono himself owns several of the seized farms.
Biti wants to wait for the government to set a budget before the funds are distributed., saying: "These funds are going to be part of Zimbabwe's budget provisions. I can't break the law, I am a lawyer. These funds are not a substitute for fiscal prudence and fiscal wisdom.”
While Biti has certainly achieved much during his first nine months as Minister of Finance, he does believe there are outstanding issues that need to be addressed. He laments the lack of private media, insisting there should be more newspapers available to Zimbabweans. Currently Mugabe’s party insists all persons wishing to produce a newspaper in Zimbabwe must apply for a licence, which seems to take many months to be issued. Biti also feels the preparation of a new constitution for the country should be progressing faster.
When asked how he is trying to change western donors’ scepticism and reluctance to begin working with the new Zimbabwe government, Biti does not mince his words. His words are an assessment of the mistakes make by the former ZANU PF government.
“There are three cases that we have to make. The first case is that the money we want is going to genuine government activities, and not to the pockets of some bureaucrats, politicians, or to some dictator. The second case we have to make is that we are now worthy of re-engagement. The third is that that we’ll be able to deliver and live up to our own promises in the Global Political Agreement.
“These three cases require one thing that is common. We have to show sincerity in addressing the mischief that give rise to Zimbabwe’s isolation in the first instance. What were those issues? It was violence, it was dictatorship, it was abuse and assault of the rural poor, it was the total absence of democracy – stealing elections and so forth.”
Gono would like to see the Zimbabwe dollar re-introduced as soon as possible, claiming most people do not have access to foreign currency. Biti believes this is not an option, preferring to wait for at least a year before considering its re-introduction after the economy has further stabilised and improved. His position was made very clear in a recent interview with the state-owned Herald newspaper, which daily allocates a sizeable amount of column centimetres to vilifying Biti.
“If someone is to ask me bring back the Zimbabwe dollar, then there will be a vacancy on the sixth floor of the government complex and I will go back to my law firm," Biti was quoted in the newspaper.
According to a fellow MDC member, Biti is a larger than life figure. Although approachable and personable, he is also a man who does not suffer fools gladly, and does not tolerate those who waste his time. He’s not only courageous, but also humble and open to suggestions, taking the time to read and respond personally to emails from people with suggestions pertaining to his ministerial job. He also returns all telephone calls promptly. He has a great intellect, and his enthusiasm for his new job, his party and his country is very evident.
Soon after his appointment he was asked about his new job.
“The job is the worst in the world,” Biti replied, with his usual frankness. “But I will have to look the job in the eye and I have no doubt that I will be equal to the task and will prevail.”
“We have to get the country out of the mess that Mugabe has got it into.”
Written for Round Twelve of "Project Write World" to the following prompt:
Everyone has a talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.
Erica Jong (Writer)