Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Biti risks falling into Gono trap of claiming mantle of latest Zimbabwean economic ‘miracle man’

Posted by CM on February 15, 2009

Just – appointed MDC minister of finance Tendai Biti has started  his tenure with a bang. He is seemingly everywhere in the media, with admiring, sympathetic and sometimes even heroic portrayals.

The understandably Mugabe-reviling BBC particularly likes the fact that Biti sometimes wears a British-style bowler hat and is apparently a fanatical supporter of a British soccer team! “Phew,” you can almost hear the BBC sigh with relief, “finally we get some Zimbabwean officials who are openly favourably-disposed to things British!” Mugabe and Co. have been merciless in their rhetoric against the British media and political establishments.

The excitement is understandable. It is incredible that the day has come in Zimbabwe when an ‘opposition’ politician occupies such a key portfolio, and under Mugabe! (Never mind that with the new unity government, Zimbabwe technically has no opposition for the moment.) It is indeed a historical development in Zimbabwe’s politics.

Apart from the political significance of the appointment, many are pinning their hopes of an arrest and reversal of the country’s economic decline on the MDC occupying this key portfolio. Their hope is that the party has access to the tap of Western largesse, both in terms of the lifting of sanctions and in terms of attracting aid and investment. We shall see.

Biti is clearly is enjoying his moment in the sun, and appears to have as much of a penchant for publicity as central bank governor Gideon Gono, who just  five years ago was hailed by some (and by himself!) as the Zimbabwean economy’s Mr. Fix- It. “Failure is not an option” boasted Gono at the time, with the local media eating up his every word for months to come, until disillusionment with him begun to set in as the economy continued its free fall, and inflation to skyrocket.

Gono over-sold himself as a ‘turn-around expert’ with a miracle cure and he under-estimated the importance of accompanying political and diplomatic reform for the success of his many attempted schemes to “save” the economy. The reform that was required of the politicians simply didn’t happen. Gono has gone from popular Mr. Fix-It to being one of the most reviled public officials in those five years.  The messianic media portrayals have long been forgotten, even in the obedient state media.

The early signs are that there is a high risk of Biti falling into a Gono-like ego-trap. There is the similar basking in media attention, when a more low-key profile might be more prudent. There are the many too-early pronouncements about what he is going to do, when it would be better to speak in generalities until he gets his feet wet and has a more realistic idea of what is possible. He has continued to issue hot-headed statements against the MDC’s governing partners ZANU-PF as still being ‘unwilling to share power.’ That may well be true, but that line now sounds odd coming from someone so firmly embedded in the government. That is the type of  statement that should now come from another MDC official, not Biti. It is simply not to his advantage in his new position to be creating even more enemies than he has now amongst jittery, resentful ZANU-PF officials who are likely to be doing all they can to trip him up personally and politically.

There are the boastful failure-is-not-an-option-style statements, at the very least prematurely raising hopes of economic recovery amongst some long-suffering Zimbabweans willing to grasp at any straw of quick relief. Yet the fact of the matter is that there are still many factors completely outside Biti’s control that could result in failure for him that could be every bit as spectacular as that which the once-lionised Gono is now blamed for.

For the sake of Zimbabwe I hope to be proven wrong in my concern about what appears to be a certain rashness on Biti’s part that is unbecoming of a finance minister, and I wish him well in his difficult portfolio.  Perhaps he will quickly get over his youthful excitement and avoid the ego-and-publicity-before-results trap that was partly Gono’s undoing in terms of public esteem.

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