Eric Bloch Column

Can military men be supremos of the economy?

By Eric Bloch

ALTHOUGH, on the face of it, Zimbabwe is still governed by Zanu PF after the party won the parliamentary elections in 2005, and therefore claims to be constituti

onally and democratically ruled, there is increasing evidence that the country has to a significant extent been subjected to a military coup.

De jure, President Robert Mugabe, his cabinet — inclusive of many inept ministers — parliament and a senate in which the ruling party holds a majority govern Zimbabwe.

However, de facto, its defence forces are increasingly governing Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe National Security Council (ZNSC), which comprises various arms of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, inclusive of the army and the air force, supplemented by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, is being vested with an ever-greater authoritarian role in the governing of the country or, at the least, in fulfilling the functions of government.

That first became apparent when the ZNSC was empowered to pursue the ill-fated programme of command agriculture under Operation Maguta. As yet, that programme is still to yield any significant recovery for the agricultural sector.

Admittedly, the 2006 maize harvest will be somewhat greater than any of the harvests in recent years, although still only about half of that produced prior to the disastrously implemented land reform programme. However, command agriculture can claim little credit for the improvement, which has mainly been forthcoming from those outside of the programme.

But the enhanced maize crop is counterbalanced by ongoing decline in almost all other crops, including a catastrophic fall in tobacco production to an estimated 45 million kgs, or less, reduced production of sugar, coffee, tea, citrus, grains other than maize, and by minimal change in volumes of other agricultural outputs.

Then, following upon Operation Murambatsvina in which hundreds of thousands had their minimal sources of livelihood and makeshift housing destroyed, the ZNSC became actively involved in Operation Garikayi/Hlalani Kuhle.
Having been indirectly involved in Operation Murambatsvina, which was perpetrated by the police and abetted by the army, the ZNSC was then charged with much of the implementation of the programmes of housing reconstruction. The fox, having invaded the chicken coop and having wrought havoc therein, is mandated to develop the new chicken coops!

But the ZNSC’s penetration into the role of government has now extended markedly further, as evidenced by statements by State Security minister Didymus Mutasa and Economic Development minister Rugare Gumbo that the ZNSC has been mandated to achieve Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.

The mind boggles at the concept that those trained in warfare and defence should become the supremos of the economy. What on earth does their background, training and experience include that has any bearing on formulating, guiding and driving the diverse elements of an economy, ranging from agriculture to mining, from manufacturing to tourism, from trading to finance, and much else? How can expertise in national defence be constructively applied to facilitating, enabling and motivating economic well-being?

Although Zimbabwe has pronounced scarcities of many items, ranging from petroleum to maize meal, medications and consumables in state hospitals, it has an overwhelming surplus, and that is of rumours, many of which are wholly without foundation, and most of the others being greatly exaggerated, but nevertheless a few that are of substance. Among the rumours currently in circulation is one that the ZNSC is now overseeing the operations of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra). Should that be so, it is incongruous in the extreme.

What on earth does the army know about taxation, internal controls, audit and the like? Surely the responsibility for oversight of Zimra should vest in the Ministry of Finance and the Auditor-General and, if necessary, the Ministry of Anti-Corruption and the National Economic Conduct Inspectorate.

If the ZNSC has been charged with the task of overseeing Zimra, that is as far-fetched as has been the appointment of military personnel to head the Grain Marketing Board and the National Railways of Zimbabwe, as has recently occurred, over and above like appointments to top posts in a number of other parastatals, while many very senior governmental posts are also filled by ex-army and air force personnel.

Another rumour in circulation, albeit uncorroborated, is that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) has also been placed under the surveillance of the ZNSC. If that rumour has any foundation, that would be appalling in the extreme.

The RBZ is accountable to the Ministry of Finance and, therefore, any monitoring that may be necessary should be the function of that ministry. Moreover, the RBZ is subject to an annual, independent audit of its financial statements by registered public auditors. How then can any ZNSC involvement be justified?

The realities are probably two-fold. On the one hand, the government has never been able to recognise or accept that any of Zimbabwe’s economic ills could conceivably be caused by it, whether by acts of commission or acts of omission.

It cannot recognise that it set Zimbabwe’s economy cascading downwards by granting compensation pensions to war veterans far beyond the means of the exchequer. The government then accelerated the downward cascade by embarking upon a grossly mismanaged and abused programme of land reform, and the economic decline was compounded by gargantuan fiscal mismanagement, excessive and unproductive state expenditure, immense misdirection of parastatals, gross corruption, and alienation of the international community by endless disregard for the fundamental principles of democracy, justice, law and order and human rights.

Because it could not accept that it was in any way culpable for the economic destruction, the government convinced itself that others were responsible and intently focused its attention and its ire upon those of the international community who criticised it.

The government has probably resolved that it requires a new vehicle of surveillance, monitoring and economic management and control. That resolve may well have activated it to disregard the established governmental surveillance and controls infrastructure, and to resort to the ZNSC, albeit that the body is devoid of the requisite financial and economic skills necessary to fulfil a supervisory control effectively, and to bring about an economic turnaround and recovery.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the government is intentionally increasing the authority and national involvement of the ZNSC through fear that the ever-increasing poverty and misery pervading Zimbabwe could ultimately provoke a military coup. With such a fear, it cannot be put past a government, which has long demonstrated Machiavellian skills at survival to determine that the best way to avoid a coup is to give those who could resort to such an action increased authority.

However, the government overlooks that in so-doing, to a very major extent, the very coup that it wishes to avoid is, in fact, materialising for, to all intents and purposes, the ZNSC will progressively have ever-greater control of Zimbabwe by virtue of its control of the economy.

The alternative, of course, is for the government belatedly to recognise the real causes of the demise of the economy and, based upon that recognition, to adopt constructive new policies.

These must include economic deregulation and liberalisation, fiscal probity and prudence, meaningful containment of corruption at all levels of society, equitable land reform, facilitation of productivity, creation of an investment-conducive environment and reconciliation with the international community.

The government can still reverse the developing military coup, but has it the will to do so?