Will the Minister of Energy please stand up

OVER the past 10 days police have raided street vendors’ stalls and flea markets across Harare. They have razed entire open air markets and arrested thousands of people while commodities wo

rth millions of dollars have been forfeited to the state or destroyed.

Thousands of informal traders have lost their only sources of livelihood.

There are threats to demolish thousands of backyard shacks which house more than a quarter of Harare’s population. There were running battles in the townships this week as police ransacked and destroyed tuckshops and vegetable stalls.

As part of the blitz at least 1 000 commuter omnibuses were impounded for various reasons. Meanwhile, workers have been getting to work as late as mid-day due to an acute shortage of transport. Getting back home after work sometimes takes up to midnight.

Then there is a crippling fuel shortage which government is pretending to be managing. On Wednesday Energy and Power Development permanent secretary Justin Mupamhanga said: “We are managing the situation.”

There is no evidence of that on the ground. On the contrary, there were long queues of vehicles at many service stations although there was no evidence of fuel deliveries. Mupamhanga talked deceptively of logistical problems.

The US$18,5 million which the Reserve Bank said it had availed for fuel procurement this week is enough to cover just a month’s supply at depressed consumption.

In this chaos where is the Energy minister? Could he please rise so that we can all see him? Retired Lt General Mike Nyambuya, appointed to this portfolio two months ago, has been unforgivably quiet as fuel shortages threaten to bring the country to a standstill. He must emerge from his farm in Manicaland and tell the nation the truth about the fuel situation.

We know the problem is lack of foreign currency but the situation must be managed. The little fuel trickling into the country has to be managed so that the bulk of it does not end up on the black market where it is available at $40 000 a litre. Competent leaders usually emerge in times of crisis while useless ones are cocooned in inept silence.

The crisis in the fuel sector calls for long-term planning to manage with the little foreign currency inflows we currently have. Tinkering with the procurement apparatus, including dishing out of licences and the setting up of the Petroleum Marketers Association of Zimbabwe, have not resulted in improved deliveries.

This has been exacerbated by a huge subsidy which is meant to keep the price of the commodity down. This has resulted in government’s deadman’s grip in the procurement, marketing and distribution of fuel.

Considering the strategic importance of fuel, control is important but it can be self-defeating if management is left to incompetent individuals and arms of government. In times of plenty, government has not been able to build reserves. In lean times distribution is not managed and truckloads are being offloaded onto the black market.

Zimbabwe currently has the cheapest fuel in the region but that is not anything to cheer about as long as the commodity is not available. Central bank governor Gideon Gono in his monetary policy statement last week said local manufacturers should be competitive because of the subsidised fuel. As things stand, he could not be further from the truth because manufacturers are buying fuel on the black market to stay open for business.

A country that is supposed to be in recovery mode is running on empty. Workers who are supposed to have their shoulders to the wheel can’t get to work on time because there is no fuel. Distribution of goods and services has been compromised. There is no diesel for winter cropping. Mines and the manufacturing sector which rely on huge amounts of diesel for production have scaled down operations.

This is an embarrassing situation for President Mugabe who preached recovery and prosperity with gusto before the March general election. Can he still sing the same refrain today? The economy is not showing any signs of recovery, as you promised in your address to the nation last December, Mr President.

There can’t be economic revival when there is no proper energy plan and when knee-jerk measures are put in motion to traumatise workers who have no transport to take them home after a torrid day at work. There are no plans for alternative accommodation for the hundreds whose backyard shacks government wants to destroy.

The shacks are constant reminders of government’s failure to provide decent accommodation for the poor. Removing the shacks and breaking down stalls may bring order in the cities but it will only heighten discontent among urban dwellers. Government is playing a dangerous game in the towns and cities where Zanu PF has failed to win support in four crucial polls over the past five years.

There is an element of wickedness in the way government has carried out this blitz. There is a plan here to punish those who voted for the opposition in the past election. But what will this achieve apart from a disaffected populace?

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