Gono’s best can only be a Pyrrhic victory
By Joram Nyathi
IT appears Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono’s “economic war” will cost far more than the victory that it seeks against corruption, that is if there is goin
g to be victory at all. Initially we underestimated the enormity of the project. (I use enormity in both senses of the word.) Suddenly it has become a criminal offence to be found in possession of your national currency.
We last week estimated that the military-style operation could cost anything up to $1 trillion. This was for vehicles and allowances for those involved. We didn’t factor in reports of looting at roadblocks and open acts of bribe-seeking at border posts by Zimra officers. They are already stocking the new notes while allowing a few lucky individuals to bring back their old bearer cheques in exchange for a foreign currency “handshake”.
What I still fail to comprehend is why it was found necessary to mount such a huge and costly operation. Gono set a punishing deadline of 21 days by which old bearer cheques would cease to be legal tender. He ordered banks to start dispensing the new notes although ATMs were not configured to dispense them. The chaos in all bankhalls at the moment bears testimony to the scandalous nature of this order.
Like his handling of delinquent banks in 2004, Gono has tended to adopt a retributive approach out of all proportion with the task at hand. Banks are being punished for the crimes of individuals who chose to keep their cash under their mattresses because of a crisis that is also not of their making. If there had been no wholesale economic collapse we would not experience the current levels of inflation that make it foolhardy for anybody to keep his money in a bank account.
The retrospective publicity blitz suggests an undertaking that was not planned. If it had been planned, Gono would have spared us the extravagant costs and numerous roadblocks as if the nation were under a state of emergency. The deadline of August 21 would be enough to force everybody to surrender their money.
But why pursue people who stand to lose from not surrendering something that becomes worthless at the close of business on August 21? Gono has been granted presidential powers to deploy the army, police, the CIO and youth militia to collect pieces of paper that nobody wants, at a cost far in excess of what the RBZ is pumping out to fund the operation — unless he is lying that the notes will be phased out!
How does this splurge help in fighting inflation and in turning around the economy? The deadline would by itself have made it possible to arrest the criminals without the need for mounted soldiers we saw patrolling suburbs in Beitbridge. The massive clean-up and obscene show of might have not brought any name worth writing home about. Its result has been as mundane as America’s search for Osama bin Laden, netting mainly small fish or downright tadpoles.
It is the fanatical zeal and disproportionate waste of state resources that worry me because they have done so much to hurt the economy. It was the same sledgehammer approach in 2004 that destroyed confidence in the banking system and caused untold suffering for depositors.
The impact of the current operation on rural people and other ordinary Zimbabweans is as devastating as Operation Murambatsvina was to high density urban dwellers and operators of informal businesses. Real criminals are taking advantage of the confusion to cheat and rob. Even shop retailers are hiking prices in the name of removing three zeros. Gono is inadvertently whipping up national revulsion against an otherwise noble crusade.
In this connection, I was alarmed by the political dimension the campaign has assumed. Gono last week attacked a sinister agenda by people blandishing “liberation war credentials” whom he said thought they were “above the law”.
“Your history does not matter,” scoffed Gono, adding: “Your history does not make you a bloodsucker.” Where and who are these bloodsuckers? Suffice to say this gives the whole operation a new tenor, a vituperative political tone we have come to associate with President Mugabe for whom threats and warnings have become part of official lexicon.
While one cannot question the moral imperative of the war on corruption, it is fatally shortsighted to ignore the political and economic milieu that has spawned mass poverty and an amoral culture of ruthless acquisitiveness. To me that should be our enemy number one, for the rest, from inflation, fuel shortages, corruption to general anti-social behaviour are, in Marxian dialectics, only a manifestation of our material conditions. That is why it is easy to lop zeros from the old currency only to see them sprout more luxuriantly in the new one tomorrow. You only need to go shopping or to buy fuel to discover this truth.
It is this environment that has made people cringe at a financial system that instead of rewarding punishes the honest labourer who entrusts it with his hard-earned pennies. The bottomline is that you cannot turnaround an agro-based economy without robust commercial agriculture.