ZIMBABWE’S ruling elite has been quick to emulate private firms when recruiting board members and executives. Often they appoint those that belong to
the same religious group or attended the same college or school.
Government has added a new dimension. Instead of turning to traditional hunting grounds for candidates, President Robert Mugabe has scoured the army barracks for retired and serving military personnel to run some of the state’s blighted parastatals that have mirrored an economy in terminal decline.
Notwithstanding parastatals’ checkered history and their distinction of shackling the state’s economic progress by gobbling up an unfair share of taxpayers’ dollars in subsidies, the ruling elite has invested absolute faith in the military turning the economy around.
A retired colonel heads the Grain Marketing Board and an airforce officer heads the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ). A serving brigadier heads the Sports and Recreation Commission, a situation widely viewed as military encroachment on social life.
Government introduced Operation Maguta where military personnel took over some of the farms previously run by the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority in an effort to boost declining agricultural production.
A militarised economy implies a penetration of the military ethos into society and the value system of its governing elite.
Analysts say this reinforces the notion that Zanu PF has yet to wean itself from the politics of the liberation struggle and transform from a liberation movement to a modern civilian government.
Others say it is a reflection of deep-seated anxiety associated with fears for the future by the ruling elite after past populist policies pushed the economy to the precipice.
After years of blindly foisting party functionaries on parastatals and other quasi-government organisation boards with little regard to competence, the ruling elite now reposes more faith in former comrades-in-arms in its bid for a change of economic fortunes.
Government initially tested the waters by recruiting the military for its electoral process in 2000, ostensibly to supervise voting from a national command centre. It paid handsome dividends but earned Zimbabwe international condemnation for fraudulent polls.
Commentators have not found common ground on whether Zimbabwe’s economy should be termed militarised.
“It cannot be termed as such for the simple reason that not all of the parastatals are headed by serving military personnel or retired ones,” says economist John Robertson.
He says senior army personnel have experience in human resource management by the very nature of the military command ethic.
“But it may not be relevant if these people are appointed for political expediency.”
President Mugabe borrowed heavily from the success of the “Asian Tigers” and has been quick to mimic Indonesia where, during the 20-year reign of President Suharto the military ensured that government policy followed a path that the military leadership deemed fit.
In the first two decades of Suharto’s rule, Indonesia experienced rapid industrialisation and economic growth.
His almost unquestioned authority over Indonesian affairs slipped dramatically when the Asian financial crisis lowered Indonesians’standards of living and rattled his support among the nation’s military, political and civil society institutions.
Mugabe’s stranglehold on national affairs and popularity might be slipping on the back of economic hardships precipitated by his government’s seizure of once productive commercial farms over the past six years.
Similarly, in the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis that began in mid-1997, the government took custody of a significant portion of private sector assets through the acquisition of non-performing bank loans and corporate assets via the debt restructuring process.
But observers say by appointing retired army personnel, Mugabe is merely trying to put a speed hump in the path of an unfolding economic catastrophe.
For instance, almost half of the NRZ’s wagons lie derelict because there is no hard cash to import spares. NRZ is headed by an airforce officer, Air Commodore Mike Karakadzai, while the chairman of the board is a former army officer, Brigadier Douglas Nyikayaramba. A deal with the Chinese to modernise relay equipment fell through because Zimbabwe could not raise the required deposit and the central bank did little to assist.
The parastatal’s spokesperson Fanuel Masikati on Tuesday told a media briefing that the NRZ was saddled with huge debts. A functional railway system is essential for the movement of bulk goods, especially coal for farmers and industrial firms as well as generating electricity vital for economic development. It is essential for imports and exports.
Masikati said a state-sponsored scheme to turn around the fortunes of the rail company has seen only 42 locomotives and 1 248 wagons refurbished over the past three years. More than 4 000 are awaiting repairs.
“The spares for the wagons, including wagon wheels, are imported and require foreign currency,” Masikati said.
Suharto was strongly supported by most of the military establishment. His government owned more than 164 enterprises and administered prices on several basic goods, including fuel, staple rice, and electricity, just like Zimbabwe.
The GMB, headed by a retired colonel, has largely remained a conduit of maize deliveries to starving peasants in the wake of food shortages spawned by a ruinous land reform programme.
It has become a ground for corrupt officials who peddle their influence to acquire inputs or grain for resale on the black market.
Recently, a senior army officer, Colonel Ronnie Mutizhe, in charge of Operation Maguta, stunned Vice-President Joice Mujuru when he revealed details of looting at Kondozi Estate by senior government officials.
Another erstwhile role model for Mugabe who displayed identical traits was Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir was a meritocrat in principle, but his tenure saw the spread of patronage in Malaysia. He embarked on a policy of privatisation of public assets, notably in transportation utilities and communications, for example television.
This was done through an opaque process resulting in ownership passing directly to politically well-connected businessmen.
What frightens the public most is not the military heading institutions but the ruling elite’s strong craving for immediate gratification and mistrust of qualified civilians running the show. They might end up despoiling the nation in the name of guaranteeing their commander-in-chief’s stay at the helm.