IN an unprecedented and dramatic action not seen since Independence in 1980, Finance minister Tendai Biti on Tuesday stormed out of a cabinet meeting during a heated debate among ministers on the Reserve Bank debt restructuring plan, leaving President Robert Mugabe stunned.
Official sources said Biti, who only two weeks ago fiercely clashed in cabinet with Mines minister Obert Mpofu over the controversial Chiadzwa diamonds, angrily walked out of cabinet three days ago after a ferocious fight with Zanu PF ministers led by Patrick Chinamasa and Simbarashe Mumbengegwi over the issue which could have “opened a political can of worms”.
The sources said Biti’s move left Mugabe and even Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, as well as other ministers visibly shocked. This has raised great alarm in the corridors of power over Biti’s future in the shaky inclusive government which he joined reluctantly in the first place.
“It was like nothing we have ever seen before,” one minister told the Zimbabwe Independent. “Towards the end of the cabinet session on Tuesday Biti furiously stormed out with an unfolded folder. He left in a huff and we were all stunned.”
Another minister who spoke to the Independent said Mugabe’s reaction was that of “shock and disbelief”. Tsvangirai, the minister said, “could not believe what was happening”. As for the rest of cabinet, the minister said “we were astonished and rendered speechless”.
“It was hard to believe. Even though the meeting was very heated nobody thought he would walk out,” the minister said. “I wonder what will happen next.”
The sources said after Biti left, Tsvangirai tried to defend him, accusing Zanu PF ministers of “personalising issues”. Mugabe did not say anything.
Repeated efforts to get comment from Biti were unsuccessful yesterday. His phone was continuously unavailable.
Sources said Tuesday’s pitched cabinet battle followed a presentation by Biti on principles of the anticipated Bill to restructure the central bank’s debt profile.
The Bill is envisaged against a backdrop of a flood of claims against the Reserve Bank mainly by a syndicate of top state officials, including ministers, over unpaid debts. The creditors have been looting central bank assets through dubious auctions which the Attorney-General’s office considers “illegal and criminal because government assets are not executable”.
Biti’s presentation which suggested an gation through a parliamentary process into how the central bank accumulated its debts, including the US$1 billion liability, angered Zanu PF ministers who, according to sources, saw it as an attempted “witch-hunt” on who took what and “negation of mainly the land reform programme”. Most Zanu PF ministers got money and equipment from the central bank under the guise of farming.
“Biti made a presentation on the issue and a debate as usual followed. He then came towards the end of the meeting to respond to issues raised and that’s when the fight started. Chinamasa and Mumbengegwi were vicious and in the process Biti walked out,” a source said.
“The issue could have opened a political can of worms,” one of the sources said. “The question is why are we continuing to pay for equipment which is supposed to have been already paid for through hard currency bought from the parallel market before 2009, liquidation of foreign currency accounts and selling of central bank assets, especially shares?”
Moved by the looting of state assets by a syndicate of officials besieging the Reserve Bank, cabinet last week on Tuesday decided that Mugabe would issue a statutory instrument in terms of the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act to deal with the issue.
The decision for Mugabe to intervene to stop the pillaging of RBZ assets was taken after the heated cabinet meeting. Central Bank authorities had appealed to Mugabe and Biti to intervene to stop the plunder.
Biti had suggested various ways of intervening including coming up with a Reserve Bank (Debt Restructuring) Bill or creating a curator or judicial manager so that creditors could go there to make and prove a claim. He has also raised the possibility of using the State Liabilities Act to bring to an end the looting. On Tuesday the minister presented principles of the envisaged Reserve Bank (Debt Restructuring) Bill which would create a judicial manager, who would investigate the background of the liabilities, to deal with the central bank debts and claims.
Sources said Biti’s move could have a serious impact on the unstable inclusive government which is always hovering on the edge. Biti has in the past led MDC-T ministers to boycott cabinet.
Last October, Sadc leaders had to swiftly intervene to prevent the collapse of the fragile coalition government after Tsvangirai and his ministers pulled out in protest against Mugabe and his party’s refusal to address outstanding issues linked to the global political agreement. Mugabe and Tsvangirai are locked in a raging power struggle over the control of the inclusive government.