How Biti escaped cabinet dismissal

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FINANCE minister Tendai Biti survived removal from his post in cabinet in this week’s shock reshuffle by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after intense inter-party lobbying and interventions which involved President Robert Mugabe and senior government officials.

Informed sources said yesterday Tsvangirai was under intense pressure from members of his “Kitchen cabinet” – an influential clique around the premier which controls the MDC-T and its operations in government – to remove Biti and all the other ministers who were either fired or redeployed.

 

However, sources plugged into the MDC-T said Mugabe and senior government officials, including Tsvangirai himself in the end, saved Biti from demotion or dismissal.

Sources said when Tsvangirai recently approached Mugabe to indicate he wanted to reshuffle his ministers, the president dissuaded him from removing Biti because of the “hard work and commitment he has shown in his job”. Mugabe is known to admire Biti’s work ethic and performance at the Treasury. A number of Zanu PF ministers acknowledge Biti’s role as Finance minister despite his constant clashes with them.

As the Zimbabwe Independent reported on May 14, a cabinet reshuffle has been odds-on for a while after Tsvangirai had indicated to Mugabe he wanted to change his cabinet team. Sources said Mugabe was initially reluctant but eventually accepted Tsvangirai’s proposal despite making it clear to the prime minister it would not be wise to take out Biti.

“As your paper correctly reported last month that a reshuffle was coming any time, that was the point at which Tsvangirai and his ‘kitchen cabinet” started mulling over plans to remove Biti and shifting all those ministers who were changed this week,” a senior MDC-T official said. “Mugabe was reluctant to let Biti go right from the beginning and made his views known to Tsvangirai.”

Sources said Tsvangirai however had remained under intense pressure from his “kitchen cabinet’ led by his permanent secretary Ian Makone and his wife Theresa to remove Biti. The Makones are the nerve-centre of Tsvangirai’s inner circle which makes crucial decisions in the party. They are said to be influential largely because of their closeness to Tsvangirai’s family and their  financial muscle. It is said the Makones were behind Wednesday’s reshuffle which was principally about consolidating Tsvangirai and their own position in power.

“The Makones and their faction wanted Biti to go but in the end Tsvangirai realised he would damage, not just the party but himself as well,” another MDC-T official said. “Tsvangirai stopped short of kicking Biti out.”

Sources said Tsvangirai was also advised against removing Biti because he is the “intellectual engine room” of the MDC-T.  Besides, the international community, especially Western countries and donors currently trying to mend damaged relations with Zimbabwe, were also against his dismissal.

“Western countries and donors were against Biti’s removal. He has managed to stabilise the macro-economic situation and ensure slight economic recovery. Whatever his weaknesses, he has done well in that ministry. Besides, Biti is currently working on the mid-year fiscal review statement and has other economic revival plans ahead and it would have been unwise to remove him,” a source said. “Even when Tsvangirai was under pressure to get rid of him the resistance was widespread and stiff.”

Sources said Biti had all along been unaware of manoeuvres to do away with him. The sources said the situation got worse after Biti walked out of cabinet last week on Tuesday during a heated debate on Reserve Bank debts and went to South Africa to watch World Cup matches. Tsvangirai was said to have been angered by Biti’s walk-out.

“The prime minister was not amused by the walk-out and that almost cost Biti’s his job. While Biti was in South Africa, the plot to remove him thickened,” a source said. “By the time he came back on Monday it was well known within the ‘kitchen cabinet’ he was going to be removed, although he himself did not know that.”

Sources said Biti – a top MDC official as secretary-general and senior government minister – only came to know about the reshuffle on Monday afternoon when Tsvangirai informed him at Harvest House where the MDC was having internal meetings.  After that Biti started to unfurl his political antennas, only to learn, much to his horror, an axe was looming above his head.

Tsvangirai was supposed to announce his reshuffle on Monday but cancelled the press conference. The prime minister said on Wednesday he shifted the event to Wednesday to fulfill certain procedures, including arranging yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers.

The sources said Biti and dismissed ministers, especially former Energy minister Elias Mudzuri, were targeted for removal or sidelining by Tsvangirai’s loyalists as they are seen as potential contenders for the MDC-T throne.

Tsvangirai and Biti were recently involved in a public quarrel over civil servants’ salary increases, which drew into its vortex Public Service minister Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, a Tsvangirai ally, who openly attacked Biti accusing him of being a “super minister”. Despite denials by Tsvangirai and his party that there were any factions, events in the MDC-T, including this week’s divisive reshuffle, are increasingly showing there is growing infighting.

The jockeying for positions of power in the MDC-T has of late been dramatically intensifying ahead of the party’s congress next year. A fight has also erupted on when to hold the congress, with some saying it should come before and others saying after the elections. The official party line is now that congress will come after elections hopefully next year. But there is also a small circle of party movers who want it postponed indefinitely like the party did before it split in 2005. The split MDC factions only held their congresses in 2006.

Dumisani Muleya/ Faith Zaba/ Farai Mutsaka

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