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Council of Ministers reduced to talk shop

That was why at the beginning the MDC strenuously claimed Tsvangirai was head of government even though he did not chair cabinet, an assertion proved wrong by the passage of time. A head of government by definition chairs cabinet.

While Tsvangirai hoped for genuine power-sharing, President Robert Mugabe and his loyalists strategically ring-fenced the levers of state power, resulting in the prime minister’s post becoming largely a ceremonial one. Some senior MDC officials, particularly Roy Bennett, have since acknowledged this, lamenting Tsvangirai is just a lame duck. 

At the beginning it was assumed if Tsvangirai controlled the Council of Ministers he would exercise influence over government, especially given the initial impression that he would also chair cabinet in Mugabe’s absence since he is the deputy. However, a battle later erupted over that and Mugabe prevailed, in a move which showed the power relations in government were in favour of Zanu PF.

On the face of it, the GPA, and Council of Ministers in particular, gave Tsvangirai substantial executive power and potential influence, depending on how he would practically handle the situation.

Article 20.1.5 of the GPA which deals with the function and role of the prime minister defines his responsibilities.  It says the prime minister, who chairs the Council of Ministers, has the responsibility to oversee the implementation of cabinet decisions, receive briefings from cabinet committees and make progress reports to cabinet on matters of implementation of cabinet decisions.

The prime minister also has to attend to matters of coordination in the government, receive and consider reports from the committee responsible for the periodic review mechanism and to make progress reports to cabinet on matters related to the periodic review mechanism.

However, due his limited influence, the Council of Ministers has become a partisan talking shop routinely boycotted by Zanu PF ministers whose statements in the media sometimes show open contempt for the prime minister. It has become unproductive, bureaucratic and self-serving and so lacks respect and power. In short, it has degenerated into a debating society.

The Council of Ministers, which consists of all the cabinet ministers and chaired by Tsvangirai, was designed to ensure the prime minister properly discharges his responsibilities to oversee the implementation of the work of government.

Its functions include, among other things, assessing the implementation of cabinet decisions, assisting the prime minister to attend to matters of coordination in the government, enabling the premier to receive briefings from cabinet committees, and making progress reports to cabinet on matters of implementation of decisions.

However, following the recent boycott of a special Council of Ministers’ meeting on indigenisation by Zanu PF cabinet ministers, analysts say this effectively confirmed Tsvangirai has no control in government.

According to the state media, Zanu PF ministers were said to have avoided the meeting, arguing Tsvangirai wanted to take advantage of Mugabe’s absence to chair cabinet through the back door.

Political analyst Gladys Hlatshwayo said the Council of Ministers was an important forum, but was crippled by power struggles in the inclusive government. “The issue really is not whether the Council of Ministers is an important platform or not,” Hlatshwayo said. “Even if Tsvangirai was to chair cabinet it was going to be the same. The main issue is about parties and personalities and their attitude towards the inclusive government.”

“Zanu PF is a disruptive  party which does not follow procedures, especially anything that seems to give Tsvangirai power. They would want to throw spanners in the works. If it was Mugabe who was heading this Council of Ministers they would all take it seriously. They just don’t want Tsvangirai. In the end it’s a power game.”

Other analysts say the disabling of the Council of Ministers reflects the power relations between Zanu PF and the MDC. The balance of power favours Zanu PF and hence Mugabe more than the MDC and Tsvangirai.

In a letter to Mugabe on February 5 providing his own assessment of the GPA, Tsvangirai described Zanu PF ministers’ boycott of the Council of Ministers meeting as “a disturbing trend”, adding this was “derailing the implementation of the GWP (Government Works Programme)”. He said if such insubordination was allowed to continue “it will make this government totally dysfunctional”.

Political commentator Blessing Vava said the Council of Ministers was “ineffective, useless and irrelevant”.  Vava said: “It was just created to appease Tsvangirai so that he could sign the agreement under the impression that by chairing it he would have some power and influence. Cabinet ministers comprise the Council of Ministers so why should we have another cabinet outside cabinet?”

He continued: “My point is that we don’t need such a body when cabinet is there already, it creates unnecessary confusion and tension. It has failed to work because it has been politicised and personalised — created specifically for Tsvangirai, strictly speaking not as a state institution.”

However, Tsvangirai’s spokesperson Luke Tamborinyoka disagreed. He argued the prime minister, as required, has managed to supervise a number of government projects even though Zanu PF ministries have proved uncooperative.

“The Council of Ministers is a creature of the GPA, which in turn is a creature of the constitution of the Republic of Zimbabwe. It is important that policy implementation is supervised and assessed. Those choosing to undermine the Council of Ministers do not make it irrelevant,” he said.

“The problem is with our shaky coalition government. Reforms that fall under the Zanu PF ministers have always been stalled. Otherwise, the prime minister has been able to supervise implementation of government policies and programmes. He has been in control of the GWP. He has been overseeing social service delivery projects, including on water, health and others.”

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