IN 2007, 30 Kenyan deputy ministers wrote to then president Mwai Kibaki complaining there was very little work for them to do in their official capacities.
“I just go to the office and read newspapers,” assistant Fisheries minister Abu Chiaba said, while his counterpart in the Wildlife and Tourism ministry Kalembe Ndile spoke of his frustration of learning about policy decisions in the media.
“I’m treated like a shadow and only learn of issues in my ministry through the press,” Ndile grumbled.
At the time, Kenya had 50 deputy ministers serving in 33 ministries.
It has often been said those who ignore lessons from history often repeat the same mistakes and this seems to be the case with Zimbabwe which is repeating that Kenyan scenario.
There was a palpable air of excitement and expectation at State House last Tuesday when President Robert Mugabe swore into cabinet 26 ministers and 25 deputies, including two in the Agriculture ministry.
Two ministries, Defence and State Security, which is now under Presidential Affairs, have no deputies. Deputy ministers do not sit in cabinet.
So what is the use of deputy ministers as they don’t sit in cabinet or even act in in the absence of their bosses?
How does one justify appointment of deputy ministers and their celebrations when they have no clear responsibilities beyond the apparent ones that include attending colourful functions and reading speeches on behalf of their superiors?
Could they have been celebrating the joyride on the gravy train where there are plenty of opportunities to peddle their influence to line their pockets, in addition to guaranteed salaries and perks?
Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo acted as Higher Education minister for some time after the death of Stan Mudenge last year, while former State Enterprises and Parastatals minister Gorden Moyo acted as Finance minister in the absence of his MDC-T colleague Tendai Biti.
This was despite the fact that Mudenge had a deputy minister in Lutho Tapela, a seasoned educationist who served as a headmaster and staffing officer in the Education ministry before joining the Welshman Ncube-led MDC even though his capacity in diplomacy had not been tested.
Mugabe has continued to retain deputy ministers because they serve a political purpose of patronage, rewarding his loyalists and managing expectations of regional and ethnic balance as he admitted last week.
This probably explains the return of Matabeleland South’s Abigail Damasane (deputy Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development), Masvingo’s Tongai Muzenda (deputy Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare) and Midlands’ Chiratidzo Mabuwa (deputy Industry and Commerce), among others.
“They (deputy ministers) have no job description,” said Godwin Phiri, a political commentator. “They do not seem to have anything to do except gobbling up a huge chunk of funds in salaries, cars and perks.”
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said: “There is need for Mugabe to manage the weight of expectation from his supporters, especially after a huge election win.
Appointments to deputy ministerial positions are also made with a view to achieve balance between the old guard and the new generation. There was also the imperative of balancing regional and ethnic considerations.”
While Mugabe may have retained the usual cast of ministers including Emmerson Mnangagwa (Justice), Sydney Sekeramayi (Defence) and Simbarashe Mumbengegwi (Foreign Affairs), who have been around since the 1980s, he has brought in some new faces as deputies as a sop to the clamour for change.
New faces among the deputies include Mathias Tongofa (Indigenisation), Supa Mandiwanzira (Information), Tabeth Kanengoni-Malinga (Sports, Arts and Culture), Simon Musanhu (Environment, Water and Climate) and Muzenda, among others.
However, Rusero said there was also a good side to it: “Deputy ministries can also be seen as grooming laboratories for future appointments of cabinet ministers.”
He said for instance the likes of David Parirenyatwa (Health), Lazarus Dokora (Primary and Secondary Education) and Andrew Langa (Sports, Arts and Culture) were once deputy ministers before they became full ministers.
Even if they do not sit in cabinet or act as ministers, some analysts believe the deputies, who draw huge salaries and benefits combined, could still be useful in influencing policy decisions.
Oxford University lecturer Phillan Zamchiya said deputy ministers could also be part of the governance matrix by working to ensure government delivers, especially as some of them are technocrats with the relevant skills to complement some ministers who are just mere political appointees on the patronage ticket.
The likes of Joel Matiza (Local Government), Munacho Mutezo (Energy), Fred Moyo (Mines) and Mandiwanzira are some of the deputies whose educational and technical expertise may come in handy should they be given some latitude to operate in their respective portfolios.
Phiri said: “The effectiveness of the deputy ministers will depend largely on how well they relate with the ministers.”
This is especially possible given that this time around Mugabe only had to choose from his party unlike during the February 2009 to June 2013 scenario where Zanu PF and the MDC formations were brought together in an uneasy and ultimately dysfunctional coalition government.
While Kenyan deputy ministers concluded their letter by telling Kibaki that “we owe it to the taxpayer that what we are paid is commensurate with what we do”, their Zimbabwean counterparts are unlikely to be encumbered by such moral scruples from enjoying the attendant benefits conferred by their positions.
They will certainly fit into Mugabe’s patronage network in a country with an unemployment rate reportedly above 80%, although as analysts point out they could still be useful in decision-making due to their expertise if given the chance.
However, analysts also say given government’s limited resources and the need to cut down the wage bill which gobbles 69% of taxpayers’ money, crowding out capital expenditures and social investments as well as service delivery, the size of cabinet and the current number of deputy ministers in particular, is untenable.