Mthuli Ncube not knight in shining armour

Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube

Thomas K McCraw once wrote a book titled The Founders and Finance. In this monograph, the elderly Harvard University-based economic historian detailed why Alexander Hamilton’s 1790s sound management of the United States’ economy is regarded as the foundation of much of that country’s contemporary prosperity.

Simukai Tinhu,political analyst

Indeed, those generous, or rather naive about President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s intentions for the so-called “Second Republic”, contend that as the primus inter pares among the post-coup and post-election équipe, the president might have heeded McCraw’s counsel when, on September 7, a seemingly affable economist, Mthuli Ncube, was appointed as Zimbabwe’s Finance minister.

To supporters of the self-styled “Second Republic”, — the idea that we are in a second republic goes well past credulity — the appointment was distinctly a masterstroke. Ncube was what the nation’s economy just needed, they contended. With his appointment, the economy would soon register “100-billion in Gross Domestic Product terms”, they also suggested in a manner that seemed to confirm that these optimists have since surrendered entirely to wishful thinking.

It must have been the American humorist, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who said, unbriddled utopianism, such as that demonstrated by the mnangagwa’s supporters, tends to be a subconcious enabler of cynicism. Indeed, some of us have been compelled to take a cynical, or rather, a realistic understanding which suggests that it would not be much of a surprise if a Rorschach blot test on the president — test to detect one’s underlying thoughts or intentions — licenses the view point that the government’s annexation of Ncube’s career has nothing to do with this country’s prosperity.

Indeed, Mnangagwa as a mischievous politician, such an appointment requires a ‘‘Straussian’’ read, for it is loaded with arcane messages so occluded that at times even the appointees themselves might never understand it. In other words, Ncube’s ascendancy to the finance portfolio should be understood as having zero noble purposes.

Instead, alongside such other appointments in Mnangagwa’s government, Ncube’s appointment should be seen as serving only one purpose: countering the regime’s rebarbative image, that includes Mnangagwa’s history, and some toxic assets on the president’s cabinet sheet, such as the controversial appointments of Security minister Owen “Mudha” Ncube, deputy Information minister Energy Mutodi and Transport minister Joram Gumbo. Mthuli Ncube’s appointment is also meant to send a message of a reforming regime.

Is he capable?

Economics is an honourable profession. Many distinguished ancestors such as John Maynard Keynes have graced the occupation. Ncube’s academic credentials — which are his greatest appeal — put him in the same league as this great Briton; he has a PhD in Mathematical Finance from the University of Cambridge. With regards employment experience, he has lectured at some of Britain’s most elite universities: London School of Economics and Oxford University.

The finance minister is also gold standard in the finance world. He was chief economist and vice-president of the African Development Bank (AfDB). Consequently, he is rightly mentioned in magazines such as Forbes and Wallstreet Journal. It is these qualifications and experience that have excited Mnangagwa and his supporters.

It is also said that this is not the first time that Ncube has been approached for the same role. The story is that during the formation of the Government of National Unity, he was the then prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai’s preferred candidate. The story says at that time he declined the offer. However, more than 10 years later, this time when he got a call from Mnangagwa, he decided that he had something to offer. And indeed, he was right. His first effort was to establish a crowdsourcing internet page to fight the recent cholera outbreak, a move that was laughed at as a first in the world by a finance minister. This was followed by another comical, if not dark effort: the introduction of the hastily and ill-conceived — some say illegal — tax, and fiscal measures sending the already ailing Zimbabwean economy on a life support machine.

An accompaniment to the tax farce has been his other outlandish illusion that Zimbabwe will attain upper middle-income status by the year 2030. Each time I hear this, I chortle. But, let me say this: it is deeply worrying and disturbing when an international economist of Ncube’s stature is brought in to chase a mirage. Lack of political will, entrenched corruption and, to date, the lackadaisical pace of reforms, mean that just putting in place fundamentals to come out of our economic problems, under Zanu pf leadership, requires at least a generation.

But, to date, one of the looniest, if not most terrifying moves that Ncube has made since he took office, was the appointment of William Mutumanje, also known as Acie Lumumba, as head of a Communications Task Force in the Finance Ministry. This came as a surprise to many who would have thought that Lumumba is one those people that the “clean cut” new finance minister would be privately contemptuous towards.

To put it plainly, Lumumba is a loud-mouthed political activist and chaotic character with a shady past. He is our own version of Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin. To illustrate my point, let us just do a quick and short rundown; the man even has a porn video that flooded the internet. Honestly, one cannot be dodgier than that. Fundamentally, he is also dishonest, something which he appears to consider as fun. Indeed, he can easily be coronated with the title, “Zimbabwe’s most dishonest flack” — he still masquerades as a Harvard University graduate. Surely, a professor of Ncube‘s calibre must frown at such an impostor.

Investors require the best, clearest and most accurate information on which to make their investment decisions. Such economic information needs to be handled by experts who invite calm and thoughtfulness, which is why the choice of someone who acts in a reckless and foolish manner that can at times be difficult to predict was difficult to understand to many of us — in his new role, in his first address to the public, there was embarrassingly disobliging information that Lumumba revealed. Ncube needs to understand that Western investors take seriously, subliminal messages communicated via such appointments.

Meaning of the appointment

The brief appointment of Lumumba is a reflection on Ncube and his advisors. This appointment demonstrates that the finance minister is a bad reader of character.

Hastily bringing Lumumba on board and talking a lot before consultations also shows that Ncube lacks deep internal equanimity that one would expect from a technocratic professional of his calibre and an Oxbridge graduate. It appears he is ready to do, or say absolutely anything, to appease his principal, Mnangagwa.

It was Edmund Burke more than anyone else who understood that “revolutions” devour the talented and independent-minded ones and turn them into their opposites. It is sad that this has happened to Ncube within a short time. The country should be worried.

Lastly, the appointment points out how Ncube is contemptuous of Zimbabweans — he certainly would have not entertained even the sight of Lumumba had such a similar position arisen at Oxford University or AfDB. This appointment is the clearest effrontery to his calls for highest standards of probity and professionalism which he promised the nation when he took over the ministry of finance.

It could then be said that Ncube is not our Maynard Keynes, or our Alexander Hamilton. Ncube’s management of the economy demonstrates that academic qualifications can be misleading when it comes to one’s capabilities. Who remembers Steady Eddy, one of Britain’s best post-war finance ministers (chancellor of exchequer) or his later predecessor, George Osbourne?

Steady Eddy barely passed his Ordinary levels and Osbourne has a mere undergraduate degree in Modern History. But, these two Englishmen’s mastery of monetary policy and economics in general make our own Oxbridge-educated Ncube appear like an amateur, at least so far.

Why he is bound to fail

Ncube cannot be our saviour. Beyond his qualifications and experience, Ncube does not have original economic ideas that are needed to save the Southern African nation — he has already admitted that he wants to approximate Zimbabwe’s economic system to that of Rwanda. For a man who spent most of his working career sandwiched between a super bureaucratic bank and educational institutions where tradition is worshiped, we should not be surprised.

At AfDB, he was more of an institutionalist; a man who was simply tasked with strictly ensuring that minions implement laid out bank policies.

However, to be fair, some of his failures have been structural. Ncube is outgunned by the ruling party politburo members who are quick to rattle their sabres if they sense a threat to their interests. It is hard to think of a more graphic demonstration of how the regime can react than when Ncube was publicly reprimanded by Obert Mpofu, a former cabinet minister now stationed at Zanu pf headquarters, for rushing to make statements without politburo and cabinet approval. Blocked by Zanu pf bigwigs, Ncube had to backtrack on a number of policies.

Why did he join government?

A Zanu pf government before and after the coup is an outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of orthodox economics that Ncube’s training and experience stand for, scornful of compromise and unpersuaded by conventional understanding of things, evidence, and science. The “Diesel in Chinhoyi” affair or a conviction that Zimbabwe will be an upper middle-income country by 2030 are examples of how evidence and science are of little consequence to the ruling party.

So why would Ncube partake in this extreme hazard, apparently putting his reputation on the line? The Finance minister’s history supplies much of why he agreed to join the ruling party’s government. The portrayal that the state, his admirers and himself want to make is that of a politically rootless man who has a peculiar education, experience and knowledge of money matters.

The fact that he is deeply committed to the ruling party’s false narrative that lack of direct foreign investment is largely responsible for the nation’s economic woes, is in itself telling. This is not a man who has come to save the nation, but has come to serve his friends in government by beating down the nation through austerity measures and high taxes.

Or, with regards his motives, let us take that English philosopher David Hume’s understanding of people such as Ncube’s decision-making when it comes to career moves, “. . . every man ought to be supposed a knave — unscrupulousness or dishonesty; and to have no other end in all his actions, but his private interest.” In the absence of proper political systems and good governance in Zanu pf’s Zimbabwe, there is no place for Ncube’s ideas.

So why is he here? Being part of Mnangagwa’s government is a glorious chance to enhance his international stature for purposes of future ambitions. History is awash with men of his stature who took up dubious political positions or views in order to enhance their careers. Examples that immediately come to my mind are in the 1930s, when a few British aristocrats attempted Fascism — Arthur James Balfour and Oswald Mosely — as fashion or a political tactic. However, history is also awash with lessons. These men ended up as objects of hatred and ridicule.

Discredited man

The regime is portraying Ncube as a man who will rescue Zimbabwe, yet when history books are written, he will be remembered as Mnangagwa’s key lieutenant who toiled energetically as a useful tool to sanitise a bad regime and ensure an unbroken sentence of Mnangagwa’s rule “tichatonga tigongotonga” — a witless taunt to opposition supporters that roughly translates to we will rule forever.

In other words, for all his credentials, Ncube will certainly occupy a sad place in the evolution of the so-called “Second Republic’s” economy. More than any other “technocrat” in post-colonial Zimbabwe, the new finance minister personifies where grace and professionalism expected to have been infused by years of experience in Western organisations of education and work are corrupted.

He reminds us of those mafia films in which a professional accountant, for the love of glory and money, leaves an honourable career on Wall Street, to go and work for John Gotti or Pablo Escobar. Ncube could well be that accountant for Mnangagwa.

Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political scientist. This was originally published in the Zimbabwe Independent