Biti’s ‘kiya-kiya’ performance treacherous – Moyo

AS leaders of various sectors of the economy and other pundits lined up last week to offer their perfunctory statements hailing embattled Finance Minister Tendai Biti’s mid-term budget review delivered in Parliament on Thursday in a sitting whose attendance was unusually poor for the important occasion.\r\n

It was instructive to observe that none of them dared comment on the sub-text of the minister’s review which was more telling than his text.

Perhaps the reason why some commentators have taken a safe approach in their assessment of the mid-term budget is because they feared that the sub-text of Minister Biti’s speech was so manifestly treacherous, inflammatory and smacked of a sinister agenda.

But playing it safe for the sake of keeping the peace in a fragile political environment is not good enough when the beneficiary of that approach does not himself care about setting the place on fire. Principles of good governance and accountability — about which Minister Biti’s MDC-T party makes a lot of endless noise — requires that Government officials, especially ministers of finance who are the custodians of public funds, are subjected to the strictest scrutiny for what they officially say or do in the name of the public, particularly where tax dollars are concerned.

It is against this backdrop that the sub-text of Minister Biti’s mid-term budget speech, which was truly a "kiya-kiya" performance, should not be left without scrutiny. Indeed, even his market-based text which has been hailed by some sections of the economy, with the notable exception of trade unions, did not live up to the expectations of the wider community, not least because it was sterile, unimaginative and predictable.

As already indicated, there were two notable aspects to Minister Biti’s speech. On the one hand, there was the more dominant and inflammatory sub-text which formed the running political thread of his presentation and which was clearly anchored in his position and role as the secretary-general of the MDC-T with undisguised ambitions for higher office.

On the other hand, there was the less prominent but unmistakably sterile text which was rooted in Mr Biti’s ministerial responsibilities. This second aspect addressed the surface of formal economic issues without dealing with their substance, especially with regards to absent measures that are urgently needed to alleviate the continued suffering of the majority of Zimbabweans whose lives have been reduced to that of hunter-gatherers by Minister Biti’s policies or lack thereof.

The plight of the rural poor and the urban unemployed who make up the overwhelming majority in our country and who have no chance of accessing any of the circulating multi-currencies favoured by the Minister of Finance was conspicuous by the absence of its mention in the mid-term fiscal policy whose text read like a self-indulgent elite manifesto.

On a lighter but revealing anecdote about his command of financial matters in his text, the Finance Minister tripped himself over his embarrassing pronunciation failure to differentiate between "excise" and "exercise" when he was reading the section on customs and excise duty. In the same vein, he lost his audience through the use of incomprehensible references to "the era of economic fascism and economic hedonism".

He also squandered an opportunity to be believed by incredulously promising to pay salaries to civil servants from this July when everyone knows that the Government will continue to pay only slightly increased allowances to its workers as Treasury remains broke.

The nub of the matter though is about the hitherto unexamined sub-text of Minister Biti’s speech which was, in fact, the main point of his mid-term budget review and which rested on the following three partisan and self-serving pillars, all of which need to be highlighted from the Minister’s text and dismissed with the contempt they deserve:

l Minister Biti’s unfortunate abuse of the national budget which concerns every Zimbabwean and all economic players in the country regardless of their political affiliation to push a partisan agenda under the false and irrelevant cover of the so-called Global Political Agreement signed by Zanu-PF and the two MDC formations;

Minister Biti’s abuse of the national budget to usurp or pre-empt the presidential power and responsibility of defining and assigning functions of ministries by using his speech to delegate certain functions to the Ministry of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in what appeared to be a misguided pursuit of patronage in the apparent hope of currying favour with Minister Nelson Chamisa within the now raging MDC-T power struggles; and

Minister Biti’s abuse of the national budget to open up floodgates for hostile foreign information into Zimbabwe by eliminating all customs duty on newspapers to specifically advantage the foreign printing and publication of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s American-sponsored glossy and controversial newsletter and the local distribution of a partisan newspaper based in Britain called The Zimbabwean, again for patronage purposes with everything to do with MDC-T internal power struggles.

Under paragraph 585 of his mid-term budget text, Minister Biti proposes to eliminate the rate of customs duty on newspapers from the current 40 percent to zero percent effective August 1 2009. While the minister’s budget text justifies this treacherous development under the misplaced presumption that "access to information is essential to enhance decision-making in the global village", the sub-text is something else.

In the first place, it is mind-boggling that a Minister of Finance who has defended the use of Gestapo tax collection tactics against places like Mupedzanhamo and against many other very ordinary people who are barely surviving from trading in the informal sector in this very harsh multi-currency environment has no shame in letting well-to-do foreigners, including nefarious donors who are dealers in weapons of mass deception, to flood our country with their propaganda duty free.

The matter would be different if the newspapers in question are from church or charitable organisations and are distributed free of charge. But no, these are newspapers that sell for not less than one United States dollar published by businesspeople who want to make money. Why should Zimbabwe not make money from this trade through customs duty? Which other countries allow the importation of newspapers duty free in the false name of accessing information to enhance decision-making in the global village? What the hell is the global village anyhow and is the flow of information in it equal?

Given that Government business has its processes, was the relevant Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity consulted on this matter and, if so, did it agree that foreign newspapers should be imported into Zimbabwe duty free? In any case, why did Minister Biti put newspapers under the ICT Ministry when the oversight for newspapers comes under the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity? If the minister had proposed reducing the duty from 40 percent to some lower but reasonable figure between, say, 15 percent and 25 percent, that would be understandable, but to eliminate it altogether is a deliberate and irresponsible attack on our national security and a naked sabotage of our economic interests in the so-called global village in which other enlightened and democratic countries like India levy duty on newspapers.

If Minister Biti’s duty-free proposal on newspapers is motivated by a partisan interest in favour of the Prime Minister’s controversial Newsletter, then he must be told in no uncertain terms that the Prime Minister’s propaganda interests are not more important than the country’s security and economic interests. There’s no middle position there.

The Zimbabwean, an MDC-T-affiliated newspaper which is published in Britain by sworn enemies of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and nationalist interests, has been openly campaigning for the removal of the current 40 percent duty. Minister Biti has obliged. It now remains to be seen what the rest of us will do.

Then there is the sub-text of Minister Biti’s speech arising from his backdoor attempt to assign the communication function to the ICT Ministry. Paragraphs 500 to 508 of the minister’s budget text are devoted to giving the impression that the ICT Ministry controls the communication function and makes reference to a bambazonke communication Bill which is not currently before Parliament and is therefore still a matter internal to the ministry that seeks to bring it.

Whether the ICT Ministry has the mandate over the communications function is not yet a settled matter and, in any event, the matter is for President Robert Mugabe to decide in accordance with the laws of the land. Indeed, it is not up to the Minister of Finance to use a fiscal policy statement, whether mid-term or otherwise, to tell the nation what Bills are in the pipeline by politically selecting purported Bills from his cronies or sidekicks in the Cabinet in pursuit of crude patronage.

It is an open secret that Minister Biti is desperate to have the support of Minister Chamisa in pursuit of power struggles within the MDC-T. Indeed, it is an open secret that Minister Biti leads a camp or faction in the MDC-T and that this faction is going around claiming that once upon a time the MDC-T was led by a lion but now that lion has become a sheep leading lions and that the consequences of this situation are obvious for the sheep.

Whatever the case, the sub-text of paragraphs 500 to 508 of Minister Biti’s budget text is very dangerous and totally unacceptable. The legislative agenda of Parliament is given by the President when he opens each Parliamentary session as he did on August 26 2008. But Minister Biti might have missed that because he and his colleagues chose to create chaos and mayhem in Parliament on that day by disrupting the President’s speech in breach of Parliamentary rules. Paradoxically, it has been interesting to hear the disputed Speaker of Parliament, Lovemore Moyo, threatening to identify and punish Members of the House of Assembly who allegedly disrupted the so-called all-stakeholders constitutional conference last Monday at the Harare International Conference Centre when hordes of MPs who disrupted President Mugabe’s opening address in Parliament last August have gone unpunished.

Finally, under paragraphs 5 to 8 of his budget text, Minister Biti made inappropriate and actually false statements about the GPA which must be challenged because their sub-text is very dangerous for democratic governance, the rule of law and political stability in the country.

In the first place, it must be said that while it is indeed Minister Biti’s right to compete with Prime Minister Tsvangirai for the leadership of the MDC-T, as things currently stand, Mr Biti is just a Cabinet minister responsible for finance and is not a "political principal" as envisaged by the GPA.

It was irresponsible for the minister to abuse his mid-term budget speech as an opportunity for posing as a "political principal" and using that to make totally inappropriate and false statements about the GPA whose impact can only be to entrench uncertainty in the economy, erode confidence in the inclusive Government and scare away prospective investors. There is one Prime Minister in the inclusive Government from the MDC-T and it is Mr Morgan Tsvangirai and not Mr Tendai Biti. The sooner Mr Biti understands that ahead of the 2009/2010 budget statement, the better for the country.

But more specifically, Minister Biti should be the first to know as a lawyer that the basis of the Government of Zimbabwe is not the GPA but the Constitution. In particular, the inclusive Government is founded on Constitutional Amendment Number 19.

While the GPA is an interesting piece of paper in the political history of the country, the fact is that it belongs to three political parties and must be an issue within and among the concerned parties but not in a mid-term fiscal policy statement which must address issues of the economy in a non-partisan manner.

Fiscal policy is a Government pronouncement for all Zimbabweans and other players in the economy regardless of their political affiliations while the GPA is only for Zanu-PF and the two MDC formations.

The time for this truth to be demonstrated in concrete everyday ways by the inclusive Government has now come.

Prof Moyo is independent Member of the House of Assembly for Tsholotsho North. This article was first published in the Sunday Mail.