Angry Biti, Mugabe clash

HARARE – Finance Minister Tendai Biti ruffled President Robert Mugabe's feathers on Friday at a tense National Security Council meeting – attended by politicians and state security chiefs – when he confronted him over remarks he made about him at a rally the previous day.

This is the latest clash between Mugabe and Biti as tensions rise within the shaky inclusive government.

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Insiders said Biti confronted Mugabe and asked him why he lambasted him at a rally with traditional leaders in Manicaland province on Thursday, claiming he had tried to usurp presidential powers.

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Mugabe was said to have angrily mumbled something back before state security service chiefs came to his rescue.

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“Biti asked Mugabe why he was attacking him at the meeting with the chiefs. The president just furiously mumbled back something before state security service chiefs intervened with complaints that the minister was being disrespectful,” said a senior government official who attended the meeting.

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“Biti was annoyed by Mugabe’s remarks and he wanted to get even at the meeting.”

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Mugabe told the rally that Biti had been trying to grab his powers through the back door, apparently referring to the amendment of the Exchange Control Act. Although this was done last year, Mugabe was clearly still harbouring a grudge against Biti.

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In December, Biti was stopped by Zanu-PF lawmakers from amending the act during the national budget, who claimed that he was plotting to usurp “the president’s powers conferred to him by the law”.

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“Biti is even trying to grab some presidential powers in various ways,” Mugabe said. “We now want this Global Political Agreement to end and this should happen this year.”

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Mugabe has never hidden his discomfort with the inclusive government, in which he is constantly challenged and exposed over many issues by officials of the MDC factions.

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He is demanding elections this year to end the coalition government, but he is facing stiff resistance from the MDC officials, who say the conditions for free and fair elections must be created first.

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Another government official said Mugabe’s fight with Biti showed the growing hostility between state security service chiefs and the MDC officials.

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“After Biti’s question directed at Mugabe, (Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander General Constantine) Chiwenga and (Police Commissioner General Augustine) Chihuri intervened and engaged Tsvangirai and (Co-Home Affairs Minister Theresa) Makone in protest,” the official said. “They said Biti was being disrespectful.”

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Mugabe chairs the NSC, which is also attended by vice-presidents Joyce Mujuru and John Nkomo, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputies Thokozani Khupe and Arthur Mutambara and Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, among others.

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In a new twist to the succession saga, Chiwenga is said to be interested in taking over from Mugabe. Last week one of Mugabe’s loyalists, Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, said the army wanted the Zanu-PF chief to be president for life and they would never acknowledge Tsvangirai even if he won the elections.

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Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe and service chiefs on Friday reportedly ordered Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to force Finance minister Tendai Biti to review civil servants’ salaries saying the issue was now a threat to national security.

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The ultimatum was issued at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, impeccable sources have revealed.

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Mugabe and the security chiefs are said to be worried that if the issue of salaries for civil servants was not addressed immediately it might ignite protests similar to the ones that toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia early this year.

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“The PM was asked to whip his man into line or else the unity government collapses over the issue of civil servants as it was now threatening national security,” the source said.

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“Tsvangirai is the one who brought Biti into government and he was told that he was the one to bring him to order.”

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The ultimatum also came a day after Mugabe launched a scathing attack on Biti where he came short of blaming the MDC-T secretary general for all the financial problems facing the country.

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Mugabe said Biti was trying to usurp his powers, blocking funding for new farmers and failing to finance Bulawayo firms, which are closing down. But it is the issue of civil servants’ salaries that has reportedly unsettled Mugabe and the generals.

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Sources also added that on Tuesday government set up a committee to look at the issue of civil servants’ salaries that has been dragging since last year.
Mugabe announced during a visit to Ethiopia in February that civil servants would get a hefty salary increment after the government held a third auction of the Chiadzwa diamonds.

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Biti has maintained that Treasury’s coffers are dry and no significant income has been realised from diamond sales.

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Yesterday he was not available for comment. The aide who answered his phone had promised that Biti would return the call to The Standard but he was not not answering his mobile phone when subsequent attempts were made to contact him.

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Civil servants earn an average of US$200 a month but statistics show that a family of five needed at least US$502 a month to survive. Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba refused to comment on the ultimatum to Biti saying he was not authorised to do so.

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Ian Makone, the chief of staff in the PM’s office also refused to comment saying he did not know what transpired at the meeting. Minister of State in the PM’s office Jameson Timba also refused to comment saying deliberations of the NSC were confidential. – TimesLive