Tendai Biti, the undecided Mugabe minister

Jun 9, 2011

The MDC finance minister in the ZANU-PF/MDC coalition government, Tendai Biti, has a thankless job. In holding that portfolio at a time when there are so many competing needs but little national income or access to foreign borrowings, it is not difficult to see how he sometimes feels he 'has the worst job in the world,' as he once said in an interview with American news network CNN. But one wonders if Biti does not sometimes make an already difficult job harder by often speaking out of turn when it might be more advisable to keep quiet.
A case in point is the reported recent explosive devise thrown at the wall surrounding his house. Fortunately no one was injured and the damage shown on pictures appears to have been slight. But that it shook Biti and his family up is not in doubt.

This was his early reported reaction:

‘... clearly the people who bombed my residence had the intention to harm me. My biggest worry is that I am realising that they are not going to stop there. I have endangered my children and my whole family. As a result, I am asking myself if it is worth continuing.’

A natural reaction in the early shock of the incident. Some over-excited portions of the scattered Zimbabwe media reported this as, 'Biti threatens to quit over bomb,' when he did not quite go that far, although he did quite reasonably ponder, 'Should I continue like this when my family is endangered?'

But then a day or so later he appeared to have recovered from the immediate trauma and regathered his wits. Apparently speaking to the Guardian (UK), it reported, ''Yet he denied suggestions that the threat to his family might prompt him to walk away. 'I'm not afraid of Zanu-PF and I'll not be afraid of Zanu-PF. They will never intimidate me to resign."

His changing feelings after the incident are understandable. But it is unbecoming of one of the most senior officials of the government to be playing them out so publicly in the media. Even taking into account his quite understandably mixed emotions, from initially being frightened for his family and contemplating giving up; to then being defiant and vowing to soldier on, he doesn't come off looking good playing them out in the media. It suggests an overly excitable personality rather than a calm, deliberative one. It would have been better for him to play out his roller coaster feelings in private, and then only make a statement when he was in calm mode and had firmly decided on his public stance.

Instead, in a 24 hour period Biti went from publicly contemplating giving up to publicly vowing to 'never' be intimidated. It didn't suggest calm strength and consistency, but frightened vacillation. Not a good image for a politician at the center of the storm.

And what is it with Biti's closeness to CNN? Occasional interviews with influential western media like CNN and The Guardian are part of his job, but there are two problems. One is that CNN would appear to have too much ready access to a Biti, who seems very eager to be interviewed by them. Secondly and more seriously, Biti in these interviews with western media wants to continue to play the role of 'opposition' outsider critical of the incumbent regime.

This is plain wrong: he is now an integral and senior part of that regime, and it is particularly inappropriate for him to be attacking it in foreign media, even if and when his points are legitimate. It is absurd for Biti, a senior member of the Mugabe regime, to be attacking that same regime of which he is a part, and to be doing so in foreign media which has an axe to grind with that regime.

Biti cannot credibly play 'opposition' activist and senior regime member at the same time like he is attempting to do. If he has such serious disagreements with the government he has agreed to serve in that he wants to shout them out on foreign media such as CNN and the Guardian, the consistent, honorable thing for him to do would be to resign his ministerial position.

Biti was on a roll in the Guardian interview: "My fear is that Zanu-PF will create an atmosphere of hate and an atmosphere of poison," said Biti. "There are shades of Rwanda in January 1994. I just hope we avoid a Rwanda where the military is in control, law and order breaks down and there is total violence."

This is rather strong stuff. Zimbabwe is deeply troubled, no question, but to suggest a parallel with the conditions that led up to the ethnic genocide in Rwanda is irresponsible, especially by a serving minister. He should be in a position to back up such a strong charge in detail, and he would in any case bear joint responsibility as a serving senior minister of such a government if such a 'genocide' were to take place.

If he believes the regime in which he serves is genocidal, even just by intention, why is he serving in it?

It certainly can't be because he hopes to prevail upon it in any positive way. Says the Guardian article, 'he gave one of his most pessimistic assessments yet of the coalition government. "Any member of the MDC would have to seriously consider whether this inclusive government is working," said Biti. "To a large extent, it isn't. To a large extent, it's a waste of time.''

He acknowledged the government has provided some stability for millions of Zimbabweans, rescuing the economy from collapse and slowly rebuilding public services. But asked about the future of the power-sharing agreement, Biti said frankly: "I think this thing is really dead. It's a shadow, a pretense of something that is dead. But my suspicion is it will linger on."

Predictably, The Guardian absolutely loved this and ate it right up, giving their story the salacious headline, ''MDC minister compares Zimbabwe to Rwanda before the genocide.''

Many things are not right in Zimbabwe. They need to be pointed out. The question is whether it is appropriate for a minister of the government to be airing his policy and other disagreements with his colleagues publicly and in the foreign media. And in the media of a Zimbabwe-interested/involved party like Britain.

Does Biti want to continue 'wasting time' being a Mugabe minister, or doesn't he? Making it so publicly obvious that he is of two minds about this does not make him look good. Playing 'good guy' reluctantly serving in an 'evil' regime to the foreign media may play well in CNN and The Guardian's main markets. But from a Zimbabwean's perspective, doing this and then continuing to enjoy all the benefits of senior membership in the regime he attacks leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It is suggestive of a double-dealing that does not leave a positive impression of Biti.

Perhaps Biti needs an image consultant. Or he needs to do some deep, private soul-searching. On then making up his mind on where he truly stands, he can then speak and act in ways that are consistent with that position.

The Zimbabwe Review


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