Big Saturday Read: "Our Thing" - Understanding Zimbabwe’s Oligarchy
A short-lived Task-Force
When Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister, Mthuli Ncube looked at the state of the economy upon joining the government, he must have been appalled by the levels of corruption in and around government. He would have been aware that there was a problem, but he might not have been prepared for the complex web of corrupt relationships and deals behind the veil of government. One feature that he may have observed is the presence of a powerful clique of individuals who control not only key sectors of the economy but also government itself.
Last week, he decided to appoint a team of spin-doctors, which was to be called a “Communications Task-Force”, ostensibly to manage the Ministry of Finance’s communications strategy. The first appointee was William Mutumanje, who trades by and is better-known by his alias, Acie Lumumba. It was not a popular choice, even among ZANU PF fanatics. It’s not often that both opponents and supporters of ZANU PF find themselves sharing a common position. The appointee took a quick and enthusiastic dive into his new role. Two days after his controversial appointment, he recorded a sensational video on Facebook Live which soon went viral.
In the video, the keen spin-doctor revealed scandalous details regarding grand corruption at the central bank, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), claiming that government was captured. To add drama and mystery into it, he withheld the name the alleged captor of the state, simply referring to him as the “Queen Bee”. This left a lot to the imagination and unless one is a close follower of Zimbabwean politics, one would have struggled to work out his identity.
The "Queen Bee"
The half-revelations made for some intriguing and entertaining drama and soon everyone was asking who exactly the said Queen Bee was. Seasoned watchers of the Zimbabwean political scene had already worked out that Lumumba was probably referring to one Kuda Tagwirei, boss of Sakunda Holdings, which was reportedly bought by Trafigura, a large commodities multinational which describes itself as being “at the heart of the global economy”. Sakunda has lucrative connections with the government in areas such as power-generation, mining and agriculture, among other major deals.
Others think the "Queen Bee" is best seen not as a single individual, but a group. This BSR argues that focusing on one individual would be to miss the target. This is best seen as a metaphor for a problem at the heart of the Zimbabwean political and economic system. This problem is best framed in terms of an oligarchy - a political system that is controlled by oligarchs as described and analysed in this BSR.
Like candle-light in a violent storm, the life of the Communications Task Force was painfully brief. Not everyone had welcomed it, least of all some at the propaganda arm of the State, the Ministry of Information and Publicity. They saw the Task Force as encroaching into their territory, presenting unwelcome competition. Over at ZANU PF headquarters, there were grumbles over the choice of Lumumba and the fact that he had already fired shots, hitting targets that, to some of them, were too close to home.
Feeling the heat and appreciating that his tenure might be short-lived, Lumumba must have decided that he would not to go down without a punch. And he did punch well above his weight – and some might even say below the belt, naming four RBZ senior officials as corrupt. These were the high profile casualties of the short life of the Task Force for the revelations set the stage for their suspension the following day.
However, by the end of the day, the Minister of Finance had activated the “Disown and Distance” button on Lumumba, announcing that he did not have a spokesperson. A day later, he issued another letter, this time terminating the contract with Lumumba. At first sight, Lumumba’s opponents had won. But there was more behind the scenes. This was a far bigger fight that Lumumba. It was, as we shall see, a fight of and between the oligarchs of Zimbabwe. When Lumumba sat before the camera again after his sacking, he was subdued but still throwing punches. He claimed that it was the Queen Bee who had exerted his significant weight to get him sacked.
This was the conclusion of a dramatic few days. Some thought there was “method in the madness” and that an intended purpose had been achieved. Others, though, were less impressed. They saw plenty of madness, but not a hint of method. There was a plan yes, but it had exploded in the face of its authors. They had acted with undue haste, without due diligence and stepped on sensitive toes. What seems clear, however, is that there were powerful forces both behind and against the Task Force – forces that went beyond the the Finance Minister, still very much a greenhorn in local politics.
Turf wars and Oligarchs
Some resistance to the Task Force was motivated by a desire to protect professional space. These were turf wars between the propaganda ministry and the proposed task force. However, most of the resistance emanated from a deeper source. It was what we have previously referred to in the BSR as “the system” fighting back to protect its interests which were under threat. The episode revealed yet again the resilience of the system which grew and flourished under Mugabe’s long rule.
In this article we consider it from another angle, which is that Zimbabwe is in the hands of a powerful clique of oligarchs and that far from being a democracy, it is probably more useful to classify Zimbabwe as an oligarchy. This oligarchy, which consists of a small but influential network of political, military and business elites, is ultimately in control of the political system, not the citizens who vote in elections.
We have previously argued that Zimbabwe’s salvation lies in breaking the system. This time, we add, by way of emphasis, that Zimbabwe’s salvation lies in breaking down and removing the oligarchs. To accomplish this task, we must examine and lay bare the conceptual nature of an oligarchy as a form of government and the role of oligarchs in that system. This BSR is therefore about this phenomenon called the oligarchy.
What is an oligarchy?
To understand the nature of an oligarchy as a form of government, we have to take an historical tour back to ancient Greece, where we find the celebrated philosopher, Plato. In his famous Republic, Book VIII, Plato defined an oligarchy as “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it”. An oligarchy is therefore a government by the few who are rich and greedy, over the many who are poor.
According to Plato, oligarchs are pre-occupied with and only interested in the accumulation of private wealth and they don’t really care about the rest of society or the law. Society degenerates because the rest covet the wealthy few and try to emulate their unscrupulous ways into acquiring money. Many Zimbabweans who see political elites and their associates flaunting obscene amounts of wealth might identify with this phenomenon. One of the most prominent business and political actors in the last 30 years, Philip Chiyangwa once summed up the mentality of the new oligarchy when he declared that if you want to make money, you have to join ZANU PF.
These greedy men do not want to pay taxes or utility bills but are only too happy to extract them from others. That’s why records show political and military elites owing millions of dollars to state utility companies. The oligarchy minimises costs by simply not paying its bills.
In an oligarchy, wealth, not skill, is the qualification to rule. This inevitably results in incompetence, poor governance, leaving society with a huge cost. It is not surprising that oligarchies are often poorly managed. In everything else, people covet skills and experience. That’s why people choose a doctor not on account of his wealth but because he has the skill and experience. A football team which selects players based on wealth and not the players’ ability is doomed to fail. Is it any wonder then that states suffer when they are ruled by oligarchs whose only qualification is their wealth? This was an issue that concerned Plato very deeply and he regarded it as a defect of an oligarchy.
Plato’s typologies of government
To appreciate the nature of an oligarchy, we have to understand the way Plato viewed different forms of government. For Plato, there was a hierarchy of forms of government, with an aristocracy at the top and tyranny at the bottom. He regarded an aristocracy as the best form of government which comprised the wise and virtuous, led by a philosopher-king. An essential feature of this government was that its members would not own property or seek wealth, which would otherwise corrupt them.
Interestingly, in its early years after independence, the ZANU PF establishment had a Leadership Code which similarly restricted rights of leaders to own or control private property or commercial businesses. Unsurprisingly, it was never complied with and it was soon forgotten.
Below an aristocracy, Plato saw a timocracy, which is a government of men who covet honour. However, a timocracy eventually degenerates into an oligarchy when, he argued, “a few men who love honour are replaced by a few men who love money”. The gross inequality and poverty in an oligarchy eventually leads to a revolt of the poor who when they triumph establish a democracy where freedom reigns.
However, Plato was not a fan of democracy. He saw democracy as “an agreeable form of anarchy”. He believed rule by the majority would eventually lead to mob rule and therefore tyranny of the majority. He did not trust freedom under democracy which he thought was excessive and would cause the State and society to degenerate. He thought under democracy “the state falls sick and is at war with itself”.
This chaos arising from excessive freedom would eventually open the way for someone powerful to take control under the auspices of restoring order. This powerful person would be a tyrant and to restore order he would start to restrict freedoms. This form of government is a tyranny.
Democracy and the “hidden oligarchy”
Over the centuries since Plato wrote his canonical work around 380 BC (nearly 2,400 years ago), important ideas and principles have been generated and revolutions have been waged, leaving a profound effect on the idea of democracy. Plato had a problem with a form of democracy which we now refer to as direct democracy – where everyone has a role in the decision-making process in public affairs. Many figures in history, like James Madison, one of America’s Founding Fathers, have never been enamoured with the idea of direct democracy. Like Plato centuries before them, they were worried by its potential hazards, in particular, the tyranny of the majority. They preferred a form of democracy which most of us are familiar with today, called representative democracy, also referred to as liberal democracy.
Representative democracy is, as the name suggests, a type of democracy in which the citizens entrust decision-making to a set of chosen representatives. This distinguishes it from direct democracy which Plato abhorred. A liberal democracy is based on ideas, principles and institutions that qualify the idea of democracy. They include separation of powers, a system of checks and balances, independent judiciary, recognition of fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law, a government limited by law.
Despite these safeguards, the hazards identified by Plato are still relevant. This is why it remains important to be vigilant to prevent liberal democracy from degenerating into a tyranny or an illiberal democracy which is controlled by oligarchs. It is very easy for demagogues to use populist policies to rally society in a retrogressive direction. Political scientists have already expressed concern over the degeneration of liberal democracy in older democracies such as the US and the UK after Trump and Brexit respectively and the rise of the Far Right in Europe.
British philosopher, A. C. Grayling has also argued that liberal democracy is in danger from the influence of what he calls a “hidden oligarchy”. By this, drawing on Plato, he refers to a few wealthy individuals who accumulate power and exert their influence on the political system to advance and protect their own ends. This is a helpful tool for us to understand whether behind the veil of democracy there lies a “hidden oligarchy” which is in fact in control of both the State and society.
Over in South Africa, the common term used for this phenomenon is “State Capture”, by which a few powerful business and political elites were accused of having captured the State and its institutions so that they would do their bidding. They too were concerned with the phenomenon of oligarchs, who were allegedly controlling the most powerful offices and institutions in the country. In short, the fear was that under President Zuma, South Africa’s young democracy was fast turning into an oligarchy.
This is the same problem that we have in Zimbabwe, although unlike South Africa, such an extensive investigation has not been done and there is no appetite for it because the “capture” goes too far and too wide. Nevertheless, investigative journalists, such as Elias Mambo then of The Zimbabwe Independent have previously exposed some of the rot, including the corruption around the Dema Diesel Power Plant project and also the Command Agriculture programme where the role of oligarchs is self-evident. Others have also covered the corruption involving the ZESA solar projects. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the media hampered by limited resources, repressive laws and capture by the oligarchs.
We have already identified one of the defects of an oligarchy, as explained by Plato, which is that while it has wealth, it has no skill in governing. The second defect, also identified by Plato, is that an oligarchy creates two nations: the rich few and the poor majority. “The inevitable divisions:”, “says Plato “such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor and the other of rich men, and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another …” He adds, “oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty”. Furthermore, Plato reminds us, “… their [oligarchs] fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes”. This inevitably weakens the State.
How an oligarchy thrives and survives
It is now important for us to understand how an oligarchy thrives and survives. What strategies and tactics do oligarchs use to maintain their power and how do they apply in Zimbabwe?
As a general rule, an oligarchy survives through the solidarity and unity of the oligarchs. They share similar tastes and spaces and have a common interest to maintain and increase their wealth and power. It is not in their interests to lose power. So the desire to maintain power binds them together. It provides an important incentive for the ruling class to remain united. They might compete and differ among themselves on occasions, but when it comes to threats from outside, they unite to defend their position. They will only eliminate each other when it becomes inevitable.
ZANU PF’s oligarchs understand this too well. Hence they close ranks whenever they face a common threat from the opposition. They suspend their differences during election campaigns. They unite behind their common representative because it is in their interests to preserve power. Nevertheless, because this unity is illusory, they soon break away from the threat is over and they begin their factional contestations, which are largely economic in character.
Divide and Rule
An oligarchy also uses divide and rule strategy against the rest of the citizens. The greatest threat to the oligarchs is unity and solidarity among the poor and the opposition. An oligarchy could use repression but it knows such methods are costly in respect of the regime’s reputation. They would rather select and sponsor preferred candidates within the opposition to create factions and divisions. This is why oligarchs are also known to pour money into parts of the opposition. Since opposition figures are financially vulnerable, they are easily captured. The phenomenon of sponsored candidates in the opposition is not new but since the ruling party doesn’t have resources and it’s imprudent to have direct linkages, such sponsorship usually comes through the agency of oligarchs.
Oligarchs also use co-optation as a method of neutralising the force of the poor. They co-opt some members of the poor into the oligarchy, thereby creating divisions. Most are appointed into powerful government positions. They are co-opted as government advisers and since the government doesn’t have resources, they are paid as “consultants” through funds channeled to international financial organisations. Some are given diplomatic posts.
Others are appointed to key roles within the State - the judiciary, boards of state-owned companies, commissions of inquiries and various other roles where they can have access to resources. Others are simply grateful for proximity to the seat of power. As Ganesh Sitaraman wrote in The British Guardian newspaper, “Oligarchs in ancient Greece … used a combination of coercion and co-optation to keep democracy at bay. They have rewards to informants and found pliable citizens to take positions in government.”
This happens in many countries and is evident within the Zimbabwean political system. We witness former opposition figures and associates who have been co-opted as “advisers” and members of the commission of inquiry. Some will soon be appointed into diplomatic roles and others may find themselves rewarded with seats on the numerous boards of loss-making parastatals. There are other more subtle methods of co-optation such as the award of operating licences, lucrative commercial contracts and business relationships.
Although this is costly because it paints a picture of authoritarianism which they don’t like, the oligarchy also uses coercive methods to repress the poor so that they cannot exercise their rights to remove the oligarchs. Organised labour or vendors are a constant reminder of the power of the poor and the threat they pose to the oligarchs. They must be kept at bay. This is achieved through legal instruments which nevertheless violate rights and freedoms such as the right to demonstrate. This is why draconian laws such as POSA remain on the statute books.
On occasions, the oligarchy resorts to brute force, such as the ill-judged deployment of the military on August 1 which led to the killing of civilians. This was a tragic, highly-counterproductive and therefore a costly move, which explains the next step of appointing a commission of inquiry to provide a decent face to what happened. It’s the oligarchy’s effort to clean up the mess.
An oligarchy also maintains its power by keeping the rest of society beholden to and dependent upon the oligarchs. The oligarchs use their economic power for political control. The oligarchs are adept at controlling political elites through bribes which are wrapped up as gifts to the government and the party. Politicians in financial trouble turn to the wealthy oligarchs for assistance. They buy them vehicles and even pay school fees for politicians’ kids at expensive private schools. When the ruling party holds a conference or rally, the oligarchs are ready to assist.
The economic power of oligarchs extends to the State. They are so wealthy that they can lend money to the government and they finance government programmes. They are big buyers of treasury bills, which the government issues when it’s looking for funding. One of the issues that arose in a case in which I was involved as an expert witness at the High Court in England was that a wealthy businessman had lent millions of dollars to the Zimbabwean government through the RBZ. However, the government and the RBZ were now refusing to pay back the money.
It was remarkable that the central bank and government had borrowed and owed so much money from an individual. If someone has enough resources to lend money to the government, they have the economic capacity to control it. I do not know if the individual in that case ever got back his millions from the government but he lost his claim against the commercial bank he was suing in Britain.
For the oligarchs, these costs are a worthy investment because in return they get the gratitude of the political elites which they use for control. Next time there is a licence, a concession or a tender, oligarchs will be on the priority list. The costs are rents they pay in exchange for the benefits of controlling the State, which brings far more rewards.
The influence of oligarchs also extends to the law enforcement system and the judiciary. This ensures that members of the oligarchy are not usually arrested for crimes and if they are, the matter does not go far. At best, there is a bit of drama when one is arrested, raising hopes that something is being done, but all too often it quickly falls into a black hole and is heard no more. Zimbabwe is a haven of corruption but the jails are full of petty criminals while the corrupt oligarchs walk free.
The oligarchy is very kind to its members who are caught on the wrong side of the law. When auditors found that the public broadcaster had been defrauded $7mln by its senior directors, none of them was successfully prosecuted for corruption. Instead one of them returned to his job. This is why the cases of the recently suspended RBZ officials will probably never go anywhere. This is not the first time this has happened to some of them. One of the affected officials, Mirirai Chiremba was suspended in 2007 by the then Governor, Dr Gideon Gono. However, he was soon reinstated. He went on to outlast Gono by five years. His current suspension may yet be rescinded. That’s because even if they have committed any wrong-doing, they are unlikely to have done it alone. There is usually a powerful oligarch above them.
Finally, oligarchs ensure survival by owning and controlling the media (and nowadays, social media), which they use to generate and maintain a narrative that is favourable to their interests. The media is a powerful voice in any society. One option is to restrict media voices using the licencing system. Thus 38 years after independence and a year after the coup, the country still has one public broadcaster. Those who have received licences for radio are members of the oligarchy or they have been co-opted. Even where there is considerably more media freedom, the oligarchs can control the narrative to promote its agenda.
The stage is now set for us to examine why the public debate this week has essentially been over the oligarchy. We have a government that purports to be a democracy, but in reality, there is a powerful group of people and corporate bodies that are in control. It is this powerful group consisting of political and business elites which makes up the oligarchy. The word that has been used to describe how they do business is that they are a cartel. These cartels are most evident in the area of fuel distribution and retailing. However, they are also involved in minerals mining and exporting – gold, chrome, diamonds, etc. More recently, these cartels have manifested in foreign currency trading.
One way to describe the structure of this oligarchy and how it operates is the analogy of the Mafia. The Mafia has a structure: at the bottom are the associates, followed by soldiers and caporegime (captains) in the hierarchy. Above the caporegime is the Underboss and at the top is the Boss. The latter is the godfather or the Capo di tutti Capi (the Boss of all Bosses). Everybody pays tribute to the one higher up in the food chain. Omerta, the law of silence means everyone is sworn to secrecy. They are united in their criminal enterprise.
Perhaps the easiest system in which this structure is evident is in foreign currency trading. The currency traders on the streets are the equivalent of associates.
The soldiers are the ones that control and deal with people directly – providing the currency and collecting the profits. The soldiers are the link between the street traders and the caporegime who, from their offices, distribute the currency from the Underboss.
The Underboss is not seen on the streets. He sits in his office, and waits for his dues from the Caporegime. The only obligation the Underboss has is to report to the Boss. There is also the Capo di tutti Capi – the Boss of all Bosses, sitting at the apex of the structure – never seen or heard from by the public. But they all know he is there and he must be kept happy. He runs the entire system. He has a network of informers everywhere and is kept well informed. He has immense power – economic, political and social and whatever he wants is done. This is what they call “the family”, in mafia-speak. Coincidentally, the original Sicilian Mafia call it “cosa nostra”, meaning “Our Thing”. Our local oligarchs have referred it “Chine vene vacho” or “Chinhu Chedu” (Our Thing)
Battle of Families
However, as with the mafia, there is no single “family” in the ZANU PF oligarchy. There might be another or more families, also involved in the same criminal enterprise. While we have described the operation in respect of currency markets, there could be other families operating in the fuel industry or the construction and mining industries. These families may and often do clash, which leads to deadly outcomes. This can cause serious problems which require all the bosses of the different families to come together to find a settlement. The oligarchs, like the mafia prefer a situation where they are able to extract more wealth and abhor anything that threatens it.
The oligarchs have invested heavily in the current regime. The fuel oligarchs at Sakunda/Trafigura provide financial backing for the much-vaunted Command Agriculture programme. It has long been criticised for leakages and corruption, but missing from the examination is its representation of the power and influence of the oligarchs.
The oligarchs were also instrumental in the controversial transition from the old Mugabe regime. The backing of the oligarchs was crucial. It is alleged that they financed the government’s travel and engagements abroad. There have been occasions when it has been said that government projects or personal issues affecting political elites were funded by “well-wishers”. These are the oligarchs investing in their project. They helped finance the presidential campaign – importing hundreds of vehicles, supplying fuel, erecting billboards, advertising and media campaign, food and other facilities. The oligarchs made sure the machine was well-oiled, including the associated parts in the electoral and dispute resolution systems. For the oligarchs, the election was about maintaining a system that has given them immense economic advantage and wealth.
Mthuli Ncube and the Oligarchs
What happened with Mthuli Ncube is that when he arrived and surveyed the situation, he came face to face with the oligarchs in our system and was horrified, as any rational person would be. His first instinct was that this had to be broken if Zimbabwe is to have a chance. What he is trying to do is to break the ZANU PF oligarchy. Some members of this oligarchy are known. Others are far too discreet. Ncube has diagnosed the problem of the oligarchy, but he doesn’t have full information on its depth or the identities. The RBZ senior executives who were named by Lumumba are probably Caporegimes or at best Underbosses. The Queen Bee referred to by Lumumba is only an Underboss. There is a Boss and a Boss of all Bosses above him.
Therefore, despite his best intentions, he may have pulled the trigger before he had gathered enough intelligence to fully appreciate the complexities of the intricate networks that connect and bind the oligarchs. He was hasty and his messenger lacked self-control. In this haste, he may have inadvertently stepped on toes of the same people that he is working for. Each one of those top leaders leads their own mafia-like family of oligarchs. In politics we refer to these families as factions. Ncube’s crusade against the oligarchs has clearly made the factions uncomfortable. This is why there were grumbles from the political elites in ZANU PF who started firing salvos at him. This is just the oligarchs resisting and protecting their position, which is being threatened by the newcomer.
Breaking the Oligarchy
How then do you break the oligarchy when the oligarchs are so powerful?
The first task is to identify, acknowledge and understand the nature of the problem: that Zimbabwe is in the hands of a powerful oligarchy. This oligarchy consists of business, political and military elites. They have amassed huge amounts of wealth and control key sectors of the economy and natural resources. They interest is to extract as much wealth as possible. They are not concerned with the rest of society.
The oligarchy has co-opted and continues to co-opt new members through the various ways that we have identified in this BSR. These co-opted members are happy to serve and beautify the beast because they too are interested in the pursuit of money.
The oligarchs will resist any attempts to break their hold on power. They are prepared to drop their differences in order to fight a common threat.
However, the oligarchs have their own differences and the problem at the moment is that their factions (or families, to use Mafia-speak) are fighting for control of specific sectors, such as the fuel sector. What are being referred to as cartels are in fact the factions or families of oligarchs vying for control.
The problem is that none of the political elites at the top of the food chain are free of the oligarchs. They are all part of the oligarchy and the difference is simply that they belong to different families. Therefore, the moment one starts an inquiry it will be seen as a witch-hunt and an effort by one family of oligarchs to eliminate the others.
The current tensions could only end with a full-blown war between the families. Last year, the oligarchs of one family had to carry out a coup against the Capo di tutti Capi of the day, Robert Mugabe. The risk of a deadly clash between the oligarchs is not far-fetched. However, it would not resolve the problem. It would only be a victory of one set of oligarchs over the others, without any change or the rest of society.
Would a comprehensive investigation of "state capture" such as they have done in South Africa work in Zimbabwe? Probably not, because it is hard to see how the same characters who are part of the oligarchy can establish an independent body to perform that role. The commission inquiring into the August 1 killings of civilians has already faced serious problems, including charges of bias and conflicts of interest by some of its members.
It is difficult to see how the oligarchy can be displaced without the removal of ZANU PF and the re-establishment of the democratic order. At the moment, Zimbabwe is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy. Plato told us that an oligarchy would eventually crumble when the inequality and poverty in society forced the impoverished poor to rise against the oligarchs. Therefore, the greatest danger of the oligarchy lies in the oligarchy’s own selfishness and inability to attend to the problems of the poor.