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Big Saturday Read: Congo – Those who never returned

This week, we have two big issues. The first is a relatively easier matter - a current issue regarding the conduct of the Speaker of the National Assembly. The second, is a heavier matter; one that lends the title to this #BSR and is as relevant to our times as it was twenty years ago. Let us start with the easier matter before we delve into the murkier waters of the Congo.

Speaker’s Madness: VAR says the Speaker is offside

Jacob Mudenda is ferociously building up a reputation as a mini-dictator who sees Parliament as his little fiefdom.

He appears to have delusions of grandeur which is fast turning him into the worst Speaker of Parliament in Zimbabwe’s history, a field that includes the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Didymus Mutasa.

He has made a number of questionable decisions in the past but two of the recent ones are among the most outrageous and disingenuous. Both decisions have been in reaction to the MDC MPs’ response to President Emmerson Mnangagwa against whom they have pursued a form of resistance since the disputed outcome of last year’s presidential election. Instead of being an impartial arbiter, the Speaker has reduced himself to a party political commissar.

A few weeks ago, opposition MPs stood up and left Parliament as Mnangagwa presented the State of the Nation address. The MDC argues that they have demonstrated their disapproval of Mnangagwa by boycotting his official events while maintaining their role in Parliament. Mudenda’s reaction was to dock MDC MPs allowances, clearly as punishment for humiliating his party boss, Mnangagwa.

This week, Mudenda acquiesced to the Ziyambi Ziyambi, Minister of Justice’s proposition that MDC should not be permitted to participate in the Ministers’ questioning in Parliament. They prefer a friendly match with their own MPs. The reasoning for this is that since the MDC MPs do not recognise Mnangagwa as President, they cannot ask his Ministers questions because he is the appointing authority.

This kind of reasoning is based on a logical fallacy that because someone opposes a part of the system, therefore he must oppose everything else. But resistance to repression is an a la carte menu not of the table d'hôte variety. One is comes with choice; the other doesn't.

The opposition is perfectly entitled to choose forms of resistance against the regime as long as they are not breaking the law. There is no legal rule that they must remain in Parliament at all times and a walk out is legitimate form of resistance. There is no lack of principle in choosing to one and rejecting the other. In fact, to extend the metaphor further, politics is a buffet - you pick what you prefer and it’s still a normal dinner.

In any event, choosing to walk out on the President does not bar MPs from expressing their resistance by robustly questioning his Ministers. Some of the parliamentary committee chairs are MDC members. If Mudenda’s position is to hold, he will effectively disable the very Institutions of Parliament that he is supposed to defend.

The two forms of resistance - challenging Mnangagwa by boycott and questioning ministers - are not connected. With the President all they have to do is sit and listen. They can’t even question him, even if they wanted to. The Constitution has a provision giving an option to the President to present himself for questioning. Continuing with the Mugabe tradition, Mnangagwa has never exercised that option. Like his predecessor, he treats Parliament with disdain. It is beneath him. He does not submit himself to questions. For him, Parliament is to be spoken to not engaged with on an equal basis.

However, the Constitution makes it mandatory for Vice Presidents and Ministers to attend Parliament and to answer questions. Mudenda knows this because he was part of the constitution making process. He knows why there’s a separate provision for questioning VPs and Ministers but not the President. It’s ugly but that is the law and it shows the difference.

Consequently, MPs have both a right and a duty to ask questions; otherwise these provisions would be superfluous. These rights cannot be given or taken away by the Speaker on his whim, making a broad decision to ban MPs of one party from putting questions to Ministers. It is unconstitutional and illegal.

After all, questioning Ministers comes naturally from the democratic interaction between MPs as the representatives of the people. Even if Mudenda objects to the idea of MDC MPs questioning Ministers in their capacity as Ministers, he has no authority to stop them asking them questions in their capacity as MPs. The privileges of Parliament must be defended, not trampled upon as Mudenda is doing.

More worrying is that Mudenda who, as head of Parliament, is supposed to be the most important defender of the institution and its autonomous role from the executive branch of government, has instead become a surrogate and puppet of the executive. He is getting angry on behalf of the executive, which he and the rest of Parliament are supposed to hold accountable.

The provision requiring Ministers to answer questions from MPs is designed to promote accountability in a representative democracy. We know our democracy is weak, but Mudenda is undermining it even more. The people do not have regular opportunities to question the executive hence they rely on their MPs in Parliament. It defeats the entire purpose of representative government if people’s representatives cannot question Ministers.

The problem is that Mudenda the Speaker now sees himself as Mudenda the commissar of ZANU PF. He wants to discipline and mobilise all MPs to follow a particular line. Mudenda the ZANU PF man is getting angry on behalf of his party principal. This reflects a particular weakness in our constitutional system, which we did not anticipate during the constitution-making exercise: the problem of a politically partisan Speaker. This was because; save on a few occasions, past Speakers had generally exercised discipline, restraint and a measure of fairness. The jailing of Roy Bennett and Mutasa’s attempt to dock Ian Smith’s wages in the 80s are some of the exceptions where Parliament went overboard. Indeed Smith won his case in court challenging the violation of property rights, a route that’s available to MDC MPs. But overall, most Speakers had conducted themselves with discipline, unlike the over-excitement and activism being shown by Mudenda.

It might have been a good idea to provide that once a person is appointed a Speaker, he or she not only gives up their seat but also their party membership or any position in the party. This would ensure that the Speaker is free of obligations to and allegiance to the party. It might not work in the early years of change but over time, a Speaker would be able to assert his or her independence even from their former party. Perhaps that’s a matter to consider as part of constitutional amendments.

It has been quite remarkable how the Speaker of the Westminster Parliament in the U.K. has been a robust defender of the legislature at a time when the government would want to have its way at any cost in the Brexit process. Mudenda has probably been following events in Britain and fancies himself a Bercow, but he forgets that our Speaker is strictly a creature of the Constitution whose powers are limited by that law whereas the Westminster Speaker also draws powers from unwritten conventions some of which have not been used for generations, until now.

In any event, the Westminster Speaker has used his powers to defend Parliament from an increasingly aggressive government whereas Mudenda is using powers to undermine and degrade Parliament. Bercow was a Conservative MP before he became the Speaker. The rules require him to give up his role in the party. He could have been partisan defending his governing party as Mudenda is trying to do, but he has actually been a thorn in the flesh of government, defending the independence of Parliament. Some might say it is because he has a different view on Brexit, but he has stood up for Parliament.

I had interactions with Mudenda during the constitution-making exercise where he represented ZANU PF. He appeared to be one of the more reasonable heads among the ZANU PF lot. Indeed, on occasions he actively but secretly encouraged us on the MDC side of the negotiating table to stand up for issues which his own comrades were opposing. One area that he was quite passionate about was the rights of minorities. Being from a minority ethnic group which has been marginalised he understood the issue more than his ZANU PF counterparts. Yet he could not be seen to be opposing his own party. He was quite robust in supporting minority languages and devolution, something that ZANU PF resisted.

He also carried himself like a gentleman, taking particular interest in the intricacies of language and the right words to use (I learnt that he was once a teacher of note. He even threw in a few Latin words). I’m therefore taken aback by his seemingly thuggish and ungentlemanly behaviour that he has been exhibiting in recent months. Mudenda must defend the democratic space of Parliament, not stifle it.

Why he is reducing himself to chairing a ZANU PF caucus in Parliament when he is head of one of the three core arms of the State beggars belief. The Chief Justice and his courts do not deny MDC MPs or members the right to approach them or challenge Ministers just because they disagree with Mnangagwa’s presidency. Why is he taking sides in a political dispute when he should be impartial and above the fray?

He is, by own heavy hand, reducing the status of his role from that of a national leader to a village headman; from being an equal to the heads of other arms of the state (executive and judiciary) to being a puppet of the executive. He needs to change his approach or he will go down in history as the worst Speaker and enemy of Parliament.

Those who never came back

There are many things that my generation (and older generations) take for granted, assuming those things are common knowledge. We know them so well; they were part of our story as we grew up in newly independent Zimbabwe that we assume everyone is familiar with them. Then you remember that there are kids born in the 90s and at the turn of the millennium. They are young. Many millennials are young adults and the Zimbabwe of the 1990s that we know is to them what the sixties are to my generation born in the seventies. It is not a defence that they are young, because they must read. But we must write so that they read.

I know this too well. When someone talks about UDI (the Unilateral Declaration of Independence) announced a decade before I was born, I understand why things that happened in 1990 must be so distant and hard to relate to someone born in 2000. So today, I want to write a bit about our involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1998 and why that war still matters today. I have sometimes referred to it as the DRC Misadventure, although I know some who reckon it was a proper adventure. I understand them. I’m aware that it brings sad memories to a lot among us because they lost loved ones and some were maimed for life. But history must be remembered so that we learn from it. I hope this BSR triggers some narratives of remembrance.

In August 1998, Zimbabwean soldiers found themselves embroiled in a war thousands of miles away from home, in a vast but rich country that had virtually broken down. Just a year before, long-serving dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko had been toppled by Laurent Kabila.

Kabila had marched on Kinshasa, the Congolese capital with his troops, supported by neighbours Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Other countries, Zimbabwe included had also supported the rebellion against the deeply unpopular Mobutu. Scholars who have analysed the war, among them Michael Nest and Martin Rupiya, whose work I rely on in this piece, wrote of reports that Mugabe had lent money to Kabila - $5 million and the Zimbabwe Defence Industry won a $53 million contract to supply food, uniforms and other war materials to Kabila’s forces. A triumphant Kabila declared himself president in May 1997. The then Zaire became the DRC.

Nevertheless, things did not turn out too well for the nascent Kabila regime. He had marched on Kinshasa with the help of allies to whom he probably should have been beholden or so they thought. Kabila had other ideas for the vast, mineral-rich country which was now under his charge. But his bid to assert independence did not go down well with his old allies. When he kicked the forces of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi out of the DRC at the end of July 1998, it sparked a “rebellion” and a war ensued. It was in these circumstances that Zimbabwe became involved in the DRC War.

Rupiya says the initial deployment was just 6,000 soldiers - an indication perhaps that it was thought the rebels were merely a rag-tag unit that would easily be crushed within weeks. It was a gross miscalculation. It turned out to be a longer war requiring a vast number of manpower and resources. Once in, our boys could not leave with tails between their legs. They had to fight and fight to the end.

According to Rupiya, by the end the Zimbabwe Defence Forces had about 16,000 soldiers in the jungles of the DRC. By all accounts, it was a brutal and unforgiving war. The vindication at the end came at great cost in terms of human lives and human cost. The initial deployment had been cautious but also an underestimation of the task ahead.

One of the major consequences of the DRC war was the impact on resources and consequently on Zimbabwe’s already fragile economy. Firstly, the war resulted in unbudgeted expenditure, which meant great fiscal indiscipline as scarce resources were diverted to fund the war, which was unpopular at home. According to a letter written by the then Minister of Finance, Herbert Murerwa to Michael Camdessus, then head of the IMF on 11 July 1999, Zimbabwe was spending $1,3 million per month on the DRC War. These were US dollars. Many observers believed this was a very conservative figure which grossly underplayed the true cost of the DRC War.

Later, new Minister of Finance Simba Makoni reported that the DRC War had cost $Z10 billion up to early 2000 which is significant given that the budget allocation to the defence ministry in the 1997-98 budget had been $Z5.4 billion. In October 1999, the Financial Gazette put the figure at $42 million (USD) and that was just over a year into the DRC War.

A major problem was that this expenditure was in foreign currency, which was already scarce. It was used to pay allowances to soldiers on the very risky tour of duty, to hire transportation planes, and to replenish stock. Elites made vast profits supplying the military. The distance to Kinshasa is long and this required vast amounts of fuel, which also had to be imported, using scarce forex.

Consequently the defence expenditure on the DRC War put a significant strain upon the economy. Writes Rupiya at the time, “untoward and unbudgeted military expenditure has, not surprisingly, strained relations within the country. Expenditure on public sector investment, welfare and production has clearly suffered as a result of the unprecedented spending on defence”. The military which was supposed to have been reduced from 40,000 strong to 25,000 per government promises now required reinforcement.

That the DRC War led to “adverse socio-economic trends” in Zimbabwe as Rupiya pointed out is widely acknowledged. Zimbabwe’s situation was not helped by the fact that the International Financial Institutions were against its role in the war, which was regarded as an instance of fiscal indiscipline. Western countries were also highly critical. They too, had their own interests to protect in the DRC and Zimbabwe’s role there was unpopular among them.

For Mugabe, however, the intervention was justified as a matter of principle. The DRC had just been accepted as a new member of SADC. It had sought assistance and Mugabe was chair of the SADC Organ of Peace, Security and Defence. He was also an elder statesman. To him the DRC problem case was not only a violation of international law by invading nations but it was also right in the old spirit of liberation movements helping each other to defend a fellow nation whose sovereignty was at stake. The idea that foreign countries had a stake in the war gave it an imperialistic element which he vowed to fight.

However, the intervention caused rifts within SADC, at least as portrayed in the media. The globally popular Nelson Mandela, just a few years into his tenure as the first democratic leader of South Africa did not show similar appetite for the DRC war. He was the SADC Chair and Mugabe was Chair of the Organ. There seemed to be competition between the two men with Mugabe portrayed by the media as trying to assert his seniority as the elder statesman against the “new kid on the block” who was taking all the limelight. Some, however, dismiss this as a media narrative which was designed to contrast the “good Mandela” and the “bad Mugabe”.

Still however, things seemed to thaw when Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela in 1999. As long-serving presidential spokesman George Charamba said back in 1999 in an interview with the IRIN news service, "Contrary to what you may read in the press, there is now a better understanding between our two countries.” He acknowledged that there had been a misunderstanding. His expressed view of a thaw was after Mbeki had taken over from Mandela. Two other countries had supported Zimbabwe’s intervention - Namibia and Angola, the latter also motivated by security considerations given that it shares a border with the DRC.

The DRC War was deeply unpopular at home, with people concerned that it was an unnecessary war. The secrecy of the operation, including casualties sustained and expenditure incurred in the war only added to the rumours and unpopularity. The media and human rights groups were highly critical. More significantly, it became clear that the political and military elites were amassing vast amounts of wealth from the war. The DRC is endowed with great mineral resources, a circumstance that has made it a theatre of contestation and wars pitting multiple parties domestically, regionally and internationally. It has known no peace from the brutal days of Belgium’s King Leopold who treated it like his private estate. Such is the curse of resources, a perennial theme in Africa.

Did Zimbabwe get involved in the DRC for economic reasons? There is a widely held view that the motivation was primarily economic. This view has been challenged by some scholars, among them Rupiya and Michael Nest, writing in the respected African Affairs journal in 2001. According to Nest, the economic interests followed later but the motivations were political. Some were Mugabe’s personal ambition to assert himself ahead of Mandela and more importantly, the justification to defend the SADC Charter regarding the protection of member states from foreign invasion. Rupiya agrees arguing similarly that the intervention was based on principle. “In my view,” says Rupiya, “whatever economic interests Zimbabwe subsequently acquired in Congo were not part of its initial calculus of intervention”.

Nevertheless, military and political networks did eventually develop once those on the ground in the DRC saw the vast opportunities at their disposal. The Zimbabwean military controlled major strategic areas including transport arteries and the airport in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Encouraged by the government Businessmen used these networks to establish their businesses. Zimbabwe had learnt from the war in Mozambique that it was important to take advantage of its military presence and control. It had lost opportunities to South Africa in Mozambique despite the heavy military investments when Mozambique fought Renamo rebels.

DRC was a broken country which depended on imports and some Zimbabwean businesses filled the void. Nest, who conducted various interviews with participants in the DRC war and business people, describes a typical situation: a Harare based company exported chemicals to mines in Lubumbashi quickly saw an opportunity and began to import diamonds and gold. It was assisted by the military. The chief military officer who helped the company got 5 per cent of the diamonds value. Just one example.

It is pertinent to note that although Mugabe was the President and while there was a Minister of Defence, Moven Mahachi, the man who was regarded as being in charge of the operation in the DRC was Emmerson Mnangagwa. This was reported by the Zimbabwe Independent under the headline “Mnangagwa in Charge of the DRC operation”. His close associates Billy Rautenbach and John Bredenkamp had major commercial interests in the DRC. FBC, a bank in which ZANU PF had a significant shareholding established a subsidiary in the DRC, to serve the new commercial interests. The national airline Air Zimbabwe started a new route into the DRC. Others tagged along. Mahachi later died in a car crash, which some believed was suspicious. The truth is not known.

There is no doubt that those who were close to the scene made rich pickings from the DRC war. Some key political and military figures, including members of the current regime were later named in a UN Report on the looting that allegedly took place during the war.

But if military, political and business elites benefited from the DRC war, what about Zimbabwe? The government always said the DRC government would carry the costs of the war but this does not seem to have happened. There were major losses of military hardware in the jungles of the DRC. These needed to be replaced. War is expensive as history reminds us. The government funded the war through taxes, borrowing and diverting funds from productive sectors and welfare needs. The ordinary people carried the cost of the war but it was the individual elites who benefitted the most. The negative economic legacy of the DRC war continues to haunt Zimbabwe.

It did not help that around the time of the DRC war the new political opposition crystallised via the MDC and the election violence made things worse. The DRC was a major point of angst. The Fast Track Land Reform Programme also wreaked havoc on commercial agriculture, impacting productivity, export revenues, food security. The local currency was already under pressure after the 1997 unbudgeted payouts to war veterans, a subject that I will discuss on its own another time.

The DRC war, fiscal indiscipline, currency depreciation, foreign currency shortages, fuel shortages, land invasions and loss of productivity, isolation, lack of credit, rising inflation and cost of living all created a “perfect storm”. Over the next few years, with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) dabbling into quasi-fiscal activism the country entered a ruinous path which led to the hyperinflationary conditions and the economic disaster of 2007-08. Intervention into the DRC war might have been on the basis of principle, but economically it was a disaster.

So there we are: a piece of our history that contributed to landing us in the economic abyss from which we are still to emerge. I should mention that it was during this expensive war that we first incurred our debt default to the IFIs. These are the arrests that have burdened us for years. We managed to pay off the IMF, but we are still heavily indebted. The DRC cost us heavily and we are still paying for it. It is likely that future generations will be paying for it even though the major beneficiaries and their descendants are enjoying and will continue to enjoy the fruits of that military adventure.

I dedicate this part of the BSR to the sons and daughters who lost their lives in the DRC war, some of whom never returned and to their families. Some lie in unmarked graves in the jungles of the DRC, gone but not forgotten. Their families have no closure. But that’s all they want: to know: what happened to their sons and daughters and if possible, where their remains are interred. As for the economy, will we ever get compensation for the investment we made to save the DRC regme? Or did the elites eat on everyone's behalf?


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