Big Saturday Read: The rats have taken charge of the granary
To love one's country
It is not unusual in a debate between Zimbabweans on political or economic matters that one accuses the other of lacking sufficient love for the country. Borrowing from colloquial nomenclature, the word “haters” is bandied about without restraint. The accused invariably disagree by declaring that their love for the country is beyond question. They might also accuse their accuser of the same vice. It can be a circular, dizzying and unending argument.
But what does it mean to love one’s country? What is the motivation behind questioning another citizen’s love for their country? How helpful is love for one’s country as a tool of analysis? It is common rhetoric but it conceals more than it reveals concerning the actual behaviour of political principals and their supporters. It is a typical ad hominem argument, which focuses not on the substance of one’s conduct but on who they are and their political totem.
In the first instance, those who deploy the “love for one’s country” argument seek to exclude and delegitimise their target. If you don’t love your country, you are not a legitimate member of the political community.
Secondly, because “love for one’s country” eludes precise definition purveyors of this argument invariably confuse two things: first, what they subjectively believe to be their love for one country is treated as a common standard for everyone else. Each person is bound to have their version of what constitutes love for one’s country, there is likely to be a multiplicity of opinion which makes the entire concept useless.
The second outcome of the lack of a common definition is that they often confuse the country and the government to be the same thing. But while “I love my country but fear my government” may be an old and overused cliché, it remains a useful rebuttal which usefully indicates the existence of a distinction between country and government. But what is "country" and what is "government"?
The government is the legal vehicle of political authority over a country. A government is run by a group of elites. In a democracy, these elites come to power through a free and fair election. If the conduct of the election is not free and fair, the authority and legitimacy of these elites to govern are disputed. In non-democracies, these elites impose themselves upon the people – through, for example, military takeovers. A government comes and goes – through elections in electoral democracies or revolutions and coups in authoritarian regimes. There is simply no obligation to love the government.
A country, on the other hand, encapsulates both the physical and imagined realities. The physical is the land and its features within territorial boundaries. The imagined reality is the nation; a people who feel bound into a political community by a common set of beliefs that form their nationhood. There is nothing natural about nationhood. It is a social construct. It exists only to the extent that the people who constitute it believe in it and others recognise it.
Therefore, you can love the physical features of Zimbabwe – its all-year-round sunshine, the Victoria Falls, its diverse wildlife and vast mineral wealth. People regularly do so, which is why they visit these places and tell the world about them with much pride. You can also love the diverse cultures of the people, the food, the music and the general way of life. Indeed, you can disagree vehemently with the government over the way it treats these physical assets and the people who constitute the nation. There are very few people in this world who do not love their country, although there are many people who do not like and strongly disagree with their government. The two are not the same thing.
What is evident in Zimbabwe, as in other countries, is that the interests of political elites in charge of the government are not always in sync with the interests of the country. They are often divergent, especially in corrupt and authoritarian regimes where political elites use their privileged position to extract personal wealth from the country. This is despite the rule of elites being usually based on the claim that they represent the best interests of the country. When these elites accuse others of not loving the country, what they mean is that the people are not showing enough love for the government. For them, criticism of the government is synonymous with criticism of the country.
Ironically, it is these political elites and their associates who use their vantage positions in and around the government to extract public resources from the country. They accumulate immense personal wealth through corrupt networks often at the expense of the country. A great deal of their wealth is sent to overseas banks, far away from the country. When these ill-gotten assets are frozen, they complain. They hardly use local services. Thus they get medical treatment in foreign countries. They shun local colleges and universities and sent their children to foreign countries even as they superintend the education and health systems. They buy vast properties in other countries. Yet these political elites and their associates claim to love the country more than others. They are quick to accuse ordinary citizens of not loving their country enough.
Through various sophisticated schemes, these elites also actively avoid paying taxes. They accumulate huge arrears to public utilities that supply water and electricity. They are first in the queue for subsidised goods, which they sell on for profit. As discussed later in this BSR, whistle-blowers have just disclosed how subsidised maize bought by the government to provide drought relief is being sold by unscrupulous elites to foreign markets. They get cheap loans from state-owned entities but never payback. Instead, they form state-owned corporate vehicles like Zimbabwe Asset Management Company (ZAMCO) to take over those debts. Eventually, these loans are taken over by the government, which increases the burden on the taxpayer. That’s what happened with the RBZ Debt Assumption Law in 2015 – more than a billion dollars of debt simply taken over by the government. Yet these elites and their associates claim to love the country more than the citizens they are burdening with these debts.
They commit the country to opaque and unfair contracts with foreign countries and organisations. They even want to change the Constitution to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of these foreign contracts. Just recently, the Minister of Finance issued a decree giving an income tax exemption to Chinese technology giant, Huawei dating back to 2009. This means the foreign company doesn’t have to pay taxes for a period of the past 11 years. No explanation was offered for this exemption. Yet these elites and their associates dare to accuse their critics of not loving the country.
Citizens who challenge these abuses by political elites masquerading as the government do not hate their country. They simply despise their government which is not fit for purpose. The claim of lacking love for one’s country is usually deployed as an exclusionary technique. It is designed to exclude the accused from the political community; to delegitimise their voice. It is also used to deflect criticism for the government’s failings and the looting that goes on by elites and their associates. It is, in fact, the looters who prey on the poor and vulnerable that lack love for the country.
True love for the country is shown by the proper use of governmental power to deliver public goods and services for the people. Those who try to hold leaders accountable do so because they love the country. Those who challenge corruption do so out of love for the country. Those who demand respect for human rights do so because they love the country. As American essayist, Edward Abbey wrote, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government”. The government and the country are not the same thing and it is legitimate to oppose and challenge the government whilst still loving your country. Whenever someone starts touting the “you don’t love your country” cliché, they are often, although not always, tell-tale signs of apologist behaviour towards the regime.
Cross-roads: re-dollarisation or de-dollarisation?
The week started with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) claiming that de-dollarisation of the economy was well on course. The next day, Zuva Petroleum, one of the major fuel retail companies announced that several fuel stations across the country would be selling fuel in foreign currency. Also in the same week, the government was announcing that the Registrar General’s office would be offering passport services in foreign currency. By the end of the week, the RBZ Governor was quoted extending the authorisation to other fuel companies. They could use their “free funds” to buy fuel and sell in foreign currency, he said. Two contrasting positions in less than 5 days.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what this means or to work out how things will pan out going forward for the rest of the economy. Fuel is a critical input in every other sector of the economy, whether it be the production of goods or delivery of services. This is proper goodbye to the Zimbabwe Dollar as the economy is concerned. No reasonable fuel retailer will sell the product in local currency when they are importing it in foreign currency and they have an option to sell it in foreign currency. The only reason they have not been selling in foreign currency is that the government prohibited it first under the decree SI 142/2019 and later the Finance (Act No. 2).
This will have a ripple effect on other sectors of the economy. If a producer of goods or services must pay for fuel in foreign currency, they will also sell their goods and services in foreign currency. If they must use the local currency, prices will be pegged at the parallel market rate. This is because they would have acquired the foreign currency from the parallel market since the formal market is short of it.
Actually, writing this in the future tense as I have just done is quite misleading. It is misleading because this is already happening, especially in the informal economy which is now more dominant than the formal economy. Data from the global economic indicators showed that Zimbabwe had a 67% shadow economy – the highest in the world and that was 5 years ago in 2015. Things have deteriorated since then. Even the tax collector in Zimbabwe has come to terms with the fact that formal entities are selling goods and services in foreign currency. It issued a notice demanding taxes in foreign currency from those selling their goods and services in foreign currency.
The authorisation of fuel retailers, therefore, simply clears the path towards formal admission of re-dollarisation. It’s pointless for the government to deny formal dollarization while authorising it for critical sectors such as fuel that impact the entire economy. The government is pushing against an unstoppable tide. As noted in last week’s BSR, we have been on this road before. I have always said that the government cannot claim credit for dollarization in 2009. Rather, it simply followed the course that the parallel market had already set. The economy had de facto dollarized by the time the then acting Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa made his intervention in February 2009. The government simply formalised what had become an economic fact. It was a case of the government eating humble pie and accepting the inevitable.
This is what is happening again, except that this time the government is making piecemeal concessions to the market by authorising the use of foreign currency for some sectors. The law that it established last year is effectively redundant. The bustling market of Siya-so in Magaba, Mbare is an indicator of the pulse of the informal economy. Everyone uses the US dollar as the medium of exchange. It makes sense to traders and their customers because it is a safer store of value.
The behaviour of the suits at the RBZ building and the Ministry of Finance bears no relation to the conduct of the working men and women in the informal markets in which the economic activities are taking place. It is illogical to give authority to some sectors while excluding others, especially as access to foreign currency is largely through the parallel market where it’s obtained at a premium. But it takes honourable characters to admit failure. The suits in government corridors will persist in their delusion.
Packing the Constitutional Court
A couple of weeks ago, I did a detailed critical analysis of the proposed amendments to our constitution. I observed that while a constitution is not immune to amendments, any attempts to make changes so early in its life must be carefully watched and scrutinised. This is important to fully appreciate the intention behind the amendments. Anyone who wants to read the detailed analysis can find them on these links. Of immediate interest is the amendment regarding the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court. Why is President Mnangagwa keen on this amendment?
When the Constitution was adopted seven years ago, transitional provisions meant that judges of the Supreme Court also served as judges of the newly created Constitutional Court. This was not ideal but a practical concession as part of the negotiating process. Originally, the MDC parties wanted a completely new Constitutional Court while ZANU PF preferred to maintain the status quo in the judiciary. The judges were also keen to protect their turf and had a representative who looked after their interests.
After seven years the Constitutional Court would be constituted by a set of judges appointed following the new procedure set out in the Constitution. This would be an open process whereby the Judicial Services Commission would call for public nominations and conduct public interviews. The recommendations are submitted to the President who makes the final appointments.
The idea behind this process is that the appointment of judges should be open and there are checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. While the President would make the final appointment, his discretion would be limited to the list of recommendations by another body and from an open and transparent process.
The judges of the Constitutional Court have a specific term of fifteen years. The idea behind this mandatory judicial term limit is to ensure that there is room for change and diversity in the country’s highest court and potentially, the development of constitutional jurisprudence. If a judge reaches the age of seventy before the expiry of the term, he/she must retire. If the term expires before they are seventy, they have an option of serving in the High Court or Supreme Court.
The proposed amendment seeks to remove the open and transparent process when appointing serving judges to the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. This will immediately impact how the Constitutional Court will be constituted now that the 7-year transitional window is about to expire. It will give exclusive power to the President to appoint serving judges to the Constitutional Court. He will only be required to consult the Judicial Service Commission but crucially he has absolutely no obligation to take its advice. It’s as good as acting without any constraint at all.
The net effect is that President Mnangagwa will have exclusive powers to determine the composition of the Constitutional Court. To those who say it makes no difference whether the current or proposed process is used, the regime wouldn’t be making changes to the process if it did not matter. It is no secret that Mnangagwa wants to go for a second term in 2023. The Constitutional Court is the ultimate referee in disputes over the presidential election. He is keen to exert control over this political referee by packing the court with his favourites, without the constraints of an independent and transparent judicial appointments process.
Rats in the granary
Last week, I examined the proposed roller-meal coupons whereby the government would allocate coupons to beneficiaries which would be exchanged for roller-meal. The government thinks this will prevent the mischief where unscrupulous characters were diverting subsidised roller-meal and selling it at a profit on the parallel market. I explained how this proposed solution had unintended consequences such as the creation of a pseudo-currency backed by the promise of roller-meal and abuse by corrupt politically exposed persons (PEPs). In other words, roller-meal coupons would not solve the problem of corruption. Instead, they would make corruption easier and less costly for the corrupt characters.
This week, business executives in the milling industries blew the whistle on more corruption that is taking place around the maize subsidy when they appeared before a parliamentary committee. Two executives who appeared before the parliamentary committee pointed out that there is rife abuse of the maze subsidy which implicates both members of the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the grain utility and manufacturers involved in maize meal processing.
The types of corruption include preferential treatment in the allocation of subsidised maize. The allocation of government subsidies and freebies has always attracted rent-seekers among political elites and their business associates. It is these rent-seekers who took advantage of cheap foreign currency allocations by the RBZ. They are the godfathers of the foreign currency parallel market. It is the same rent-seekers who benefited from the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme. In recent years, the same set of rent-seekers have taken advantage of cheap loans under the rampantly corrupt Command Agriculture scheme. Each year, they have obtained freebies under the Presidential Agricultural Inputs Scheme which is meant for vulnerable farmers. That this is happening to subsidised maize is simply a manifestation of a familiar pattern. Those who are least deserving are the ones who get the bulk of the subsidised allocations.
Another form of corruption highlighted by the executives is that manufacturers are diverting the subsidised maize to process other products instead of the roller meal for public distribution. These other products can fetch higher profits than roller meal, whose price is controlled. This is in reality no different from selling subsidised roller meal on the parallel market. But we have also seen this before, where fuel is imported duty-free based on a specific project but is then diverted to the commercial market.
The third form of corruption is that subsidised maize is being exported to foreign markets in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. According to the executives, trucks that would have delivered copper from Zambia to South Africa pick up the subsidised maize in Zimbabwe for onward delivery in the DRC. The taxpayer suffers double jeopardy: he subsidises the cheap maize for the crooks and goes hungry because the maize is diverted to another market. This is not new. A few years ago there were allegations of PEPs using trucks to pick subsidised fuel from Zimbabwe and delivering it to neighbouring countries.
The heartlessness shown by these characters in this period of serious food shortages shows that the rats are in charge of the village granary. These forms of corruption in respect of the maize subsidy follow a familiar pattern. They have been recurring over the years. This is how political elites have always looted the State. The moment a subsidy is announced, they are ready to pounce. They do so because they know there is no personal price to pay for corruption. They only have to pay their rents to their political godfathers in return for protection from the hand of the law. The honest business executives will complain until the cows come home. If they choose to remain legitimate they will struggle to keep afloat. Eventually, they realise that they have to join the racket or collapse. In this way, corruption flourishes. The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) which should be spearheading the fight against corruption started with much verve and promise but it has since become flaccid.
The tragedy is that the younger generation of Zimbabweans look at these crooks and are wowed by the opulence and flamboyance, they see their ultimate role models. They see them in their sharp suits, driving the latest imported automobiles and their bevvy of amorous companions and all they dream of is to have that lifestyle, too. Corruption is celebrated as wisdom. The unscrupulous has become normal and what might have been shunned before has become the object of envy and emulation. It is, as I have said before, the country’s road to perdition.
The change that the country needs will come only when Zimbabwe has a leadership that is willing and ready to fight the scourge of corruption. The cost of engaging corruption must be high regardless of the station the corrupt person holds in life. As long as the price is low, corrupt elements and corrupt behaviour will continue to flourish. At present, there is just a bunch of kleptocrats and their enablers who thrive on corruption.
The irony is that even as these kleptocrats plunder its resources, they claim to have greater love for the country than anyone else. Their apologists look aside and instead of calling a spade by its proper name, they avoid these inconvenient realities and find scapegoats among the ordinary, hard-working Zimbabweans whom they accuse of not loving the country. The people have so much love for their country and that is precisely why they are critical of their government which has taken corruption to obscene levels.