Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Zimbabwean authorities are cracking down on businesses they suspect of backing Simba Makoni, the former finance minister who has emerged as a serious challenger to President Robert Mugabe in this month’s elections.
The crackdown is seen as a sign of how seriously Mugabe and his allies in the ruling ZANU-PF party take the newcomer. Last month, Makoni shocked the party – of which he was a member – by announcing he would stand against the incumbent. He was summarily kicked out of the party and pilloried in speeches by the president.
In the latest example of the regime’s determination to keep itself in power, IWPR has learned that retailers and other top businesspeople who supply basic commodities were summoned to a meeting on February 4 at the offices of Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono.
On arrival, however, they were informed that the meeting had been convened not by the central bank, but by the Joint Operations Command, JOC, a powerful body chaired by Zimbabwean army commander-in-chief General Constantine Chiwenga and consisting of military, police, intelligence and prison system chiefs. The JOC coordinates military and security affairs and many observers believe it carries more real clout than the cabinet.
In a sign of what the meeting was going to be about, the head of the National Incomes and Pricing Commission, Godwills Masimirembwa, was also in attendance.
According to a source at the central bank, the hostility and tension in the room was palpable as the business leaders walked in. JOC members were waiting in full military uniform.
The officials proceeded to berate the business chiefs for defying the price controls that Mugabe ordered last June in what proved to be an unsuccessful bid to check the country’s galloping inflation. In the weeks that followed the measure, as retailers were forced to slash prices by 50 per cent, wholesalers and manufacturers ran into difficulties, enterprises went under, and the ensuing shortages of food and other items were compounded by panic-buying.
This time, however, the JOC’s allegations were that the businesses were involved in more than flouting price controls. The principal accusation was that they were allocating funds to support Makoni’s election campaign.
Chiwenga sat with files of bank statements, deposit slips and surveillance reports piled in front of him.
One by one, business leaders were asked to explain why there were shortages of basic commodities and why, if they lacked the foreign currency to buy goods or manufacturing inputs, they had not applied to the Reserve Bank for it.
According to sources at the central bank, Willard Zireva, chief executive of a major supermarket chain called OK, was questioned about why the shelves in his stores were empty when other retailers such as the Spar group and corner shops did have stock. Why did his supermarkets close whenever there was a power cut? He should have sourced foreign currency from the Reserve Bank to pay for imported generators, officials said.
“They plainly told him that he was doing it deliberately and that they knew he supported Super Tuesday,” said the bank source.
“Super Tuesday” refers to Tuesday, February 5, when Makoni announced his election bid.
“They also told [Zireva] that they were aware that he was pouring huge amounts of money into the Super Tuesday project.”
Other executives faced a similar barrage of detailed questions and accusations.
National Foods managing director Jeremy Brooke, for example, was accused of inflating the price of flour his firm sold to bakeries. He was challenged on the price he bought and sold flour for, with officials producing documents that ostensibly showed two sets of accounts, one at the official retail price, and the other reflecting the higher price the flour was really sold at.
The National Foods chief defended himself, insisting that he had sold flour at the official price. His arguments made Vice-Air Marshal Henry Muchena so angry that he ordered him to leave the room.
Brooke was arrested later in the week on charges of breaching the price control legislation, and Mike Manga, who leads Blue Ribbon Foods and is also chairman of the Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe, was detained on similar charges relating to flour pricing.
IWPR’s source said all the businessmen summoned to the March 4 meeting were directly or indirectly accused of sponsoring the Makoni candidacy. Subtle threats were made that they should stop financing Makoni or face big problems.
The JOC made it clear it suspected that by maintaining shortages and covertly hiking prices, businesses were pursuing a political agenda of ensuring Mugabe and ZANU-PF lost the presidential and parliamentary elections.
“This was the highest level of intimidation to stop funding of Simba Makoni, “ said a top executive, who did not want to be named. “It has always been obvious that Simba had the support of the local businesspeople and it seems that they want to end that.
“ZANU-PF desperately wants to win, and losing is not an option. They want to make sure that in the period before the elections there is bread at reasonable prices and other foodstuffs that are currently in short supply.”
IWPR has learned from a different central bank source that Shingi Munyeza, chief executive of the Zimbabwe Sun Leisure Group, was called to a separate meeting at the Reserve Bank and threatened over his alleged support for Makoni. Both men come from Manicaland province.
“He was called in and told about all his financial support and contributions to the Makoni project and was obviously told to stop giving or else,” said the source.
Makoni is seen by many – including some former Mugabe loyalists - as a pragmatic politician who might offer a way out of the current impasse in which the president defies all domestic and foreign criticism of economic and social policies seen as disastrous.
With the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, unlikely to topple Mugabe, especially as the March 29 presidential, parliamentary and local elections may be less than free and fair, disgruntled ZANU-PF figures are believed to have decided an inside job was needed, devising what has become known as the “Makoni project.”
However, few big names actually raised their own heads above the parapet when Makoni went public with his election bid, presumably anticipating – correctly - that retribution would be swift.
Makoni’s biggest backer, retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru, is now under investigation for corruption.
In further efforts to frustrate the Makoni bid, two car retailers have been instructed to halt all sales until after the elections, so that the challenger’s campaign team cannot acquire vehicles. Fuel supplies have been earmarked for ZANU-PF campaigners.
All printing companies have been booked up by ZANU-PF so that the opposition cannot get material published. The MDC has had to get its election literature printed in South Africa.
Meanwhile, the authorities have invited foreign election monitors to watch the polls, but only from countries seen as friendly, in other words not the United States or European countries.
Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of a journalist in Harare.
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