Gono Car Perks Fiasco

Central bank governor ordered to request legislators to return cars he issued them.

Gono Car Perks Fiasco

Central bank governor ordered to request legislators to return cars he issued them.

Zimbabwe’s central bank chief has become embroiled in yet another controversy after issuing cars to parliamentarians without the approval of the finance ministry.

Gideon Gono, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, RBZ, has since been forced by Finance Minister Tendai Biti to write to the members of parliament asking them to return the cars.

Gono claimed the MPs approached him with a request for second-hand vehicles, which he said were gathering dust in the reserve bank car pool. He gave away at least 50 vehicles to legislators from ZANU-PF and both factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC-T, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and MDC-M, led by Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.

While MDC-T spokesman Nelson Chamisa told the media this week that “the loyal crop of our MPs” had since returned the cars, ZANU-PF MPs have vowed to keep them, claiming they need the vehicles in order to travel to their constituencies.

ZANU-PF MP Makhosini Hlongwane, chairman of the parliamentary committee set up to supervise the distribution of the vehicles, told state media on April 22 that his colleagues were not returning the cars, despite criticism by Tsvangirai that the issuing of the vehicles had not been procedural.

Gono has tried to put the blame for the fiasco on Biti. In an April 20 letter advising MPs of the finance ministry directive to return the cars, Gono ominously warned them that failure to comply with the order could result in the finance minister taking unspecified "measures that would be designed to ensure total compliance".

Analysts say this set ZANU-PF parliamentarians, who have always enjoyed publicly-funded perks despite the bankruptcy of the Treasury, on a collision course with the finance minister, who is expected to deal with the issue.

Further stoking already high emotions in the Government of National Unity, Hlongwane said ZANU-PF MPs will not return the cars unless all people who benefitted from the reserve bank’s quasi-fiscal policies return what they have received from it. Under a controversial farm mechanisation programme, government and party bigwigs were given expensive farm equipment paid for by the reserve bank.

Hlongwane’s statement drew an instant response from militant war veterans leader Joseph Chinotimba, who accused Biti of working to frustrate the coalition government and “disturbing the peace”.

The furore over the vehicles has added yet another twist to what commentators see as being an already fragile coalition at a time when outstanding issues of the global political agreement, which gave birth to the coalition, remain unresolved.

Deputy agriculture minister-designate and MDC-T national treasurer Roy Bennett is yet to be sworn in by President Robert Mugabe, while the recent trimming of Chamisa’s ministry by Mugabe early this month also threatens the coalition.

Mugabe removed the core of Chamisa’s ministry of information communication technology, including the regulation of telecommunications firms and their governing body, and handed it to ZANU-PF heavyweight Nicholas Goche, expanding his transport ministry.

Referring to the vehicles, “there was bound to be disagreement in these apparently small issues which the coalition could not have foreseen”, Thulani Mlalazi, a Bulawayo-based political commentator, said.

“These two parties have different approaches to how public funds must be spent, and it is no wonder then that the MDC-T has ordered its MPs to return the cars but with ZANU-PF legislators seeing the cars as an entitlement.”

The latest spat concerning cars for parliamentarians comes hot on the heels of a countrywide outcry after government gave top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz cars to members of the bloated coalition cabinet.

Effie Ncube, an activist working with a grassroots pressure group that seeks representation of the people in the writing of the planned new constitution, says disagreements over vehicles is distracting from more pressing matters.

“This is a bankrupt government that cannot even afford to finance the writing of a new constitution but all they can do is argue over cars – and we don’t know where the money came from to buy those vehicles,” Ncube told IWPR.

The issuing of cars has already been met with mixed reactions from both cabinet and parliament, with Education Minister David Coltart from MDC-M turning down the Mercedes Benz offer soon after his swearing as minister in February.

“I think there are more pressing issues that this government should be addressing than these cars,” Thomas Dzoro, a final year student at the National University of Science and Technology, reflecting the views of many ordinary citizens.

“Look at us, we are being denied the right to sit for our examinations because we have no money to pay for our fees and all they can talk about is cars, cars, cars.”

The government is expected to pay for the maintenance of vehicles issued to legislators, which could further deepen the country’s financial woes at a time the finance minister has called for thrift in government spending.

Biti has said the country needs at least ten billion US dollars to rescue the economy after years of economic stagnation blamed on the controversial policies of Mugabe.

Yamikani Mwando is a pseudonym of an IWPR-trained reporter in Zimbabwe.

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