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Will Mugabe Reward Venomous Mouthpiece?

Zimbabweans fear president’s vicious spin-doctor, George Charamba, will become new information minister?
By Hativagone Mushonga
With the recent death of Tichaona Jokonya, who had been minister of information in Robert Mugabe's government for a short period since last year, Zimbabweans have been speculating intensely about who will take over one of the most powerful ministries in the land.

Many fear the successor might be George Charamba, the ministry’s venomous permanent secretary.

Those who have had close dealings with him talk of an easy-going and humorous man, but Charamba's acerbic tongue and policies speak only of a man of spiteful character.

Charamba had remained quietly in the background until 2000 when he acquired a new and very aggressive boss, Jonathan Moyo, appointed information minister as Mugabe sought to revive his fortunes after seeing his popularity plunge in the midst of a debilitating national economic meltdown.

The 43-year-old Charamba, who used to get on well with journalists, has lately become a grumpy spin-doctor battling hard to please his political masters in the face of growing resentment by Zimbabwe's citizenry against the ruling party's corruption and increasingly destructive and disastrous policies.

"He seems not to be his own man," said Farai Mutsaka, former chief reporter of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily until it was closed down in 2003 by Moyo, who sent in armed police to expel staff from their offices and seize computers and other equipment. Two years earlier, operatives from Mugabe's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation planted a bomb that destroyed the paper's printing presses.

"Charamba was friendly and a nice guy before Moyo came, but he's now vicious to the private media and has not even made life easier for the journalists in government media," said Mutsaka.

International figures, too, are frequently subject to his verbal lashings.

Charamba accused a western diplomat of wandering in parts of Harare's Botanical Gardens where "so many of our youthful citizens have been deflowered, lured by the greenback from generous and flaunting foreigners not given to enjoying sex the conventional way".

When he further told United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently that he was no longer welcome to the country to pursue a "stale" mediation mission, it became abundantly clear that Charamba was intent on proving himself Mugabe’s most robust and loyal propagandist.

In June, Charamba contradicted his superiors - Jokonya, Moyo's successor, who died on June 24, and his deputy Bright Matonga - when he announced the government's withdrawal of its invitation to Annan to visit Zimbabwe. Mugabe had invited the secretary-general to personally assess the impact of the government's widely condemned Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth) - the mass demolition of the homes of opposition supporters in urban areas that the UN said had left more than 700,000 people homeless.

The increasingly paranoid ZANU PF government decided that Annan's visit might be used to pile pressure on Mugabe to quit.

"As an information permanent secretary, Charamba has managed to confuse journalists and ministers alike by pretending to espouse the views of Mugabe when in effect he is given to talking in his personal capacity," an executive member of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, who asked not to be named from fear of victimisation, told IWPR

Charamba was a close collaborator with Moyo, whose full-blooded propaganda war against the private media was credited with saving Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party from the jaws of electoral defeat in 2002 and 2005 at the hands of the opposition.

Charamba and Moyo together are notorious for having crafted the Orwellian 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA, which dictates that journalists who work without the approval of a Mugabe-appointed media regulator - a notorious Mugabe ally named Tafataona Mahoso - can be imprisoned for two years. Opponents of the government allege that AIPPA and the equally draconian 2001 Broadcasting Services Act and the 2003 Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (Commercialisation) Act were specifically designed to silence private media critical of the increasingly autocratic Mugabe.

When Moyo brought the AIPPA to parliament, the chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, the late Dr Eddison Zvobgo, a senior ZANU PF deputy and long-serving government minister, said, "I can say without equivocation that this bill, in its original form, was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution in the 20 years I served as cabinet minister."

Charamba has boasted that he is proud to be associated with AIPPA, although the law has seen four newspapers - the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune and the Weekly Times - being banned since 2003 under the act's provisions. In addition, AIPPA has been used to harass and arrest hundreds of journalists who have been branded "ignorant" and "unpatriotic" by Charamba.

"Charamba, like Moyo and Tafataona Mahoso, believes the current crop of journalists cannot [produce stories] in sync with the thinking he

misconstrues as national interest," a veteran journalist based in Harare told IWPR.

Another local journalist added, "He is not different from Moyo and Mahoso, since all three of them display evil characteristics, worrying [little] about the impact of their actions on Zimbabweans."

Charamba's ministry, especially during Moyo's five-year ministerial reign, wasted no time in setting the police on journalists and filing huge lawsuits over seemingly harmless stories. But for now he seems to have decided to confine his war against the media, government critics and opposition politicians, as well as the West, to press statements and articles in the state media as he builds his own political profile in search of ministerial office.

Moyo, now an independent legislator since Mugabe fired him, said in a recent newspaper column that Charamba "regularly violates his civil service oath [of independence] and obligations" by writing the virulent Nathaniel Manheru column in the government-owned Herald newspaper.

Moyo warned that if Charamba repeated attacks on him in the Nathaniel Manheru column he would reveal many things, "including how Charamba attempted to murder his wife in cold blood and how that attempted murder has been covered up … This is not a threat but a promise".

In recent columns, Charamba/Manheru has labelled Mavis Makuni, an intelligent and trenchant critic of the Mugabe government with the weekly Financial Gazette, a "menopausal columnist".

And in an extraordinary attack on the country's non-government organisations, on whom the populace is increasingly dependent for survival, Charamba/Manheru said they are "depressed bipeds who crave, feed and fatten on human tragedies, much the same way maggots grow white-fat on decaying carcasses … Their mission for governance pits them against the governors of this land on behalf of bitter Blair [British prime minister Tony Blair, President Mugabe's top foreign hate figure]".

Charamba's political ambitions are among Zimbabwe's worst kept secrets, but he will find it hard to rise through the ranks of ZANU PF where the old guard is now wary of "young Turks" after Moyo's meteoric rise nearly destroyed the veterans' stranglehold on power.

However, Charamba seems not to be as shrewd and calculating a schemer as Moyo was. He has clashed with senior ZANU PF officials, and this will hamper his political ambitions. Moyo has also implicated him peripherally in the so-called "Tsholotsho declaration", a meeting in Moyo's rural Tsholotsho constituency in western Zimbabwe where the possibility of a coup against Mugabe is alleged to have been discussed in December 2004. The meeting led to Moyo's sacking and to that of several other high-ranking ZANU PF officials.

"Charamba emerges as a government official stung by his failure to land a substantial ministerial post in the post-Moyo era," said one analyst. "He tries hard to build a profile of an individual capable of defending Mugabe's policies to the hilt, expecting due notice from the president for his efforts."

In the early 1980s, Charamba was a protégé of the late Canaan Banana, Zimbabwe's former ceremonial president when Mugabe led the country as prime minister. They met at the University of Zimbabwe where both were taking karate lessons. After Charamba graduated with a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in English, Banana recruited him into State House as a press and information officer. When the titular presidency was abolished and replaced with the executive presidency, Charamba remained at State House when Mugabe moved in.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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