Tendai Biti: A Brave Reformer in Mugabe's Zimbabwe

How can a politician bring about effective reforms while sharing power with Robert Mugabe?

October 20, 2009

How can a politician bring about effective reforms while sharing power with Robert Mugabe?

Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe's reformist finance minister, knows something about living on the edge.

In July, a brown envelope containing a live nine-millimeter bullet arrived in his mail. A message inside read, "Prepare your will."

In June 2008, the 43-year-old lawyer had arrived back in Zimbabwe from Johannesburg only to be arrested on charges of high treason.

After founding the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe's main opposition party, ten years ago, such troubles have become common in Mr. Biti's life.

Yet in February 2009, Biti was named finance minister as part of a power-sharing agreement cobbled together after Robert Mugabe lost the first round of the 2008 presidential election. The 85-year-old Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since independence from Britain in 1980.

A partner in a prestigious law firm, Biti has a keen legal mind and a reputation as a tenacious defender of human rights.

Despite enormous constraints and no background in economics, Biti is credited with significant achievements during his seven months on the job.

He threw out the worthless local currency and allowed Zimbabweans to use whatever money they choose, which turned out to be the U.S. dollar and South African rand. The result has been a revival in long-dormant economic activity and the return of food to previously empty store shelves.

Under Mugabe's bloated spending and botched land reform, Zimbabwe had descended into hyperinflation and economic paralysis. Inflation reached 500 billion percent in 2008.

Schools and hospitals closed. Unemployment reached 90%. Hungry Zimbabweans fled across the borders, mostly into South Africa. Landlocked Zimbabwe, similar in size to Montana and once a food exporter, may have lost a quarter of its population.

In early October 2008, London-based Euromoney magazine named Biti Africa's finance minister of the year. This action infuriated Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, which retains control of the central bank, judiciary, military and media.

Addressing prospective investors at this year's International Monetary Fund meeting in Turkey, Biti urged foreign businesses to come back to Zimbabwe, a land rich in minerals. He said the transition to democracy was a miracle and that an irreversible process had been set in motion.

While wishing him well, his attentive audience was skeptical, particularly since Biti himself voiced uncertainty about the future. He pointedly said that "politics remains Zimbabwe's number one problem and biggest threat."

In addition, he accused Mugabe of inflicting massive poverty on the people and "presiding over an unbelievable economic collapse." He said Mugabe continues to violate the power-sharing deal by holding on to the central bank and not replacing provincial governors.

Inside Zimbabwe, political tension is on the rise, and Mugabe loyalists are calling for Biti's resignation. On October 14th, Mugabe's Justice Ministry arrested the MDC treasurer, the designated deputy minister of agriculture. This action is designed to thwart Biti's plan to revitalize agriculture by restoring property rights and halting the illegal occupation of Zimbabwe's remaining commercial farms.

Two days after, the MDC responded by disengaging from participation in government and promising not to return until all outstanding issues are resolved. Mugabe's party, it says, has proven to be an unreliable partner.

In his talk to prospective investors, Biti was philosophical. "Politics," he repeated, "is choking us." To get across his point that the country needs to get rid of all the politicians, he laughingly quoted from Shakespeare's Henry VI Part Two, which makes the call to "kill all the politicians."

In today's Zimbabwe, Faust's pact with the devil is a more apt dramatic parallel. An expatriate businessman, fresh from a visit to family in Zimbabwe, believes Mugabe remains firmly in charge and that by entering into a coalition with him, the opposition has sold out.

Biti's memory of Henry VI Part Two also needs to be refreshed. In the play, the butcher Dick doesn't speak of politicians. Rather, he says, "the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

With his record in office and distinguished legal career beforehand, Mr. Biti's Freudian slip of mixing up professions deserves to be pardoned.

Takeaways

Inside Zimbabwe, political tension is on the rise, and Mugabe loyalists are calling for Mr. Biti's resignation.

An expatriate businessman believes Mugabe remains firmly in charge and that by entering into a coalition with him, the opposition has sold out.

In early October 2009, London-based <i>Euromoney</i> magazine named Biti Africa's finance minister of the year. This action infuriated Mugabe.