Corruption and incompetence do not matter if the president knows he can count on you.
One of the most difficult feats a minister in President Robert Mugabe’s government can ever achieve is getting sacked from the Cabinet.
For all his public flogging of his ministers – and he has had many of them – he has never been one to fire them, even in cases of obvious incompetence and proven corruption.
In 2008, he said his Cabinet then was the “worst in history. They [only] look at themselves; they are unreliable.” But many of those ministers still form the core of his current government.
So when he ranted recently about his information minister, Jonathan Moyo, calling him a “weevil” out to destroy Zanu-PF from within, Moyo would have experienced only temporary discomfort. A public berating by Mugabe is not fatal.
After all, did Mugabe not publicly call out Godwills Masimirembwa, an appointee at a state company, describing him as corrupt? But months later, Masimirembwa has been awarded a plum gig as the chairperson of the Central Mechanical Engineering Department – another parastatal.
People rarely resign from Mugabe’s government either.
In September last year, Mugabe announced his Cabinet after keeping the nation waiting for a month. Because of the delay, there was a lot of speculation. Perhaps he was clearing out the deadwood, many speculated. Perhaps he would replace his old guard with younger, cleaner cadres to quickly take charge of the top priority of mending the economy.
But, when the Cabinet was announced, it was merely a reshuffle of the old heads – selected, Mugabe said, partly because of the regions they came from.
Fire ministers for corruption? Show me the evidence, Mugabe told journalists last year, as ministers sauntered around the green gardens of State House at the swearing-in ceremony, congratulating each other on keeping their jobs.
Months earlier, a report by the Harare City Council had found that Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo had profited from illegal land deals. In 2007, a recording emerged in court of Chombo allegedly demanding a bribe from a bus supplier. He was never charged, even though the evidence led to the conviction of the head of the bus company Zupco.
All this, and revelations by Chombo’s estranged wife that he has more than 100 properties, was not enough to sway the president.
“People expect me to act on corruption. They say so-and-so has emerged rich, has bought houses and is corrupt without proving it. How do you prove they stole? We cannot victimise people because there is an appearance of a person prospering,” Mugabe said.
As a result, whatever he says in public and whatever revelations of corruption and incompetence are made in public, ministers know it would take something really bad to be sacked. So, very few of them resign even when exposed as being corrupt or incompetent – or even when berated by Mugabe in public.
But there have been a few exceptions. In 2000, under pressure over a fuel crisis, then energy minister Enos Chikowore resigned. “Having considered the prevailing problems, the honourable thing for me to do is to resign with immediate effect,” he said in his resignation letter.
The public welcomed the move but his colleagues must have collapsed into their leather chairs with laughter. Had Chikowore chosen to stay, ignoring the long fuel queues and the economic toll the crisis had, he would most likely still be a minister today, enjoying all the trappings of power. Instead, he stepped down and died in penury years later.
A lesson to all: there is no honour in taking responsibility for failure.
In 2001, the industry minister, Nkosana Moyo, a technocrat brought in from outside the party to lead economic recovery, quit the government after failing to force through reforms. He also could not get backing to end the invasion of factories by party activists.
Soon after his resignation, Mugabe called him a coward.
In 1996, Edmund Garwe quit as education minister after his daughter was found in possession of exam papers. Since then, worse scandals have engulfed current ministers but Mugabe has remained loyal to them.
In 2010, Lovemore Kurotwi, the head of a diamond mining firm, told a court he had written to Mugabe detailing how then mines minister Obert Mpofu had demanded a $10-million bribe for a mining licence. A day after sending the letter, Kurotwi was arrested on charges of defrauding the government.
Mugabe has never questioned Mpofu, who famously signs letters to Mugabe as “your ever obedient son”. It is, perhaps, in Mpofu’s fawning sign-off that the answers to Mugabe’s loyalty to his ministers are to be found.
It matters little to Mugabe that, increasingly, his public criticism of officials is received with only amusement and mockery. What really matters to him is the enduring loyalty of those around him.