Adios 2015 – is 2016 a last chance saloon for Zimbabwe?

Adios 2015 – is 2016 a last chance saloon for Zimbabwe?

By Farai Murambiwa, HARARE, January 20 (The Source) - 2015 is one year many would choose to forget quickly. It was tough. So tough there is no shortage of those convinced that 2008 was a walk in the park. It was just one year that just refused to end quickly.

For some reason, time has a tendency to stand still when you are broke. The civil servants’ debacle did not help matters. Pay day is quite inventive in its ability to tear away from the present, more so when it’s a moving target as has become the norm in Zimbabwe.

Good riddance, be gone 2015 and let us number our days differently, maybe 16 is a lucky number. Who knows, we might end this year advocating that each and every year henceforth shall be 2016! I for one see light at the end of the tunnel because we have made so much progress in sorting out our mess and working with the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions to regularise our debt situation. It will be folly to throw all that away to settle political scores.

But if there is anything we have leant from history, it is that it seldom disappoints when it comes to repeating itself. The only insulation we have is to shout out about the folly in other people’s actions and hope that those in positions of authority will be shy to repeat their foibles.

South Africa's Jacob Zuma takes top spot as the biggest disappointment in the region. Words like comical, out of touch and dancing president are now used to describe him, and in my view he has earned every single one of them. Like Zimbabwe, South Africa had a tough 2015 needing nothing short of strong leadership to navigate. JZ chose what he knows best, just as he danced his way to power, Zuma did samba with simple figures in front of the whole world to laugh at and played Russian roulette with his cabinet appointments. Simple as these actions might look, they sapped all the confidence that anyone could ever have in Africa’s second largest economy and it shows in its rating as borrower of foreign currency, which is now just tad above junk status. The Rand itself wasn’t spared tracing the footsteps of the Kwachas of both Malawi and Zambia and very soon I am sure it will be spoken of in the same breath as the legend that is the Zimbabwe dollar.

Africa’s challenges are serious and needs people that are serious. In 2015, we have leant that if you are not serious about your challenges, markets show no mercy.

Kenya.  I personally celebrated when African sovereigns opened up the door to private capital via the issuance of Eurobonds. I envied several of our neighbours who embraced prudent fiscal management policies to raise the bar enough to access such funds. This bar was not so tough for Kenya which had captured the world‘s imagination having sprung from an ethnic cleansing debacle to quickly creating a track record of economic growth. Unbeknown to us these guys were borrowing on a hunch with no plan of how the money was to be used and accounted for. Just a year down the line people are already clutching at straws as they desperately try to manufacture projects to pass off as the destination of the Eurobond proceeds.

At the end of the day this looks like just another creative avenue by African bureaucrats to take from taxpayers with the same results that we have witnessed over the years. What a pity. Kenya has just done its bit in exhausting all the trust that the taxpayers could have ever had in such a useful development tool in an infrastructure hungry country.

Ethiopia is the country of the moment, probably the one very shining spot in the darkness that is Africa when we allow our worst to show. A colleague described it as an enigma! It has stolen all the thunder even from the usual suspects - Nigeria, Seychelles and Mauritius who have dominated SSA’s positive stories. It has its naysayers yes, but admirers are many as can be testified by the acres of stories glorifying its growth miracle. Ethiopia’s gift to Africa is the lesson that for a nation to prosper there has to be absolute clarity of desired targets and strategies to achieving them. Democracy, human rights and their relatives are good, but are neither guarantees or inhibiters to growth as is ably shown by the ‘Ethiopian way’. The means to reaching the end maybe crude, but you can only shoot what you aim at. One can thus major on avoiding all the don’ts, but without defining desired destination and identifying an avenue that suits your conditions to reach it, you may as well abandon the journey before starting.

It is my view that these few African stories can proxy Zimbabwe’s major issues going into 2016 and can thus help us see clearly what’s coming ahead of us. Clarity and consistency of policy has long been identified as the biggest impediment to turning our fortunes and I think Ethiopia is proof that this accession is true. In 2016, Zimbabwe is still issuing guidelines on an indigenisation law that was passed in September 2007. Almost a decade has since passed and our national aspirations still dance to the whims of the sitting minister. It is fair to propose that we are not yet clear on what we intend to achieve in this regard. We have ZIMASSET, later reduced to a 10-point plan.

Ethiopia’s policy might have suffered the same fate, but their setting required a different thinking – a command type economy. They ignored dissenting voices from the IMF and the World Bank, supposed islands of wisdom, and soldiered on  undeterred. Today the same institutions fall on each other to report on the Ethiopian miracle. We may have a wish list of what we want, a set of people mandated to put it into action, but falls short without having an appropriate action plan.

Often we hear processes are made inefficient in Zimbabwe for a reason. Loopholes exist because they have been meticulously planned by those endowed with sticky fingers as they create operating space and lead time to conceal their thievery. We are probably one of the most taxed lot on this planet and the most disheartening part is that most of the ‘taxes’ are personal projects of those leading government departments. What I have been struggling to reconcile is why does any government ministry or department that gets an allocation from Treasury still have the need, or power, to impose another tax of their own.

Why not leave finance minister Patrick Chinamasa to do his job and use a transparent budget process to specify what will be taxed and how the money will be used. Since dollarization, we have been fleeced big time. Number plates are the biggest rip off, as are taxes on fuel. Remember the tollgates, erected on roads built by taxpayers, whose fees have since doubled. The number of tollgates has increased significantly. It now costs me $16 in tollgate fees from Harare to Chivi, from nothing five years ago. The police have become aggressive and unreasonable over fines because they apparently have targets that have to be met on each day. If Treasury was the only entity allowed to collect all these taxes, this rent seeking behavior would have been in check.

People are smart and they adapt. Its making sense to collapse a tax paying company and serve clients from one’s back yard. No taxes, no compliance costs and no extortions. In 2016 revenue collection will be tighter although business activity will not decline much. Informalisation will accelerate and more and more people will opt for pay as you go taxes in the form of bribes. It is thus prudent to expect government’s ability to meet obligations, salaries include, to continue deteriorating.

Characteristics of people that are not serious are many and I herein enumerate just but a few. Fighting factional wars when you are the government of the day instead of getting on with the business of governing is not being serious. Critiquing government policy on social media when you have all the opportunities to do it behind closed doors is not being serious. It just shows that our government has become too fractured and incoherent. Forming opposition political parties every week and existing in perpetual election mode is not being serious. Acting indifferent in the face of a drought is not being serious.

We are majoring in trivia. Fail the IMF's staff monitored programme -- whose targets we set ourselves -- those who might have cared will become fatigued and in 2016 the number of listening ears will reduce significantly.

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