HARARE, October 10 (The Source) – On September 27, a panicky Patrick Chinamasa, then finance minister, threatened to tighten government controls on social media, blaming it for fuelling shortages of basic commodities and bank notes in the country after a weekend of panic buying.
At the time, the United States dollar was selling for up to 1: 1.8 against Ecocash, RTGS and the government’s latest creation, the bond note. The long winding queues — reminiscent of the 2008 crisis – had resurfaced as people stocked up on foodstuffs and service stations across the country ran dry.
“The cause was social media, which means that it is a security issue. There is a political agenda, a regime change agenda. We are going to seriously look at what happened with a view to take corrective measures in the security arena,” he thundered then.
“We need to understand social media and the forces behind it…they have given us a timely warning about their intentions and clearly we will take the necessary measures to counter those nefarious activities.”
Fast forward to two weeks later, Chinamasa’s principal, President Robert Mugabe, had created a new cyber security Ministry that will focus on crimes on the internet ahead of an election due next year, and made Chinamasa superintend over it.
From the head of Treasury to policing social media, it appears that Mugabe is not without a sense of irony.
Chinamasa, a lawyer, was a surprise pick for the finance portfolio following Zanu-PF’s 2013 election victory that signalled the end of the coalition government with the rival Movement for Democratic Change formations.
The market viewed him as a good pick, a rational guy who would make bold decisions. He had served as an acting Finance Minister when the government made its first steps towards dollarization before the advent of the coalition government in 2009.
But it is that boldness that has seen him relegated to the backwaters of the Cabinet.
Chinamasa was practical, and doggedly pursued re-engagement with the western funders but was hemmed in at every turn by Mugabe. He watched as the government ran a cumulative budget deficit of more than $3 billion since 2014, funded through local borrowings, which have compounded a foreign currency crisis and fuelled inflation.
In 2015, he announced a ‘Cabinet decision’ to freeze bonus payments, which would have taken some $200 million off its huge wage bill over three years.
Mugabe, who was away at the time, called the decision ‘diabolical and disgusting’ even as Chinamasa was at the time, in New York for a round of meetings with multilateral finance institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Chinamasa apologised for his ‘mistake’ despite the fact that Cabinet had in fact discussed and approved the measures.
Still, he persisted. For the 2016 budget, he proposed more austerity measures to shave off $170 million off the annual government wage bill through the reduction of ward staffing levels for the youth and women’s ministries as well as agricultural extension workers.
He also proposed to stop paying salaries for teachers employed by private schools, cancel allowances for student teachers and review the vacation leave policy for the education sector.
In September last year, Chinamasa — who insisted that Zimbabwe was ready to take the pain of the reforms — announced austerity measures which included job cuts, suspension of civil servant bonuses (again), wage cuts among others.
Four days later, Chris Mushowe, then information minister, released a statement saying Cabinet had never approved Chinamasa’s proposals.
He got the message: there was no room for ‘bookish economics’ in Mugabe’s government.
After the latest spate of price increases, panic buying and the threat of shortages, a rattled Mugabe promised tough action.
At a Cabinet meeting on September 27, Chinamasa clearly did not play ball, saying in Parliament last week: “I told Cabinet that I am opposed to the reintroduction of price controls; they will worsen and exacerbate the situation. We must handle it in a market-friendly way and I think it can be done.”
It’s worth noting though, that the government has a love-hate relationship with social media after movements such as #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka used social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to organise the biggest anti-government protest in a decade last year.
The social media battlefront is proving harder to suppress and is stretching the government’s standard response of teargas, boots and batons.
Chinamasa is now expected to lead government response, likely through the new Cyber Crimes Bill that criminalises false information posted on the internet and online activity against the government.
In an interview with Capitalk Radio recently, Chinamasa admitted he was not into social media. He will need to learn it fast.
It is unclear how he will deal with the obvious overlap into Supa Mandiwanzira’s ICT Ministry, which up to now has been driving the Cyber Crimes Bill. It is a conflict waiting to happen.
Chinamasa is, by most accounts, a loyal, diligent man with a thick skin. Such traits will serve him well in his new posting. Given his stated dislike of social media, it may yet prove to be his calling.