With Adolph Hitler preoccupied with the war, Heinrich Himmler focusing on the “final solution” to the Jewish question in Eastern Europe, and Hermann Goring’s power declining with the failure of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Goebbels sensed a power vacuum in domestic policy and moved to fill it.
For his pains, Goebbels was named by Hitler in his will as a successor although he died a day after the despot’s demise.
Could history be repeating itself in the form of the rise of George Charamba (pictured right), a civil servant who doubles as President Mugabe’s spokesman who last week “dared” Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to discipline him? Tsvangirai is yet to take up the challenge.
Charamba challenged Tsvangirai over the signing of a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (Bippa) with South Korea two weeks ago, describing it as unprocedural, a non-entity and “mock exercise”, prompting the prime minister’s office to publicly rebuke him.
To many observers Charamba’s statement was a show of the power he wields and how he has followed in the footsteps of the likes of Goebbels, Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell and Saddam Hussein’s Muhammad Saeed al Sahhaf (Comical Ali). Campbell wielded so much power in British politics that he was assumed to be Tony Blair’s de-facto deputy ahead of John Prescott.
In a normal situation it would have been shocking to hear Charamba, who is also the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity, challenge Tsvangirai to discipline him “if he had the capacity”. Charamba has been cited as an outstanding issue blocking the Global Political Agreement.
Analysts said what was at stake was not whether procedure was followed in the signing of the Bippa, as this could have been normalised without resorting to the public sphere, but an exercise in power between the presidential spokesperson and the prime minister’s office.
Charamba, because of his privileged position where he meets the president regularly, knows the inner workings of government and gives behind-the-scenes insight in his newspaper columns, analysts said. But these should not be used against principals in the Government of National Unity, they quickly add.
It is not without precedence that a spokesman becomes very powerful and exercises as much authority as the principal. Presidential spokesmen have access to all types of information from intelligence reports, economic reports, political reports, government documents at various stages of preparation, diplomatic reports and military information which makes them “information rich”.
The information power that spin-doctors hold, analysts said, should be kept within the confines of government as flaunting it dents public confidence in the partners to the GNU, in the case of Zimbabwe, as well as the capacity of policymakers to revive the fortunes of the country.
Analysts said it was proper that one looked at the structure of government which gave civil servants room to reach out of their limits with no immediate action being taken against them.
Former civil servant, academic and author of various books on public policy, politics and security, Ibbo Mandaza, said there was a problem in the set-up where Charamba doubles as presidential spokesperson and permanent secretary.
“It is unprecedented that a permanent secretary would (openly) challenge the prime minister,” said Mandaza who also runs the Southern Africa Political Economic Series Trust, a research and publishing think tank based in Harare.
Mandaza said there was no need for the public spat as “ordinarily such concerns (about the signing of the Bippa) should be raised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Trade and Industry and Cabinet”.
“They (the ministries) would have a basis for raising such an issue. However, where is George Charamba getting instructions from?” he asked.
Another analyst, Trevor Maisiri, director and founder of African Reform Institute, a local think tank, concurred with Mandaza on Charamba’s “very confusing role in government”.
Maisiri, who has published a number of papers on politics, governance and leadership, said it would be possible to relate Charamba’s interaction with the prime minister if “we were clear on his official position in government”.
For Maisiri, Charamba should choose between being the presidential spokesperson and speak in representation of the president “with the dignity befitting the office of a head of state”, and leave government business alone.
“However, if he were to be the permanent secretary, he would then be totally subordinate to the prime minister’s office as his boss at the ministry (the minister) would be working under the supervision of the Premier,” said Maisiri. “His role is confusing and he seems to be in a free-fall role that allows him to operate as he will.”
Psychology Maziwisa, analyst and interim leader of the Union for Sustainable Democracy, said Charamba’s outbursts have cause and effect on Zimbabwe’s foreign relations on the international scene and should be checked before it sours such relations.
Charamba’s conduct, the analyst added, was also a reflection of the power relations in the GNU and how the political construction (GNU) was operating.
Maziwisa said Charamba’s “breathtaking insubordination is as provocative and deliberate as it is sanctioned and well-calculated”.
“Mugabe and Zanu PF have been unashamedly engaged in some kind of progressive destructiveness ever since the advent of the inclusive government and this has now progressed to alarming proportions,” said Maziwisa. “They will not apologise for it. The stakes are just too high for that.”
The recent spat between Charamba and Tsvangirai, Maisiri said, was a sign that the GNU was not working as it should and there was no likelihood that it ever would.
Maisiri added that it was time to retire the “dysfunctional coalition experiment”, predicting that there would be increased defiance of the terms of the GNU by Zanu–PF.
There were others who differed, saying what Charamba was doing was a further trajectory of the conflicts within the GNU, especially around accusations that MDC-T was running a parallel government.
“The issue is not how Charamba interacts with the prime minister but it is about how the prime minister interacts with the president,” said John Kanokanga, an analyst who also heads Zimbabwe Movement for Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, an advocacy organisation.
“Remember recently when the Iranian President visited Zimbabwe the prime minister embarrassed the President and it would appear the permanent secretary is taking the position that ‘You embarrassed my boss and it is my turn to embarrass you’ (tit- for- tat).”
Charamba is an enigma to many because of his powerful position as his voice may be that of the president and many people would not tell when he speaks for himself or his principal.
Apart from his outbursts against Tsvangirai, Charamba is also held as a kingmaker although he may not be a king himself. This stems from the contagion power he oozes after his regular interaction with President Mugabe, the most powerful person in Zanu PF and government.
His abilities as kingmaker were evident six years ago when he was fingered in the futile Tsholotsho meeting which sought to derail Joice Mujuru’s ascendancy to the post of vice-president in Zanu PF.
Despite these signs of power, there are observers who say it is exaggerated as it has no basis beyond his proximity to those in power and bureaucratic influence he wields as a senior civil servant.
It would be easy to bridle the errant bureaucrat, whose delimitation of power was confined to his office as his is not an elective post, and stop him from undermining the function and spirit of the GNU, said analysts.
Maisiri said Charamba’s case was reminiscent of Jonathan Moyo’s exploits between 2002 and 2005 when he was a cabinet minister who also doubled as spokesperson for government and Zanu PF.
“During that period Moyo found himself with too much room in government to an extent that he became an institution unto himself,” said Maisiri.
What remains is that Charamba, given the power relations in the GNU and the structure of government which allows him to head a ministry and at the same time speak on behalf of the president, would continue denigrating senior government officials.