FINANCE minister Tendai Biti this week came under ferocious fire from political principals of the inclusive government and his ministerial colleagues at a heated high-level meeting over his controversial bid to strip President Robert Mugabe of regulatory powers vested in him by the Exchange Control Act.Biti was attempting to acquire the powers through clandestine amendments to the Act, his critics charged.
The no-holds-barred attacks on Biti, who has become the most powerful minister since the coalition was formed last year, widened cracks within the shaky government which is locked in a low-intensity internal strife due to incessant power struggles between parties and individuals across the political divide. Biti has previously been accused by his MDC-T colleague Eliphas Mukonoweshuro of behaving like a “super minister”.
Informed sources told the Zimbabwe Independent that Biti was savagely attacked at the meeting at Munhumutapa Building over his attempts to amend the Exchange Control Act — a move described as “treasonous” by Zanu PF political zealots — and by the principals and other ministers.
Those who took turns to round on Biti include Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, deputy premier Arthur Mutambara, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Patrick Chinamasa, Welshman Ncube, Nicholas Goche and Joseph Made.
Biti last week tried to manoeuvre through parliament amendments to the Exchange Control Act contained in the Finance Bill which would have resulted in Mugabe’s regulatory powers in the Act being transferred to himself.
The Exchange Control Act confers powers and imposes duties and restrictions in relation to gold, currency, securities, exchange transactions, payments and debts, and import, export, transfer and settlement of property.
The original Act confers these regulatory powers on the president, but Biti’s amendments proposed shifting these functions to the minister.
Biti also wanted to make amendments to change the law which says that no person could sit on more than two boards of state entities to ensure that a person could sit on up to three boards. The amendment was seen as a partisan attempt by Biti to justify the appointment of Charles Kuwaza to three boards.
Kuwaza is deputy chairman of the Reserve Bank board and chairman of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and State Procurement Board.
Kuwaza has been under pressure to resign from one of the boards. The issue became more urgent due to his vicious boardroom infighting with central bank governor Gideon Gono.
After Biti’s amendments were heavily criticised by Zanu PF senators on Friday last week even though they had been manoeuvred through the House of Assembly through threats of expulsion and inducements for MPs, the issue was taken to government’s critical Tuesday meeting of top policy-makers and debated there.
Sources plugged into the meeting said Mutambara provoked the storm when he said that there was a problem in parliament last week over the issue of the budget because, besides the Appropriation Bill which legalises the ministerial and other financial votes or allocations, there was the controversial Finance Bill which sought to make material amendments to the Exchange Control Act.
Mutambara was said to have told the meeting Biti had said he had permission from Mugabe and Tsvangirai to make the amendments.
“After Mutambara had spoken, Mugabe came in and said he had not authorised Biti to make those amendments. Tsvangirai also said he had not given any permission to Biti to do that,” a senior government official said.
“That provoked a hornet’s nest. A barrage of attacks then rained down on Biti from Mnangagwa, Chinamasa, Ncube, Goche and Made. Basically, ministers who are lawyers led the charge and Biti was cornered. However, Biti distanced himself from the amendments claiming it was his ministry’s officials who did it and only owned up to the ‘Kuwaza clause’ in the amendments.”
Lawyers said Biti’s amendments were unprocedural as they were not approved by cabinet. “The procedure if a minister is introducing any Bill, he or she first presents the principles of the Bill to cabinet for approval,” one official said. “After that the process moves to the Attorney-General’s office drafting and then it comes back to the cabinet committee on legislation before being taken to cabinet and tabled in parliament,” the official said. “If it’s a Finance Bill it comes from the Minister of Finance and goes to the president and prime minister for approval before going to parliament because of the nature of the issues it would be dealing with which is basically tax-related matters.”
Sources said Biti shirked responsibility over the Exchange Control Act amendments during the intense exchanges, saying he was not the one who initiated them. This was however rejected by the principals and ministers who thought Biti was only trying to disown his initiatives.
But sources said Biti fought back and warded off criticism by those who wanted to question his credentials and motives. “He was cornered but did not take it lying down,” one source said. “He fought back although he was defeated because it was resolved he should revoke all his amendments to the Exchange Control Act and the ‘Kuwaza clause’.”
The sources said Biti has been arguing that the Exchange Control Act amendments were not that consequential because of the multi-currency regime and were in line with international best practice. On the Kuwaza issue, Biti has reportedly argued that the amendments were necessary because Kuwaza was “competent and effective”. Repeated efforts to get comment from Biti failed yesterday.