READING the late prolific Nigerian satirical writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s novel Prisoners of Jebs — a political and social commentary on post-colonial Africa — leaves one dejected by some of the injustices those in control sometimes visit on those that God and the gods have been cruel to place under their mercy.
In the novel, Jebs is an island prison off the coast of Nigeria set up by the then Organisation of African Unity where Africa’s elite political prisoners from all over the continent are detained in order for them to find solutions to the continent’s multifarious post-colonial problems.
By virtue of their numerical superiority resulting from the fact that Nigerians could trick their way into Jebs since, because of bad coincidence, the prison was located on Nigerian territory, Nigerians saw nothing in treating all other prisoners as natural inferiors who had to put up with whatever the majority hosts decided.
In order to relieve stress and boredom, one day the prisoners decided to play a football match … there were two teams … Nigerians and Others.
Halfway through the match, on realising that they were losing the match hands down, Nigerians decided to change the rules of the game.
They convinced the referee, one Joromi the Kangaroo — who happened to be in prison on a fact-finding mission — that there was no fairness in having a team counting as its own a goal scored by its player.
Instead, a team should have as its own goals those banged past their goalkeeper by their opponents.
And the rules immediately changed, the strident protests by the members of the Others notwithstanding.
With the sudden change of the rules, Nigerians were now leading. The Others stopped scoring goals in fear of guaranteeing the already leading Nigerians a surefire win.
But to team Others’ disbelief, the Nigerians started mercilessly banging goals home, with hordes of their supporters cheering them on.
At the end of the match, the Nigerians engaged the services of those of their own with appropriate throats, to vociferously demand that the traditional football rules that had been suspended half-way through the match be restored.
This effectively meant that their side had “won” the match against the Others resoundingly! Even the referee, Joromi, the Kangaroo, was left baffled.
While Zimbabwe might not yet be a fully-fledged macrocosm of Jebs, it however, increasingly appears to be one country where rules and regulations — most of which are as good as written in the sand — only apply as far as they do not seem to be inconveniencing those who are tasked with applying them.
Rarely does the leadership mean what it says, let alone say what it means.
At its second People’s Congress held in August 1984, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party — then in its apprenticeship days in power — formally adopted what was officially known as the Leadership Code, a set of rules and regulations that members of the party had agreed on right from the bush war days.
Being the last British African colony to gain independence, the country’s leadership had many heart-eating examples before their nose on how not to run a country.
These examples came from as far afield as India, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and many others.
They had seen for themselves how power, absolute power, corrupts absolutely. So they were determined to safeguard the nascent country from the folly of repeating the same costly mistakes that many other countries had made.
Hence this Leadership Code, which in essence was meant to act as blinkers so that an urge for primitive accumulation of wealth could not tempt, and therefore detract the leadership away from their primary duty of leading the people.
If this Leadership Code were to be dusted up for no-nonsense implementation today, 31 years after its formal adoption, the mass expulsions and mass suspensions taking place in ZANU-PF would not be necessary as everyone would be stampeding to leave the party on their own.
The Code precluded party and government officials from owning more than one house; from owning a piece of land that was more than 50 acres big; from owning shares in any business venture; and from being a director in any company.
The same Code made it a crime for a leader to behave arrogantly towards members of the public, to dress “slovenly”, to appear to be drunk in public, to indulge in sexual promiscuity and other acts of immorality among others.
These were ruling ZANU-PF apparatchiks that had written laws for themselves, but barely four years later, in 1988, Zimbabwe was rocked by its first major corruption case, the Willowgate scandal, which not only resulted in former senior minister Morris Nyagumbo committing suicide, but resulted in several Cabinet ministers and ruling party officials either being dismissed or jailed, if not both.
After Willowgate, the Leadership Code was quietly made to disappear as everyone who mattered seemed to have realised the dangers of having a country’s rules and regulations cast in stone.
Naturally this has led to the current situation in which laws are either applied selectively, changed or simply ignored out of existence.
The one-man-one-farm policy has been in existence even before the on-set of the country’s disastrous land reform programme, but it has not harassed the conscience of the country top leadership and their cronies, most of whom are proud multiple farm owners.
The very same senior government and ruling party officials are always at the forefront when it comes to threatening to punish those who are violating this rule, although everyone knows that nothing happens.
Only those that are thrown out of the ruling party’s fast-revolving door of favour like Didymus Mutasa, are quickly brought to the realisation that there are still laws and regulations in this country.
Recently, Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Minister, Ignatius Chombo, and other government officials called a press conference at which illegal vendors were given seven days within which to move to designated vending sites or else…!
To lend his ultimatum some weight, Chombo summonsed Provincial Joint Operations (JOC) Command member, Brigadier General Anselem Sanyatwe, who dutifully warned representatives of vendors’ associations to comply with the government directive without questions.
Said Brig Gen Sanyatwe: “Make sure that your people go to designated places. If they don’t, as JOC, we have nothing with vendors, we will deal with you. Hon Minister can we have a deadline when they will have done that? It can be a one week period or two weeks, but my view is that two weeks is too long!”
Zimbabwean opposition and human rights groups with appropriate throats made noises about the behaviour of a government that just unleashes its army on ordinary and suffering civilians as the first recourse.
This should have caused real embarrassment in some circles, prompting Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi to come out distancing the army from the operation.
The Herald, which had dutifully delivered the army threat to the people, turned around to blame the opposition and the private media of fabricating falsehoods.
“His (Sekeramayi’s denial) comments follow claims by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and sections of the private media which have been peddling false information that government planned to use soldiers to enforce a seven-day ultimatum for vendors to move from the CBD to designated sites.”
To the State media, there is almost no assault on common sense and common decency that cannot be justified.
The vendor menace only got worse after some senior politicians — for political expediency — lent the illegal vendors their full support, but they have since turned against them.
After the stand-off with the angry vendors — who were now asking uncomfortable questions about the delivery on the promise to create 2,2 million jobs that formed the basis of ZANU-PF 2013 election manifesto —the government decided to change tact fearing the sure loss of face that would have followed, and decided to play benevolent Big Brother.
The ultimatum was pushed back by another fortnight during which period the vendors would be registered and put in designated vending sites. Which is what the government should have done in the first place!
The last time government behaved in a similar way was in 2010, when it announced a blanket ban on importation of second hand vehicles older than five years and those with steering wheels on the left side.
One Cabinet minister after another queued for an opportunity to bang their desk with clenched fists as they emphasised how determined government was in reducing road traffic accidents and how the ban and the deadline were not negotiable.
Taking the threat seriously, Zimbabweans stampeded to import as many cars as they could before the ban became effective, and when the deadline arrived, the benevolent Big Brother appeared to have softened his heart and the deadline was moved back.
More and more cars were imported. Big Brother extended the deadline again and more and more cars were imported, and eventually in that spirit of magnanimity, Big Brother allowed himself to suffer amnesia and he completely forgot about the ban altogether.
But not before he had made a real killing on duty that the desperate motorists paid without question!
Reading the late American writer Barbara W Tuchman’s book, Sand Against The Wind, one comes across this paragraph: “Lung Yun’s (one Chinese provincial ruler before the revolution) resources for raising money were infinite. In one case he ordered that all two-wheeled carts, the common vehicle in the area, must be equipped with rubber tyres. He then opened his warehouse to sell the tyres he had confiscated during the days of traffic on the Burma Road. After that he passed a new law taxing all carts with rubber tyres…”
This sums up how political power allows leaders to get around some knotty situations by making, changing or simply ignoring rules and regulations with impunity.
When it became clear that alluvial diamonds were fast running dry in the secretive Chiadzwa (Marange) diamond fields, one morning Mines and Mining Development Minister, Walter Chidhakwa — in a move short of nationalisation — started his day by announcing that government was going to merge all the eight diamond-mining firms operating in the area.
Before anyone had made head and tail of what the minister was driving at, Murowa Diamonds — a private diamond firm jointly owned by Rio Tinto Plc and RioZim — had been roped in as it started emerging that government was desperate to get hold of machinery and technology suitable for underground mining of the diamondiferous kimberlites remaining in Chiadzwa.
In a no nonsense tone, Chidhakwa indicated that government would not accept any objections, adding that the State was ready to compensate mining houses that would not accept the new arrangement, after which they would be asked to leave the country.
“If you do not want to be in this company, we might have to work out ways, methods of parting ways (and) the kind of compensation that we need to give to those who many not want to participate in this company,” fumed Chidhakwa. Every smash- and-grab operation has to be accompanied by tough talk!
Just like in Jebs, the rules had been changed overnight and there was nothing the mining firms could do about it! In effect, instead of Chidhakwa punishing those fly-by-night firms that looted Chiadzwa dry, he is rewarding them with a stake in a bigger enterprise.
Chidhakwa was also reported recently as admitting that there was no way the country could have more coal mining operations in Matabeleland North. This is despite the fact that in 2011, the government collected millions of dollars from 85 prospective coal-mining firms that were invited to take up special mining concessions. He promised to refund them. Hopefully the companies involved —both foreign and local — do not feel used after being made to pay for bottled smoke!
While Chidhakwa was busy hectoring diamond mining house executives on the compulsory merger, his Information and Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services counterpart, Supa Mandiwanzira, was doing exactly the same to telecommunications firms as the laws had suddenly been changed and now required that the firms should, by force, share infrastructure.
The idea seemed to be simply to enable smaller players like the State-owned NetOne, which are pitifully lagging behind in terms of infrastructural investment, to ride on the back of others.
Since Operation Murambatsvina, a ruthless 2005 campaign that, according to United Nations estimates, affected at least 700 000 people directly through loss of their homes or livelihoods and thus could have indirectly affected around 2,4 million people, it has become easy for government to keep many citizens — especially the insecure home-seekers — in a permanent state of fear of evictions and fresh demolitions even though in most of the cases government and ruling party officials would have conducted ground-breaking ceremonies for these settlements.
One day fresh demolitions are threatened and after a few days, another government mandarin emerges to announce either a stay in the demolitions, or that the “illegal” settlements would be regularised. Usually nothing actually happens, as this is just meant to keep the concerned citizens in a constant state of fear and therefore in check.
Currently, the same government is threatening to ban kombis from the country’s public transport system. The pretext is to decongest central business districts of most cities. The government blames the problem on commuter omnibuses, instead of blaming itself for doing virtually nothing to upgrade the country’s road infrastructure in tandem with the increase in the vehicular population.
This threat, which would affect over half a million people whose livelihoods depend on this business and millions others who rely on these vehicles for daily transport needs, has been hanging over our heads for several years now.
The list is endless.
With law of the jungle seemingly being the law in Zimbabwe, the country does not seem to need any enemies to keep investors and development partners ashore.