ANALYSIS | Anxious and Soda: What ED’s new Cabinet picks say about him

Anxious Masuka, left, with President Mnangagwa in 2018 (pic: Jeoffrey Ncube - 263Chat)

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has made two Cabinet changes that throw contrasting light on his leadership.

First, Mnangagwa fired Energy Minister Fortune Chasi, just as the Minister was out in the public fighting ZESA executive chairman Sydney Gata over claims of corruption. Chasi’s “conduct of Government business had become incompatible with the President’s expectations,” a statement said. No detail was given.

In Chasi’s place is now Soda Zhemu, MP for Muzarabani North, who is so little known that there has been a hunt online for pictures of the man. The only account of Zhemu’s professional record, given on the Parliament website, is that he worked as an accountant at Cottco Sanyati and as a regional manager at another cotton company until he retired in 2017.

In July, Chasi ordered the ZESA board to investigate allegations of corruption against Gata. However, Gata moved swiftly and fired the board instead. But on August 6, Mnangagwa then suspended Gata and gave the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission four weeks to investigate Gata.

Gata himself, through proxies, has alleged Chasi had corruptly benefited from ZESA, including having air tickets paid for by the company. There are also suggestions that Gata and Chasi clashed over the controversial Gwanda solar project, where Chasi wanted Wicknell Chivayo to be allowed to continue with the project. Gata is said to be opposed to it.

However, with no other information given on his firing, Chasi’s sacking reflects badly on Mnangagwa himself. Worse, Zhemu as a replacement looks like a case of picking a random name from a hat, as long as it is someone who can be bent easily.

Inside ZANU PF’s Mashonaland Central structures, Zhemu may not be so anonymous. In 2018, a month after elections, Soda said “even God himself had confirmed the presidency of Emmerson Mnangagwa”. In his own election, Zhemu got 17 098 votes against the rival MDC-Alliance candidate’s 1 161.

So, from a distance, it looks like Mnangagwa has, yet again, just gone for a loyal man who won’t question his decisions, as Chasi did on Gata.

There is also internal party politics at play. Mashonaland Central, for long a bastion of support for ZANU-PF, supplying such national leaders as Joice Mujuru, Chen Chimutengwende, Border Gezi, Elliot Manyika, Nicholas Goche Edward Chindori-Chininga, Chris Kuruneri and Saviour Kasukuwere, has looked decidedly lightweight of late. Perrance Shiri, the province’s leader since 2018 until his recent demise, was not from there and many were unhappy about that.

While removing Chasi, who is also from Mashonaland Central, Mnangagwa had to look within the province, or risk further alienating an already disenchanted key voting region. Home Affairs minister Kazember Kazembe, a Cabinet novice, is the only other minister from the province.

In February 2018, Mnangagwa was forced to make three additional Politburo appointments from Mashonaland Central, after the political leadership in the province protested at being overlooked.

Not so anxious

Then, there was the not-so-bad appointment. Anxious Masuka, Mnangagwa’s new Agriculture pick, is not as surprising as the one at Energy, at least on the face of it.

Masuka is widely respected in the industry. He is an academic who has written extensively on farming and forestry. More importantly, he has served in the private sector as Chief Operating Officer at ZSE-listed agro-processor Ariston, and as CEO of the Zimbabwe Agricultural Society (ZAS). So, he knows farming.

However, as many technocrats appointed to key offices in this government have found out many times, it’s not just the qualifications that count. Masuka takes over a Ministry that needs not just industry expertise, which he has in abundance, but strong political clout.

The man Masuka is replacing, the late Perrance Shiri, was at his death panned by political opponents, given his role in Gukurahundi and the military. But he was also praised by farmer groups, including the Commercial Farmers Union, once a foe of the Ministry.

What Shiri lacked in professional qualifications – and Masuka has piles of those – Shiri made up for in political influence, and Masuka doesn’t have a lot of that.

Shiri’s political clout allowed him to push through changes that were welcomed by many in the industry.

In John Basera, Masuka will find a competent Secretary at the Ministry. Appointing Masuka shows that Mnangagwa, while still a political animal as ever, still has some respect for professional competence. But it will take more than that.

Masuka’s in-tray is full of key issues that will need his qualifications, definitely, but also some political muscle. After three successive droughts, Zimbabwe is badly short of grain and needs a plan, quickly. In addition, Shiri was driving the farm “downsizing” programme, a politically dicey plan to cut farm sizes.

He backs cutting farm sizes, but wrote last year, in a ZAS report, that “generally, land availability remains the least impediment to increased production”. Instead, he said, it was the lack of funding and technology.

Energy and Agriculture are two key ministries.

Ministers don’t always need to be experts in the fields they are running, although they need some policy clarity and competence.

The Zhemu and Masuka appointments show what it takes to get into, and to stay in, a Mnangagwa Cabinet. Firstly, those who are loyal will be rewarded, but they need to stay in line. Secondly, technocrats are welcome, but they need their own political clout to survive.