By Ranga Mberi
Fortune Chasi, the new Energy and Power Development Minister, will not miraculously solve the Zimbabwe fuel and power crisis. But what he can do is to communicate it better than his predecessor did.
At the centre of the fuel crisis is a serious foreign currency shortage. Foreign credit lines for fuel are now overextended and suppliers want guaranteed payments before releasing fuel.
Fuel pricing is distorted and it is burning a hole through State finances, yet the last attempt to fix it in January ended with deadly riots. The industry itself is controlled by powerful cartels, who will resist any attempts to loosen their grip.
In terms of power, years of underinvestment and corruption has left the country with obsolete plants. A drought has reversed the wins of one of the few successful “mega deals”, the Chinese expansion of Kariba South.
Chasi is a genuinely affable character, who slides comfortably in between a Zimdancehall recording booth at Chill Spot records in Mbare, a ZANU PF grassroots meeting at Manzou grounds in Mazowe, and in the corporate boardrooms.
His Twitter timeline has drawn adoring fans, even from among opposition followers, who call him “Chibabest”. He’s done so well communicating government’s road rehabilitation programme that many of his online followers even credit Chasi personally for the roadworks.
But Chasi cannot tweet away the fuel and power crisis. If anything, now that he’s in charge of a ministry that affects people’s mood directly, he has been handed a poisoned chalice and his fine run as a ‘Twitter fave’ may well be over.
This is a different ball game altogether.
What he can focus on now, however, is to bring some honesty to a Ministry that – from sleazy Samuel Undenge to blundering Joram Gumbo – has been a haven of deceit, corruption and lies.
Under Undenge, inept cronies got tenders that they never deserved.
Gumbo never took to the role with the caution and responsibility required. Never one to play for the team, he was always quick to remind the public that his job was just to bring fuel into the country. Paying for it was Mthuli Ncube and John Mangudya’s business.
So, referring to the fuel held in bond locally waiting for payment, Gumbo would often declare, much to everyone’s annoyance: “There’s plenty of fuel in the country.”
Then there would be the times he made big promises that he could not meet. In February, Gumbo told Senate: “I was invited by the President today to a meeting where there was the RBZ governor Dr John Mangudya where I was shown several payments made by the central bank to procure fuel. I was shown payments that would cover the next 24 months.”
The headlines that followed – “Enough fuel for two years” – further enraged those stuck in the queues.
Gumbo ran several hare-brained excuses for the fuel crisis; one day, it was all due to panic buying caused by social media, and the next day, it was because industry was doing so well that fuel consumption was going up.
Chasi’s in-tray is full; solve the power and fuel pricing puzzle without causing upheaval, clean up the messy energy tenders, shepherd the Hwange expansion to completion, create a renewable energy policy, and generally keep the lights on and the cars moving.
He will need to fix fuel procurement. He was legal counsel at RBZ in the Gideon Gono era, when central bank became central in fuel procurement and so will be familiar with the intricacies of that broken system.
None of all this will happen overnight. Without forex, no miracle will happen, whoever is in charge.
What is achievable quickly, though, is learning from Gumbo’s failures. Sometimes, all people want is to hear the truth. They want to feel that leaders actually care. ZANU PF’s list of excuses, and big promises that come to nothing, is long. Not many still have the patience for any more of them.
If you cannot solve a crisis, at least communicate it better. For now, that’s all “Chibabest” Chasi can and must do.