‘Let everything burn’ – Scorched earth politics in Zimbabwe

By Ranga Mberi

WHEN Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, announced plans for a US$400m investment into Zimbabwe, the reactions in the country were instructive.

Great news, one would think, especially with Zimbabwe being the region’s laggard in attracting investment.

But this is Zimbabwe, an angry country.

Reaction to the Dangote news told a story of a nation that, in its war with its government, is also separately at war with itself.

On one hand, you had the pro-government commentators, as expected, hailing the Dangote interest (yes, it was merely a show of interest), as if it was the Second Coming. Much like they had done with the Russia/China “mega deals”, pro-government analysts painted an image of Dangote as the saviour Zimbabwe’s struggling economy had been waiting for.

On the other hand, the opposition commentators had equally strident views.

“Dangote is a smart entrepreneur,” frothed Obert Gutu, spokesman for the opposition MDC-T. “He won’t invest in a corruption-infested, lawless country. Forget it.”

Responding to Gutu, one person said: “He (Dangote) won’t invest in Zim, or you wish he won’t?”

More likely the latter.

It was all very instructive on sentiment in the country.

Such is our bitterness, after years of disappointment and endless crises, that we are angry, even at good news. Because, in our politics-obsessed environment, any investment into one’s country is seen an endorsement of one political view over another.

This thinking is, in a twisted way, shared by supporters of the two dominant political groups in Zimbabwe.

Investment into the country must either be an endorsement of “ZimAsset”, according to the pro-government crowd, or, according to the other lot, it is “propping up the regime”. For the latter group, investment must not happen at all, “forget it”.  The whole idea behind the “don’t invest in my country” phenomenon is based on this one assumption: if money does not flow into the country, things will get so bad this government that we despise so much will collapse. If Zimbabwe is starved of any trade, aid or investment, the suffering will, eventually, get so worse that the government will have to admit failure and simply give up power.

One person commented: “If I could, I would convince God not to send rain in Zimbabwe as long as Zanu-PF is still there. We need them out.”

The idea is that poverty is a weapon to drive out governments. It is a scorched earth approach to opposition politics – let everything burn.

Frankly, knowing our African governments as we all do, this is a fallacy. The truth is, wealthy ruling elites are the last to suffer from the absence of investment, or rain. Personally for them, it is a mere inconvenience. There is rarely any personal loss. For ordinary folk, however, a new factory is a job, and a livelihood.

If anything, we should have learned by now that poverty only entrenches those in power, as the poor become more dependent on them for sustenance.

Those opposed to investment under governments they dislike believe all investment must wait at the border until they assume power.

And when they do, a loud magic trumpet will sound and, somehow, those businessmen who have been waiting outside will suddenly come rushing in, as if they do not have elsewhere to go.

The government, on the other hand, wants us to believe any new investor that shows even the most nominal of interest has bought into their philosophy, and bought into it so much they even want a party card and the party T-shirt to go with it.

The truth is money simply goes after money. Dangote, for instance, is invested in over a dozen countries. He has factories from Douala in Cameroon to the Republic of Congo, where President Denis Sassou Nguesso has recently removed term limits and extended his over three-decades in power.

He is invested in countries that rank high on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, and in countries, such as Ethiopia, where over 500 opposition activists have been killed since November 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.

Dangote will go where his money leads. If Zimbabwe’s bumbling bureaucrats mess it up, as they are wont to do with their policy inconsistencies and graft, he will go elsewhere.

And it will be because he cannot make money in Zimbabwe, and not because he has some lofty views on our politics.

Truth is – and this is a simple truth that may shock many politics-obsessed party activists – the world does not revolve around our politics.

We need to get over ourselves, and fast.