Tendai Biti: Brave Reformer in Mugabe's Zimbabwe

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe's reformist finance minister, knows something about living on the edge. In July, a brown envelope containing a live 9mm bullet arrived in his mail. A message inside read, "prepare your will." A year earlier the successful 43-year-old lawyer arrived back in Zimbabwe from Johannesburg only to be arrested on charges of high treason.

A partner in a prestigious law firm, Biti has a keen legal mind and a reputation as a tenacious defender of human rights. Ten years ago he was a founder of the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's main opposition party.

In February, Biti was named finance minister, as part of a power sharing agreement cobbled together after Robert Mugabe lost the first round of the 2008 presidential election. The 85-year-old Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since independence from Britain in 1980.

Despite enormous constraints and no background in economics, Biti is credited with significant achievements in seven months on the job. He threw out the worthless local currency and allowed Zimbabweans to use whatever money they choose, which turned out to be the US dollar and South African rand. The result has been a revival in long-dormant economic activity and the return of food to previously empty store shelves.

Under Mugabe's bloated spending and botched land reform, Zimbabwe had descended into hyperinflation and economic paralysis. Inflation reached 500 billion percent in 2008. Schools and hospitals closed. Unemployment reached 90%. Hungry Zimbabweans fled across the borders, mostly into South Africa. Landlocked Zimbabwe, similar in size to Montana, once a food exporter, may have lost a quarter of its population.

This month, London-based Euromoney magazine named Biti Africa's finance minister of the year, an action that infuriated Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, which retains control of the central bank, the judiciary, the military and the media. Addressing prospective investors at this month's International Monetary Fund meeting in Turkey, Biti urged foreign businesses to come back to Zimbabwe, a land rich in minerals. He said the transition to democracy was a miracle and that an irreversible process had been set in motion.

While wishing him well, his attentive audience was skeptical, particularly since Biti himself voiced uncertainty about the future. He pointedly said that, "politics remains Zimbabwe's number one problem and biggest threat." He accused Mugabe of inflicting massive poverty on the people and "presiding over an unbelievable economic collapse."
He said Mugabe continues to violate the power-sharing deal by holding on to the central bank job and not replacing provincial governors.

Inside Zimbabwe, political tension is on the rise and Mugabe loyalists are calling for Biti's resignation. On October 14th, Mugabe's justice ministry arrested the MDC treasurer, the designated deputy minister of agriculture, an action designed to thwart Biti's plan to revitalize agriculture by restoring property rights and halting the illegal occupation of Zimbabwe's remaining commercial farms. The MDC on October 16th responded to this latest outrage by disengaging from participation in government and promising not to return until all outstanding issues are resolved. Mugabe's party, it says, has proven to be an unreliable partner.

In his talk to prospective investors, Biti was philosophical. "Politics," he repeated, "is choking us," and we need to get rid of all the politicians. He laughingly quoted from Shakespeare's Henry VI: "let's kill all the politicians."

In today's Zimbabwe, Faust's pact with the devil is a more apt dramatic parallel. An expatriate businessman, fresh from a visit to family in Zimbabwe, believes Mugabe remains firmly in charge and that by entering into coalition with him, the opposition has sold out.

Biti's memory of Henry VI also needs to be refreshed. In the play, the butcher Dick doesn't speak of politicians. Rather, he says, "the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

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