By Andrew Kunambura
HARARE – Chiefs, who had earlier threatened to boycott their annual conference demanding brand new cars, farms and an increase in their allowances, will today take on President Robert Mugabe, hoping he will press his administration to cough up.
Once described by President Mugabe as “paragons of virtue,” the traditional leaders are disgruntled by the way government has been handling their affairs of late. The chiefs, who consider themselves equivalent to parliamentarians, argue that while government has been generous to Members of Parliament, it is reluctant to extend the same treatment to traditional leaders.
Last month, the Financial Gazette broke the story that chiefs were threatening not to attend the conference unless their demands were met. In addition to new vehicles, the chiefs also want to be exempted from paying road user fees, commonly known as tollgate fees.
Recently, the conference was hanging in the balance as the chiefs were demanding an audience with President Mugabe first. When this failed, it was then resolved that they go ahead with their annual conference and use the indaba as a platform to seek audience with the ZANU-PF leader.
This was after an emergency crisis meeting held on Monday. President of the Chief’s Council, Fortune Charumbira, presided over the meeting at which the traditional leaders summoned Local Government Minister, Ignatius Chombo, to try and resolve the impasse. Charumbira presented the chiefs’ grievances to Chombo who, in turn, assured them that President Mugabe was ready to meet them.
“We are asking for an increase in the chiefs’ allowances which have not been increased since 2011 while those of our partners, the civil servants have been increased on several occasions since then,” said Charumbira. The last time their allowances were increased, Charumbira said was in 2009. The chiefs, who are currently on US$300 per month, want their allowances raised to US$800.
Chombo, in assuring the chiefs, urged them to prepare their grievances and present them to the President when he graces their annual conference today. He told the chiefs that they should be ready to pour their hearts out. “You must prepare all your grievances and present them to the President on Thursday. I will have a meeting with him before he comes to the conference and brief him on all the issues and by now I am sure he is ready to meet you. I do not know how he will handle your issues but he will certainly use his wisdom to help you out,” said Chombo.
The Local Government Minister raised the chief’s expectations when he said the President would not neglect them on the issue of their allowances. “Ever since, the chief’s allowances have not been increased from the office of the Minister of Finance but it has always been from the mouth of the President so on Thursday, go and openly present all your issues to him,” he said.
Chombo also said the issues of whether or not the chiefs are entitled to permanent remuneration will be sorted out at the conference. He also told the chiefs that government was making plans to ensure that they receive cars on a seven year loan scheme in which a percentage of their allowances would be deducted towards the purchase of the cars.
“Unlike MPs who are in office only for five years, the chiefs serve till death. That is why we are making an arrangement for a longer loan scheme of seven or so years with relaxed insurance terms so that you would be able to execute your responsibilities more efficiently. The current Traditional Leaders Act states that the chiefs are entitled to an allowance, which is contrary to Chapter 15 section 284 of the new Constitution which states that “an Act of Parliament must provide for the remuneration and benefits of traditional leaders to be fixed with the approval of the President given on the recommendation of the minister responsible for finance after consultation with the minister responsible for traditional leaders.”
The demands by the chiefs, if met, could exert further pressures on the fiscus. Early this year, government increased salaries for civil servants against advice from one of the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund. Ever since the salary increments were effected, Treasury has struggled to pay the government workers on time. The ruling ZANU-PF government has operated a convoluted benefaction system that derives its strength from traditional chiefs, war veterans, youths and women, among other interest groups.
While this intricately woven network has ensured ZANU-PF’s survival in the rough and tumble of Zimbabwean politics, it has also exposed the ruling party to inflated demands from these groupings which it can no longer afford to ignore. In 1997, the veterans of the 1970s war were given Z$50 000 in gratuities each by President Mugabe’s government after embarking on a series of protests.
The unbudgeted payouts that amounted to US$2 000 saw the Zimbabwe dollar losing its value by 70 percent in one day and analysts say the move signalled Zimbabwe’s well documented economic collapse. Now 16 years later, the ageing veterans argue that the government was meant to have paid them Z$500 000 each in 1997 but up to date they have not received the balance.
Apart from money, the war veterans are pressing for diamond mining concessions and parliamentary seats. They contend that a diamond mining licence would form part of an income generating project for their members. Financial Gazette