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First Lady conflating party and State

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President Robert Mugabe’s spin-doctor — George Charamba — is a British-trained Chevening scholar, who has admirably shaped the president’s public image and runs the Munhumutapa Building communications office with aplomb.

By Gift Phiri

A jolly good fellow, he has achieved a meteoric rise as press secretary to the president and is credited with rehabilitating his tattered image.

The 93-year-old strongman avoids local mainstream private press reporters, staging events for lick-spittle television, now common presidential practice, which the nonagenarian usually charms with relative ease given their fawning questions.

Mugabe uses a deadly mix, he uses strong-arm tactics and legislation and also lures pliant reporters through soft power. In fact, media manipulation is a central focus of his administration, steered through Charamba.

Mugabe’s administration thrives on obstruction of inquisitive private press, accusing it of failing to protect national interests and executive privilege.

Charamba has accused the independent media of practicing a certain type of journalism he terms “ill-will journalism”, “which is really animated with unmitigated malice”.

“We have been observing a trend in the private media where there is a malicious targeting of the First Family,” Charamba told a pack of handpicked State media journalists travelling with the president during a two-day consultative visit to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in 2015. “It is not erratic, it is actually systemic and sustained.”

He has repeated this in meetings with editors at Munhumutapa Building — the citadel of government power — which I have been privileged to attend, complaining bitterly about the private press’ adverse coverage of the first lady.

To be fair to him, Charamba has protected the first lady to the hilt, using all his might.

It was therefore gobsmacking to see Mugabe’s wife on Saturday parading the presidential spokesperson before a Zanu PF rally that pulled in tens of thousands and demolished him for allegedly capturing the State-controlled Herald newspaper, fighting with ministers, ignoring her charity projects in Mazowe and portraying her party rivals in positive light in the listed State newspaper.

It is clear the first lady is subtly demanding that Charamba be sacked, but the president seems to retain the Information permanent secretary’s full confidence.

Given that Mugabe did not even respond to his wife’s rant during his two-hour long address that came just after Grace’s speech, it can be said with absolute certainty, that he will still be in his job this morning.

This whole mess needs to be cleared up. Firstly, the first lady says she has done a lot to bring Charamba closer to the first family “but you did not reciprocate, iwe, George”.

“You cannot separate the president and his wife. That is impossible!” she said while contemptuously wagging her finger. “I do a lot of great work every day. George uyu, I am the wife to his father, ava.

“He has never set foot in Mazowe to see what I do other than writing nonsense which has nothing to do with development. He knows I do great work but does not care.

“George, iwe, you are below ministers, you have no right to quarrel with a minister. If a minister is victimising you, you should tell the president.”

It is clear she is bitter that she has failed to influence content in State media. The Multimedia Investment Trust (MIT), the major shareholder in Zimpapers, was created to protect the public’s shareholding in the newspaper stable, with the Trust’s major mandate being that of protecting the papers from political interference as witnessed in Chinhoyi.

Grace seems exasperated that she cannot get a grip of the senior civil servant, who seems to be linked to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rival camp within Zanu PF.

By directing Charamba how to do his job, Grace — who is not a government official — is attempting to run the country outside of the constitutional structures. This would undermine the Constitution and would be profoundly undemocratic as the checks and balances and other safeguards on the exercise of power contained in the Constitution would become completely illusory.

If Grace were to be allowed to give direct orders to Charamba on how to run his department, she would in effect take over the running of the country and real power would reside in her and not in the constitutional structures.

Of course, this does not mean that her views must be completely ignored, she is after all a citizen.

But for Charamba to take direct instructions from Grace would completely conflate the MIT un-elected leadership of the governing party with government bureaucrats. Party and State would become one and the same thing and the Constitution would be worth no more than the paper it is written on.

It is against this background that attempts to tell Charamba what to do by Grace should raise serious concern.

Mugabe must recognise that this scandal is a symptom of a larger crisis.

This article was first published in the Daily News