SW Radio Africa (London)

31 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Biti On the Defensive After Being Slammed for 'Empty Coffers' Statement

Finance Minister Tendai Biti has been put on the defensive in the wake of stating that the government's coffers were running on empty, a statement that has seen him being slammed from different quarters.

Biti told journalists on Tuesday that, after paying civil servants salaries last week, only US$217 remained in the government's public account. He said this was the reason why he was looking to international donors for funding ahead of a referendum and an election.

"The government finances are in a paralysis state at the present moment. We

are failing to meet our targets," Biti said.

The revelation of the desperate state of Zimbabwe's economy was reported across the world. But a day later, Biti changed his tune and accused journalists of deliberately taking his comments "out of context."

He told the UK's BBC that he made the comments in order to emphasise that the government was unable to finance elections, not that it was insolvent. Biti said his statement was 'metaphorical'.

"You journalists are mischievous and malicious - the point I was making was that the Zimbabwean government doesn't have the funds to finance the election, to finance the referendum," he said.

He added: "To dramatise the point, I simply made a passing reference, metaphorically, that when we paid civil servants last week on Thursday we were left with US$217... but even the following day we had US$30 million in our account."

Biti's turn-around is believed to be a result of castigation from both his colleagues in government and others. The state media, in particular, immediately used the opportunity to slam Biti for trying to "create a false state of insecurity." The state broadcaster, ZBC, said this was "a reflection of his party's fear of elections."

The ZBC quoted political analysts as saying that Biti's comments were a "clear testimony of his party's failure to deliver on its promise to secure financial aid from their western masters."

Political analyst Clifford Mashiri said that the situation has exposed the hypocrisy in government, which has repeatedly said it has no money for elections. He said while some Zimbabweans might "feel offended" that their Finance Minister has announced how desperate things have become, "this is no different to begging for international support to civil servants salaries."

Mashiri said that Biti's comments regarding the media's role in the situation are concerning, because it comes so soon after the Minister reportedly threatened to sue the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper. Biti and Chamisa have both reportedly threatened the paper with litigation over a news story it published, and have been criticised by media groups for this behaviour.

"Biti has lost the plot in engagement in attacks on the media. He is playing a dangerous game by turning the cannons on the media and it is the worst thing he can do," Mashiri said.

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