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Friday, 15 December, 2000, 15:38 GMT
Simba Makoni: Waiting in the wings?
Simba Makoni
His post as finance minister could be a poisoned chalice
By Grant Ferrett in Harare

Simba Makoni is the most popular figure in a deeply unpopular government.

Appointed in July following the country's bloodiest and most divisive general election campaign since independence two decades ago, he's widely liked and respected.

A recent opinion poll suggested that Simba Makoni was the most serious challenger to Mr Mugabe's leadership among ordinary Zanu-PF members

Friends and critics alike agree that he's extremely clever and has a reputation for integrity.

The puzzle is why he accepted the almost impossible job of finance minister at a time when the economy is collapsing and shows every sign of getting worse.

Rise - and fall

By the standards of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, Simba Makoni has reached high office at a relatively young age.

Compared with President Mugabe and his two vice presidents, all of whom are in their late 70s, Mr Makoni is a youngster at just 50.

Burning barricade erected by rioters
Economic disaster has prompted riots
While the party old-guard were fighting the liberation war in the 1970s, Simba Makoni was studying chemistry in Britain, gaining a BSc and a PhD.

But as well as being a student, he went on to represent Zanu in Europe.

He clearly made an impression.

When the first post-independence government was formed, Simba Makoni was appointed deputy minister of agriculture. He was 30.

Over the next four years he served as minister of energy and of youth before abruptly leaving government.

"He was too hot to handle," says one long-time associate.

"He was too clever and too young for the older members of the party.

"They wanted him out of the way."

High profile

Mr Makoni was down but far from out.

He became Executive Secretary of the Southern African Development Community, (SADC), a job which he says required "a fine balance between high principles and pragmatism".

As, in effect, the most senior civil servant in the organisation at a time when regional and world attention was focused on ending apartheid in South Africa, Mr Makoni gained a great deal of international experience and exposure.

"He learnt a great deal," says one colleague.

"He returned to Zimbabwe a far sharper and more polished performer."

Return to the fold

President Mugabe's decision to appoint him as minister of finance was welcomed on all sides, but it carried risks for both men.

In giving a very senior post to someone of such obvious popularity and relative youth, Mr Mugabe has invited unfavourable comparisons.

Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe has so far averted the threat of a leadership challenge
A recent opinion poll suggested that Simba Makoni was the most serious challenger to Mr Mugabe's leadership among ordinary Zanu-PF members.

Among fellow party politicians he's regarded with a mixture of respect and mistrust.

"He's very good, very committed to the party and the country," says former Information Minister, Chen Chimutengwende.

But when asked whether he is presidential material, Mr Chimutengwende and other senior party figures refuse to comment.

Dangers of office

The danger for Mr Makoni in accepting President Mugabe's offer is that some of undoubted hostility felt towards the government, particularly in Zimbabwe's towns and cities, will be directed towards him.

"There's a dangerous myth that this country can be saved by Simba Makoni," says opposition spokesman, Learnmore Jongwe.

"He's nothing to write home about.

"His fundamental weakness is that he has no political base.

"He was appointed by President Mugabe, and therefore he'll always be grateful to him for that.

"He's part of the system of patronage."

And why did Mr Makoni accept the job?

"Simple," says a business colleague and ardent Makoni admirer.

"To get to the top. He is a politician through and through."

See also:

15 Dec 00 | Africa
Mugabe maintains hold on party
13 Dec 00 | Africa
Zimbabwean white farmer shot dead
03 Dec 00 | Africa
Mugabe warns against legal action
08 Aug 00 | Africa
Summit backs Zimbabwe over land
26 Apr 00 | Africa
Who owns the land?
14 Dec 00 | Africa
Mugabe criticises 'white enemy'
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