Zimbabwe’s increasingly powerful finance chief set to retain post after election

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Ncube, who previously served as a vice president and chief economist at the African Development Bank, has had a mixed legacy as finance chief.

Zimbabwean Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube secured the ruling party’s endorsement to stand as a lawmaker in upcoming elections, a possible precursor to his reappointment in the next administration.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa tapped Ncube, a former Oxford University professor, to help revive an economy that fell into disarray during Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. The 2018 appointment was made under a law that gives the president the power to appoint as many as five people from outside parliament to the cabinet, and enabled Ncube to remain largely aloof from Zimbabwe’s fractious political arena.

That shifted in October last year, when Ncube was elected to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front central committee, its highest decision-making body, and Mnangagwa appointed him as the party’s deputy finance secretary two months later. Zanu-PF held primaries to select its lawmaker candidates over the weekend and Ncube was nominated unopposed to represent Cowdray Park, the largest constituency in the city of Bulawayo, underscoring his increased clout.

Zanu-PF has ruled the country since independence in 1980, retaining power through several elections that Western nations said were marred by rigging and human-rights abuses. The next vote will likely take place in July or August, and most analysts consider the prospect of the vote being free and fair, or of power changing hands, to be slim.

Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe in 2017, received the ruling party’s backing for a second-term in October and will face off against his arch-rival, Nelson Chamisa, who heads the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change. There are no obvious potential replacements for Ncube as finance minister from within Zanu-PF’s ranks as few of its senior officials have global financial or economic expertise.

The minister and Zimbabwe’s presidency didn’t immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

Ncube, who previously served as a vice president and chief economist at the African Development Bank, has had a mixed legacy as finance chief. He oversaw the reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar after a 10-year hiatus — a period during which the country mainly used the US dollar — but acceptance of the local currency hasn’t gained traction and the greenback continues to be used for most transactions.

Runaway inflation, which surfaced during the Mugabe era and led to the local currency’s initial scrapping, meanwhile staged a comeback under Ncube’s watch, peaking at 837% in July 2019. The adoption of a new gauge that reflects the increasing use of US dollars in the economy saw the inflation rate fall back to double digits this month.

Ncube was credited with running budget surpluses, which enabled Zimbabwe to spend more than $100 million to secure coronavirus vaccines mainly from China and placed it at the forefront of Africa’s response to the pandemic. The minister has also led the nation’s efforts to clear $17 billion owed to multilateral lenders, a prerequisite for it to be able to access new credit lines.

While Ncube “has worked valiantly to rescue the Zimbabwean economy,” he has had to operate within a highly irregular environment that renders his orthodox economic methodology ineffectual, said Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.