Last week (September 9) the executive board of the International Monetary Fund voted for the third time in 18 months to postpone the expulsion of Zimbabwe for non-repayment of overdue loans. From Washington, VOA's Barry Wood has more on the dispute.
It might have been just another ordinary meeting of the 24 executive directors who represent the 184 member countries in the IMF. Several other agenda items were discussed before the meeting turned to the managing director's recommendation that Zimbabwe be expelled for non-payment. At that point Zimbabwe's central bank governor was invited to speak. IMF spokesman Tom Dawson says it is unusual but not unprecedented for a central bank government to address the executive board.
"In terms of a country making its case in the context of compulsory withdrawal, there have been few cases where compulsory withdrawal has actually come to a head," Mr. Dawson says. "But I do believe…It is established under our rules that the representative of the government can and indeed has the right to speak to the board, or come to the board of governors, in certain cases to make their case."
Gideon Gono, now in his second year as governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, had flown to Washington from Harare for the occasion. Earlier that Friday he had been with European and African directors, urging them to vote no on expulsion. After all, only one country, communist Czechoslovakia, had ever been expelled from the Fund, and that was in 1954. In his presentation to the board, Mr. Gono conceded that while Zimbabwe was technically guilty of violating IMF rules, it should be given more time to put its financial house in order. Zimbabwe, he assured board members, was on a turnaround journey and bold measures would be put in place to bring down a 300 percent inflation rate and revive an economy that has shrunk by 40 percent in six years.
Speaking to VOA's Zimbabwe service, Mr. Gono said he was thrilled when the board deferred expulsion for another six months.
"It was a very humbling moment indeed," he says. "It is difficult to express the feeling of joy and relief. But also the feeling of the weightiness of the decision and the responsibility that lies ahead are some of the issues that I still carry that are memorable."
George Ayittey, a Ghanian-born economist and professor at Washington's American University, says the IMF made the wrong decision.
"No, no. The IMF should have pulled the plug on Zimbabwe," he says. "Even the South Africans wouldn't extend aid to Zimbabwe. I don't know what the IMF knows that the South Africans don't know. The economy of Zimbabwe has literally collapsed. Any reprieve or extension to Mugabe only helps keep the (ruling) Zanu-PF in power. And I think most Zimbabweans will oppose any life-line to the corrupt and dictatorial regime in Harare."
Zimbabwe has been in trouble with the IMF since 1999, when the Fund ceased lending because its policies were not being followed. In 2001 Zimbabwe stopped making loan repayments. Two years later the IMF stripped Zimbabwe of its voting rights. In 2003 it began the process of expulsion.
On each of the three occasions that Zimbabwe avoided expulsion, it made partial repayments, gestures intended to avoid complete isolation from the financial community. This time, the payment was big-$120 million. Bankers in southern Africa wondered where destitute Zimbabwe came up with the money. Central Bank governor Gono says Zimbabwe chose to make a payment to the Fund instead of importing food.
"This money is ordinary funds that would normally have flowed into the coffers of the central bank," he says. "And with it we would have done a lot. For instance, $120 million would have bought one million tons of food, enough to feed the people of Zimbabwe for eight months. Two months of fuel, or drugs, and so-forth. But we decided to sacrifice, a deliberate decision that these inflows were not going to be used for consumptive purposes, but to defend the integrity and membership of the country."
Zimbabwe's permanent secretary of agriculture, Simon Pazvakavambwa, has said the country has only three weeks of food supplies.
IMF spokesman Dawson was asked whether the IMF is concerned about where Zimbabwe got the money for the payment.
"Some of the press stories indicate that they came from export earnings that had not yet been remitted to the government. But that's all I know on that," Mr. Dawson says. "They did, as I noted, make the payment."
Mr. Gono says Zimbabwe will pay off its remaining arrears (175 million dollars) in 2006.
He also gives some hint of what he calls the bold measures that will be implemented to reactivate Zimbabwe's economy.
"I cite a good example, say, of agriculture," Mr. Gono says. "In agriculture we need to move with speed to bring to full utilization the land that is now in our possession. We need to curb aspects of corruption that are endemic in the economy. We need to be transparent in everything that we do. We need to be consistent in implementing the policies we would have agreed. And not implement policies one day and reverse them the other day."
To critics, these are empty promises that have been made repeatedly since 1999. President Mugabe, currently in Cuba, continues to denounce the IMF while Mr. Gono says IMF membership holds the key to Zimbabwe's future prosperity.