Biti courts military

HARARE - Finance minister Tendai Biti has ramped up next year’s defence spending to $356 million in a move that lifts the Zimbabwean military from four years of neglect and underfunding.

For the first time, Biti has not just increased the military budget in his 2013 spending plan unveiled in Parliament on Thursday, but also ramped it up by a tenth as much as the inclusive government had ever spent in a single year.

The defence forces, which used to receive the lion’s share of the national budget during Zanu PF’s 28 years of exclusive rule up to 2008, had complained bitterly that the “pittance” given to the ministry of Defence by Biti made the country vulnerable to both internal and external aggression.

Given that the $3,8 billion 2013 national budget is almost equal to this year’s $4 billion budget, it means Biti will have to trim $40 million from other ministries to bankroll defence spending.

For Biti, secretary-general of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, who has centred so much of his political persona on reforming the Zimbabwean military and curtailing its spending, the budget marks a reversal.

The defence budget was  $194 million in 2011, increased to $318 million in 2012 and then shot to $356 million in 2013 — now the third highest allocation after Education and Health.

Biti allocated $1 billion to Education — the biggest vote — and the international community is funding 50 percent of the $380 million health budget.

Officials in Biti’s own party have been uneasy about the ramp-up in defence spending.

Eddie Cross, MDC policy director-general, for instance, said the allocation was too big.

“I think the minister has done a good job allocating scarce resources, though the ministry of Defence got too much money and I was unhappy about that,” he said.

The spending growth announced on Thursday will be welcome news to a military which has persistently raised concerns about missing its recruitment target, and failing to revive fighter tanks which have been immobile for years due to lack of oils, and servicing.

Biti’s volte-face follows fierce run-ins with the Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa in June in the Council of Ministers, when Tsvangirai watched in consternation as Mnangagwa threatened Biti after he turned down his demand for an additional $2,5 million from the fiscus to bankroll salaries of 5 000 new army recruits.

Mnangagwa has said he has had to restrain angry generals from going to confront Biti at his New Government Complex offices because soldiers were going dangerously hungry in cantonment areas around the country and the commanders were at risk because of the “paltry” defence vote.

While seemingly buckling under pressure and increasing defence spending, Biti however, maintained on Thursday that all recruitment by the army and all other government departments remains frozen.

“In order to gradually move towards the international best practice thresholds of seven percent of GDP and about 30 percent of the total budget on the wage bill, government will continue to maintain the freeze on recruitment, save for case by case special dispensations on critical areas,” Biti told Parliament.

The budget boost is going to have a really significant impact on the military’s ability to conduct its missions.

A recent parliamentary portfolio committee on Defence and Home Affairs lamented dwindling defence spending, which it asserted “threatens Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over land and air space.”

The report, containing submissions by Martin Rushwaya, the permanent secretary for the ministry of Defence, says the previous allocations to the ministry was grossly inadequate and was bankrolling  service salaries only, leaving very little for recurrent and capital expenditures.

The committee said ZNA equipment, which has become obsolete and costly to maintain, had remained in a state of disrepair because of the funding shortfall.

“Furthermore, ongoing construction projects which had stalled at various levels of completion will remain stagnant,” the portfolio committee report says.

“The dilapidated ZNA infrastructure remains a critical area in terms of renovations and the maintenance of vehicles whose servicing backlog dates back a number of years.

“This has adversely affected the availability of commuting transport for members of the army.”

It is not clear if the 2013 allocation will be enough “to meet operations and scheduled training of 5 000 recruits and 200 cadets,” as requested by Rushwaya. -
Gift Phiri, Political Editor

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