HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Gideon Gono prints money, lots and lots of money that's worth next to nothing. Depending on whom you talk to, the architect of Zimbabwe's hyperinflation is a megalomaniac, a workaholic, a thief -- or the country's savior.
Zimbabwe's central bank chief seems to have a finger in every government ministry. No project goes ahead without his approval. No underling approaches without fear and trembling.
He makes no apologies for his furious money-printing, as the country, mired in disease and hunger, inflation beyond calculation and political crisis, keeps on spiraling downward. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures, he says.
The 49-year-old former tea boy, target of Western economic sanctions and confidant of President Robert Mugabe has made more enemies in the ruling ZANU-PF party than any other senior member. And some people think he may be its weak link. But for now, it's his obsession with photo ops and his autocratic control over government affairs that dominate.
One pro-ZANU-PF banker shudders while recalling Gono's summons of top banking officials to his office in early December. It was a made-for-television ambush. As the cameras rolled, Gono berated the bankers for releasing new bank notes a day before their launch.
They weren't even his employees, but he fired them anyway. On television. But Gono wasn't done with them. The lobby was full of police waiting to arrest them when their elevator opened on the ground floor.
"I had to sleep on the floor in the cell," the banker said, deeply shaken, two days after his release on bail. "I've never slept on the floor in my life. There was water dripping everywhere." He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his trial.
As pressure on Gono has grown with the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, he has blamed banks, the stock exchange, black market currency dealers and insurance companies. As well as firing the bankers, he blacklisted 20 investment companies and froze their accounts.
As a survival tactic, it has worked. Despite the highest inflation rate on Earth, estimated by independent economists in at least quadrillions of percents, Mugabe recently reappointed Gono for another five-year term. It sparked as much outrage in the ZANU-PF as it did in the opposition.
"Not only is he destroying the country, he is destroying the party," growled one senior ZANU-PF official.
Gono employs florid, indignant rhetoric and wears a large, flashy gold watch. When he strides into the bank at his usual breakneck pace in the morning, there's a flurry of panic. A security guard who fails to open the door before Gono reaches it faces certain punishment and possible dismissal, according to one Reserve Bank manager. The manager, who like others interviewed for this story, is afraid of getting fired and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gono usually works until midnight. Under his leadership, the Reserve Bank has taken on myriad tasks unrelated to central banking: buying government cars, supplying farm equipment and fertilizer, setting up and supplying "People's Shops" to sell cheap goods, setting up foreign currency shops, supplying medicines to state hospitals, mobilizing rigs to drill bore holes for clean water in the cholera crisis and a biofuels project, to name a few.
"He's now like the head of state. He's reaching almost everything," the manager said.
"People fall over each other to please him and some get hurt in the process, and he likes that. He likes that attention. He likes power," said another Reserve Bank employee. "He's very vindictive. He can hold a grudge for weeks."
Like Mugabe, Gono blames Zimbabwe's ills on Western sanctions. U.S. and European countries imposed bans on senior officials, preventing them from traveling to or doing business with the West. Gono is among those under sanctions.
The Times requested a phone interview with Gono but did not receive a response.
Rejecting what he calls "traditional" economics (like the principle that printing money endlessly causes runaway inflation), he contends that printing money is actually a form of "sanctions busting."
"I must reiterate that I am going to print and print and sign the money until sanctions are removed and there is balance-of-payments support. It's a commitment I am ready to be fired for because we need money for infrastructural development," Gono said, quoted in the government-owned Herald on Oct. 1.
But the senior ZANU-PF official scoffs at that argument. "If the money was being provided to build hospitals, schools and roads, it might be sanctions busting. But it's being used for conspicuous consumption. Everywhere you go there are Mercedeses."
Gono's own website, www.gideongono.com, gives a taste of the Reserve Bank governor's ego, charting his course from tea boy and cleaner at a provincial brewery to becoming one of the most powerful men in the country.