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Ozias Bvute - The power behind the throne

We profile Ozias Bvute - perhaps the real power within the Zimbabwe Cricket Union

Steven Price

What does the future hold for Zimbabwe's long-suffering supporters? © Getty Images
The crisis which is threatening to destroy cricket inside Zimbabwe took another twist in Harare yesterday, when the ICC hearing into allegations of racism levelled against the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) was halted before it had really got under way. The problem was that many of the witnesses refused to testify in the presence of three ZCU officials, and the one who caused the most alarm among those ready to face the hearing was Ozias Bvute.
Bvute is something of a mysterious figure. Enquiries as to his exact role within the ZCU produce little of any substance, and repeated requests to the board for clarification remain unanswered. Even getting hold of a photograph of him is impossible. Officially, Bvute is the head of marketing, but like so much in Zimbabwe, the title appears barely to hint at his exact role within the organisation.
Several sources said that anyone visiting the board's offices in Harare recently were left in no doubt that while Chingoka was in London on ICC business, Bvute was running the show. Chingoka was keen to play that down when questioned, but whatever his official role, Bvute is a major player and appears to have assumed the role of managing director following the resignation of Vince Hogg last month.
Bvute is described by those who have dealing with him as articulate, loud and flashy. He drives a BMW X5, wears stylish suits, and displays all the trappings of success in modern Zimbabwe. He is young - estimates put him in his early thirties - and runs his own business in Harare. One journalist told me that Bvute "knows how to push the right and wrong buttons with people. He understands power, and can be intimidating intellectually and with his physical presence."
Bvute's cricket credentials appear almost non-existent, and his appointment in 2001 to the ZCU was as head of the Integration Implementation Committee, putting him in charge of the union's integration policy relating to the advancement of black players. Many have described this role as being that of a "political commissar", and from the off his links with the ruling Zanu-PF regime have been widely reported.
Almost nothing is known about Bvute before that appointment, although Henry Olonga, the former Zimbabwe fast bowler who fled the country after his famous black-armband protest during the 2003 World Cup, said that Bvute and Max Ebrahim had already established a hardline organisation called the Campaign to Eradicate Racism in Zimbabwean Cricket. "They were pretty militant in their attitude," Olonga recalled, "and were prepared to accuse people of being racist and to take drastic measures, such as calling the black players out of the mixed local leagues and getting them to form their own all-black league."
Bvute first began to attract more widespread attention during the World Cup when he tried to get Andy Flower dropped after he had also donned a black armband, a move which was thwarted when several leading players threatened to refuse to play. Bvute backed down, but was soon back in the limelight when a few days later he kicked Olonga off the team bus and ordered him to stop wearing Zimbabwe cricket kit.
Bvute's intimidatory side was again in evidence at the ZCU's AGM later that year when one or two dissenters suggested that Robert Mugabe, the president of the board, did not deserve to be re-elected on the nod. "If the member knows what is good for his health," Bvute snarled, "he will desist from asking such questions."
While Bvute's supporters play down his connections with the Mugabe government, few actually believe that the two are not closely linked. "He constantly tells team members that he has been to [information minister] Jonathan Moyo's office and been talking to him about cricket issues," one former player said. "If that's not being involved in politics in Zimbabwe today, nothing is."
But the extent of Bvute's influence really became apparent during the Heath Streak crisis in April. Some claim that Bvute triggered the whole affair when he announced that Dion Ebrahim, of Asian descent and classified black for selection purposes, would be reclassified as white, thus limiting places in national teams this year to four white players. Streak objected, and Bvute demanded that Chingoka sack him. Accounts of what actually happened in the next few days vary, but what is not in question is that when Vince Hogg, the managing director of the ZCU and second only to Chingoka, brokered a possible compromise, he was immediately overruled by Bvute. It was then that his real standing became clear.
In the next few months Bvute's antics did little to help the ZCU's cause. At the end of April he was involved in a public scuffle with Steve Mangongo, the chairman of selectors. Witnessess say that Mangongo was arguing that he had to have the freedom to pick the best side, white or black, while Bvute told him that he had to "pick who he was told to pick". A tussle ensued which ended with Mangongo in a heador arm-lock, depending on which account you believe. Mangongo, a hardliner himself, stood down four months later, and was replaced by Bvute's close ally, Max Ebrahim.
As the crisis deepened, Bvute's true colours became more visible. "It appears like they waited for someone to slip up," said Olonga, "and as soon as Streak made those demands, he was fired. And anyone who stood up with him was gone as well."
On the pitch, Zimbabwe were in freefall, and Bvute wasn't a happy man. When Pommie Mbangwa, a former Zimbabwe international turned commentator, dared to criticise the new-look side, Bvute stormed into the media box and told him that he was sacked. He later relented. And when Zimbabwe were humiliatingly bowled out for 35, Bvute reportedly turned on the (white) groundsman and blamed him for preparing a pitch designed to embarrass the Zimbabwe side.
Over the summer Bvute assumed even more importance. In May he accompanied Chingoka for high-level meetings at Lord's with the England & Wales Cricket Board. His increasing profile led to Lord Avebury, in the House of Lords, demanding that he, along with Chingoka, be banned from travelling to the European Union as they were "close supporters and collaborators of the [Mugabe] regime". Avebury described Bvute as the board's Zanu-PF representative.
As the ZCU's August annual general meeting loomed, there were rumours that some of the provincial associations were planning on opposing the existing board. Bvute's response was to try to gain a foothold at a provincial level. It was alleged that he offered Vumindaba Moyo, a leading candidate to become chairman of Matabeleland, a job within the ZCU so that Moyo would campaign for him instead. But Bvute had almost no links with Matabeleland, and Moyo is reported to have told him to "go to hell". As it was, the rebellion never materialised, and Bvute was re-elected.
Almost all those who have opposed Bvute have now left the ZCU - either of their own volition or sacked. As his power grows, so does his own perception of his influence, and journalists who have dared to oppose the board have been intimidated by him.
The latest indication of his status came when a source close to the ZCU revealed that Bvute had called in the Zimbabwe squad shortly before they left to take part in the Champions Trophy and told them that he was in charge and, as such, they should all call him "Sir".
And now the only person nominally above Bvute in the ZCU food chain is Chingoka. His position is safe, as he is an identifiable figurehead. Even Bvute realises that the cricket world would not tolerate someone with as little experience as him emerging as the new head of the ZCU. But Chingoka, a natural survivor, has realised which way the wind is blowing, and his utterances of late have been far more bullish than before.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Bvute continues to exert more influence. What is sure is that while he has his hands on the reins, there will be no compromises and no chance of any settlement with the rebels.