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 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 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 banknotes a day before their launch.

Spreading blame

They weren't his employees, but he fired them anyway. On television. But Gono wasn't done. 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." 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. He blacklisted 20 investment companies and froze their accounts.

As a survival tactic, his behavior has worked. Despite the worst inflation on Earth, estimated by independent economists in at least quadrillions of percents, Mugabe 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, 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, like others interviewed for this article, is also afraid of getting fired and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Nonbanking tasks

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, and supplying medicines to state hospitals, to name a few.

"He's now like the head of state," the manager said. "He's reaching almost everything."

"People fall over each other to please him and some get hurt in the process, and he likes that," said another Reserve Bank employee. "He likes that attention. He likes power. He's very vindictive."

Like Mugabe, Gono blames Western sanctions for Zimbabwe's ills. U.S. and European countries imposed bans on senior officials - including him - preventing them from traveling or doing business with the West.

The Los Angeles 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," 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 Web site,

» READ MORE: www.gideongono.com

, gives a taste of his ego, charting his course from tea boy and cleaner at a provincial brewery to becoming one of the most powerful men in the country. But a Web site run by activists, Gonogonow.com, offers a sense of how loathed he is. It and his enemies in ZANU-PF accuse him of massive looting of state finances, claims he has denied.

Gono recently launched a book,

Zimbabwe's Casino Economy

, dashed off in 60 days. In an economy where most U.S. dollar transactions are banned, his book is priced at $40.

Tony Hawkins, an independent Harare-based economist whose citation awarding Gono an M.B.A. distinction is appended, these days calls his performance "disastrous."

"We've got to the point where his policy seems to be living from day to day and making sure there's cash," Hawkins said.

But Gono, according to a Sept. 30 report in the Herald, said that blaming him for the economy "is the worst form of diabolical nonsense and the highest form of intellectual naivete and dishonesty . . . only matched by a hyena trying to tell a flock of sheep that the worst enemy is their shepherd."