LAST week, while officially opening the first session of the eighth parliament of Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe declared “zero tolerance” to corruption before angrily accusing former Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) board chairperson Godwills Masimirembwa of receiving a US$6 million bribe from a Ghanaian tycoon seeking to invest in diamond mining in Chiadzwa.
A visibly angry Mugabe narrated how Masimirembwa allegedly took William Ato Essien of Gye Nyame Resources for a ride and ripped him off US$6 million in a joint venture between the Ghanaian company, ZMDC and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP).
The ZMDC was supposed to have 50% shares, the ZRP 20% and the Ghanaian company 30%.
“Ha-a come on, we can’t have that in our country,” said a furious Mugabe, banging the lectern in the process while also declaring corruption would not go unpunished.
“That naked corruption, no!”
Following Mugabe’s threat, the police and Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) said they were investigating the matter.
For many ordinary Zimbabweans bearing the brunt of worsening corruption, which is damaging to the economy, Mugabe’s pronouncements were a step in the right direction given the widely held view that authorities are not keen on stamping out graft in the corridors of power as they fear stepping on the toes of bigwigs, amid allegations that they are also corrupt themselves.
There has always been criticism that Zimbabwe targets “small fish” while allowing the “big fish” to slip through the net, unlike in countries like China where both “flies” and “tigers” are dealt with equally ruthlessly.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also declared war on corruption and recently a senior member of the Chinese Communist party, Bo Xilai, was found guilty of abuse of power, embezzlement and corruption.
He was given a life sentence.
After Mugabe’s anti-corruption remarks and indications of being serious, the challenge now is for him to walk the talk, considering his government’s inaction over the years. Apart from leadership and policy failures, corruption has also helped to destroy Zimbabwe’s economy, but most of the culprits have not been punished even if they are known.
Seemingly encouraged by the authorities’ reluctance to act, corrupt officials have been intensifying the vice and it has thus become endemic.
As a result, Zimbabwe, alongside Equatorial Guinea, was ranked a joint 163 out of 176 countries in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
On a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 10 (very clean), the index placed Zimbabwe on two, suggesting the country — known for its highly skilled and hardworking people — is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
In addition, the 2012 Global Corruption Barometer found Zimbabwean citizens regard the public sector as the most corrupt in the country, with the police, one of the key state institutions which should be at the forefront of combating the scourge, leading the list.
The damming figures are not surprising given the prevalence of corruption in Zimbabwe, especially at public institutions where service delivery is painfully shoddy, unless you bribe officials.
For example, the police have become notorious for demanding bribes at roadblocks and almost every Zimbabwean who uses public transport can testify to this.
Corruption is also rife at the country’s border posts, where Zimbabwe Revenue Authority officials are in the habit of demanding bribes to reduce or evade duty on various goods.
Zimbabweans are even bribing officials from the Registrar-General’s Office to acquire birth certificates, passports and other essential documents as acquiring them, which every citizen is constitutionally and legally entitled to, is an ordeal prompting many to pay to avoid spending long hours or several days in stagnant queues.
It has also become standard practice for one to pay bribes to obtain a driver’s licence at the Vehicle Inspection Department, where officials make it almost impossible to get a licence without a bribe.
Infact, corruption is everywhere in Zimbabwe. The tragedy, however, has been that Mugabe’s successive governments have shown little interest to investigate corruption and prosecute offenders even when evidence seems to be in the public domain, save for a few cases such as the Willowgate scandal of the 1980s where some ministers bought cars cheaply from a local motor vehicle assembly plant and sold them for sky-high profits.
But many other corruption scandals exposed by the media did not spur authorities to act. In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of corruption involving high-ranking officials, but little has been done to at least probe the allegations, giving the impression that those highly-placed in society were above the law.
Recent attempts by the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) to investigate long-serving Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, former Indigenisation minister Saviour Kasukuwere, and former Mines minister Obert Mpofu resulted in a fierce backlash against the anti-graft body, effectively blocking the investigations.
Consequently, the public is doubting Mugabe’s commitment and seriousness to fight corruption. It also became clear that although Zacc was established and given the mandate to investigate cases of corruption, the body is hamstrung largely by political interference and hence toothless.
During the Zanu PF conference in December last year, Mugabe told delegates that former South African president Thabo Mbeki had informed him Zanu PF ministers had demanded a US$10 million bribe to facilitate a US$1 billion investment by African National Congress-linked investors in the country.
Mbeki confronted Mugabe over the issue during Zimbabwe’s Diamond Conference in Victoria Falls in November last year, and later provided evidence, but no minister has been brought to book over the allegations.
Director of Transparency International Zimbabwe Mary-Jane Ncube said her organisation was pleased with Mugabe’s declaration of “zero tolerance” towards corruption, but action was now needed to convince Zimbabweans he is serious.
“It sends the right signals, but we are now waiting for the actual action. It’s not about making the pronouncement, it’s also about the action,” she said. “As the public, we are all interested to see convictions that send a clear message to corrupt individuals. Where there are acquittals, people should know how the officials reached the decision, based on the available evidence.”
Ncube also called for an overhaul of institutions which deal with graft so that the fight against corruption can be effective. She said parliament, for example, should play an important role, while the auditor- general should produce regular reports which should be taken seriously.
The office of the public defender, formerly ombudsman, should also be empowered to carry out its mandate, she said. The public defender investigates and addresses complaints of maladministration or violation of rights.
Mugabe’s public anti-corruption outburst has, however, put the Zanu PF government under pressure to act from now on. Many will also be waiting to see whether the “big fish” implicated in corruption are prosecuted.
In one of the earliest high-level corruption cases reported in Zimbabwe, the Paweni scandal, late national hero Kumbirai Kangai, who was then minister of Labour and Social Welfare, allegedly connived with Samson Paweni to overprice maize imports during the drought of 1982.
Paweni was incarcerated, but Kangai was not prosecuted.
Similarly, former Zimbabwe United Passenger Company chairperson Charles Nherera was jailed for corruption for soliciting bribes from businessman Jayesh Shah to supply buses to the public transporter.
Evidence suggesting Chombo had also solicited a bribe from Shah was never followed up and, instead, a senior police officer investigating the case was transferred from Harare to Manicaland, a move many saw as an attempt to nip the investigations in the bud.
In a statement this week, the Coalition Against Corruption (Cac) urged Zacc to take advantage of Mugabe’s new approach to investigate the Masimirembwa case with speed, without throwing away past cases.
“Cac also urges Zacc to come out in the open and tell the nation by disclosing what happened to the indigenisation scandal where again some senior Zanu PF officials were accused of indulging in serious acts of corruption,” it said.
“As a word of advice, Cac urges President Mugabe to learn from the East and act like Xi in China. In other words, there should be no sacred cows in the fight against corruption.”