Corruption: Dealing with top officials elephant in the room

THE unrelenting revelations by the media of executives of parastatals and state enterprises earning outrageous salaries and perks has attracted mixed reactions, with many people questioning whether government is really committed to stamping out corruption as suspicions swirl that the process is a smokescreen to divert attention from serious economic problems and appease a restless population.

Taurai Mangudhla

Even though government officials insist the disclosures — which are said to have dismayed President Robert Mugabe even though he presided over the rot — are part of a new-found resolve to weed out entrenched corruption, mainly in the public sector.

CEOs and top managers at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), Premier Service Medical Aid Society (Psmas) and Harare City Council have hit the headlines in the past month for earning astronomical salaries described as “obscene” by the media in a country whose economic problems are refusing to go away.

ZBC boss Happison Muchechetere was earning a basic monthly salary of more than US$27 000 and monthly allowances for housing at US$3 500 per month, US$2 500 in domestic workers’ salaries, US$3 000 for entertainment and a general allowance of US$3 000.

He was raking in about US$40 000 per month, excluding fuel and other benefits, while workers at the insolvent broadcaster went unpaid for seven months.

Psmas CEO Cuthbert Dube was getting a basic salary of US$230 000 per month, but over US$500 000, including benefits. Dube, who was fired as ZBC board chairperson, was also booted out of Psmas.

Among other mega-earners at Psmas were the finance manager (basic salary of US$200 000) and the group operations executive (US$122 000).
It has also emerged Psmas board member and Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba was one of the highest paid members on the board, getting over US$100 000 per year in sitting allowances.

Eighteen managers at the City of Harare were gobbling close to US$500 000 in monthly salaries. The salaries for the top management ranged from US$37 642 earned by Town Clerk Tendai Mahachi to US$33 413, while middle managers earned between US$12 000 and US$17 000.

In addition to the salary scam, deep-rooted corruption was also exposed at Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) where top managers and Navistar Insurance Brokers looted more than US$10 million over a five-year period in an insurance scam. The AirZim board has been dissolved as a result.

Reports say the disclosures so far are just a tip of the iceberg and the nation is yet to be further shocked by more exposures of abuses of public resources at state enterprises.

While chief executives at the loss-making state institutions have since been booted out, Mahachi, who was suspended by Harare Mayor Bernard Manyenyeni, has since been reinstated by Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, feeding into the cynical perception that this is a political smokescreen.

Besides, some analysts point out, those who have been exposed for corruption thus far are mostly the smaller fish as bigwigs continue to go scot-free.

Vice-President Joice Mujuru’s remarks which seemed to say the exposures are part of internal Zanu PF political infighting and cast aspersions on the media’s role in the disclosures have further dampened the nation’s hopes of a serious crackdown on corruption.

Although government and Zanu PF have come out emphasising their commitment to fight corruption, the public is doubting authorities’ sincerity and political will to root out graft and punish offenders.

Bulawayo-based political commentator Godwin Phiri said the move to eradicate corruption could be drivenaby government’s desperate attempt to appear as if its committed to clean governance, transparency and accountability to sway public opinion and lure investors. Some say it is just a diversionary tactic.

“Whether or not there is real commitment to dealing with this criminal behaviour will be proved in the coming few months in which we expect to see concrete action being taken against the culprits,” Phiri said.
“The key question is whether there is sufficient political will to go beyond the talk. Utterances by Mujuru suggest that there will be a real fight behind the scenes for action to be taken.”

Analysts say everywhere in the world a fight against corruption always provokes resistance and government’s willpower will be tested severely on this issue.

Economist Eddie Cross also believes CEOs were just scapegoats to make it appear as if government is dealing with corruption, yet the more notorious culprits with political muscle roam the streets freely and continue looting national resources.

“The more substantial corruption is found elsewhere in higher offices in government and I don’t see it being dealt with,” said Cross who is also an MDC-T legislator for Bulawayo South.

Cross alleges corruption in the country’s Marange diamond mining activities, for instance, ran into millions, adding some cabinet ministers were involved. He also insists the huge perk scandal was not just about corruption, but also proof of poor governance where people are rewarded on political and patronage rather than professional lines.

“This is an issue of patronage and this is just as important as corruption,” Cross said.

Zimbabwe was last year among the worst governed countries in Africa ranking 47 out of 52 according to the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index.
Marange diamonds were expected to turn around Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes and “bust sanctions” — according to ruling party Zanu PF — but revenues have fallen way below expectations due to lack of transparency and accountability.

Campaign group Partnership Africa Canada (Pac) conducted a study in 2012 which concluded diamonds worth over US$2 billion had been looted out of Marange by President Robert Mugabe’s allies.

Pac said a price manipulation scheme whereby diamonds were sold for knock-down prices in Harare, then resold for twice the original price in trade centres like Dubai was in operation.

However, Econometer Global Capital head of research Takunda Mugaga said the blitz on what he called “megabuck executives” was a step in the right direction for government.

He said the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) should have been the first to expose such salary anomalies through its pay-as-you-earn collections, adding the revenue collector’s statements that the top-paid executives were evading tax was just an attempt by Zimra to cleanse its image.

But the biggest challenge remains how government is going to deal with the political heavyweights, Mugaga added.

“It is obvious the elephant in the room is the issue of how to deal with ‘untouchables’ for one reason or another. Think of those bosses in security structures; top bureaucrats will shield them through classified information once you attempt to investigate them.”

Mugaga said government should stop recycling deadwood as public officials and inject new blood into public enterprises.

“Zanu PF made the mistake of claiming that every problem in the economy is a result of illegal sanctions when in fact they had illegal minds at the helm of most strategic parastatals.

“Such mega salaries are also a function of failure to separate government business from party business,” he said.

He also said the net on highly-paid CEOs should be cast wider to executives and board members at Zimbabwe Stock Exchange-listed companies.

“There is no single analyst briefing or annual general meeting where senior management and directors are questioned on salary levels; which is an anomaly,” Mugaga said.

Five years ago, the country set up the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, but the body remains woefully underfunded and unequipped to carry out its mandate, in what analysts say is a lack of commitment to flush out graft.

Last year, the commission tried to investigate alleged corrupt activities by the then ministers of mines Obert Mpofu, indigenisation (Saviour Kasukuwere) and transport (Nicholas Goche), but the operation was hastily halted following a High Court order amid a fierce political backlash.

Mujuru this week blasted the media for carrying reports on the salary scandals, saying it was meant to disrupt national programmes and destroy Zanu PF. While she has since accused the media of misquoting her, the comments were widely condemned.

Transparency International in 2013 ranked Zimbabwe 157th out of 175 countries and territories on a scale rating perceptions of public sector corruption.

Transparency International’s Zimbabwe chapter last year released its 2012 Annual State of Corruption Report which suggested corruption is rife in Zimbabwe, especially in mining and usually involves those entrusted with power and authority.

Top police and military officers, bureaucrats and influential businesspeople are also cited among the most corrupt.

According to the report, about 62% of Zimbabweans have paid a bribe in different sectors of the economy, including the judiciary, tax revenue and land services.