The late former Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was perhaps the quintessential African tyrant. But he had no history of cannibalism like Central African Republic’s Jean Bedel Bokassa.
Mobutu literally “ate” money, and his ministers’ wives as a way to subdue them and deflate their growing egos. For all Mobutu’s mistakes, it was Cleopas Kamitatu, his ambassador to Japan, who broke all corruption records after selling the country’s Tokyo embassy taking advantage of the rise in property prices. Kamitatu pocketed all the money. And there were no arrests.
While we laugh at such bare-faced feats, we haven’t examined ourselves back home close-up. We have extensively dealt with corruption in so-called high places. Politicians are a corrupt lot, granted. Councillors are an equally bunch of crooks that have taken corruption to new unprecedented levels in local authorities — agreed.
There is nothing new about corruption, it happens everywhere all the time. But what worries this writer are the new stratospheric levels to which Gweru local authorities have taken corruption. There is nothing subtle about it there. They have rammed it in the faces of local residents with unbelievable ease. It has become the norm, that other residents treat the councillors like celebrities, celebrating their bald-faced corrupt antics.
Even in crime-infested countries, heads of drug cartels easily become demigods.
But the rot within local authorities is now repulsive, though it mirrors the body politic. Whether the citizenry is now mimicking the top or we have now all become so poor and unashamed, that whenever we get a position of responsibility, the temptation to loot before delivering results at all arises is not clear.
This sad reality has thrust us in a potentially irreversible trend that will haunt the nation for some years to come. Corruption within local authorities is a sad scenario and failure to interrogate the background and qualifications of those we entrust with positions of responsibility can have “fatal” results.
When we do it with politics and get horribly wrong results, we mind. Politicians are a difficult specie to control unlike councillors who live next door, some of whom are as humble as they come.
This paper carried a story last month that gave a glimpse into the rot within the Gweru council following an internal audit report which unearthed “maladministration, corruption and abuse of funds by councillors and officials”. The audit report was the basis upon which the Gweru council was suspended.
Further to this, allow me to give you a glimpse of William Shakespeare’s “rotten state of Denmark” that Gweru now is. The council authorities there weren’t moving around in leopard skin hats, dark rimmed specks and wooden walking sticks. And their mayoral mansion wasn’t located thousands of miles away, in “Gwerudolite”, from the Midlands city or a Palais de Mobutu Gbadolite (Mobutu’s residence in Gbadolite).
Legend has it that corruption was now some form of a ritual at Gweru City Council. Some of the employees and councillors would congregate at a local cemetery, dig a shallow grave and bury their ethics and conscience before resuming work at the municipal offices. Like the piranha fish, they harvested every cent, eating anything within reach before turning on each other. What was happening in Gweru isn’t corruption, it is cannibalism. Even financial gluttons from hell had all left and assembled at the council offices.
After the economy went into the early 2000 tailspin, 80% of the vibrant companies in the Gweru’s Mkoba industrial hub went under, throwing over 30 000 onto the streets. Bata, ZimAlloys, Anchor Yeast and others were major casualities. Now the industrial hub resembles some sort of cemetery — dead, quiet in the day except for some few companies still surviving on a drip. Many workers took early retirement, they are now pensioners.
Their hopes are raised and dashed with each coming year. But the potholes, lack of investment and joblessness, like in any other part of the country, are eating deep into their hopes like acid. Emaciated faces, wrinkled, tell a story of hopelessness. All the same, they are paying rates for water, hoping things might change, with their meagre pensions.
Councillors are voted into office and senior employees are appointed. But they both went into a unison that has had corruption mutating into cannibalism. When you abuse municipal funds, you are eating human flesh, in the form of the poor innocent residents’ hopes, aspirations and anxieties. The residents are also victims of the vicissitudes of weather and politics they are not responsible for.
I shall demonstrate the extent of the cannibalism in Gweru shortly.
Jabulani Sikhakhane is a warm, respectable African journalist, who writes mainly business. In his piece Why South Africa needs a strong treasury, he begins by roping in US political scientist Harold Laswell who gives a famous description of politics as being a form of art that determines who gets what, when and how. Political processes now, Sikhakhane writes, is about who gets what share of corruption proceeds, when and how.
When: was when a new Gweru council was ushered into office in 2000. Not that there wasn’t corruption before then. The magnitude now is what has baffled many.
How: is the manner in which tenders were given, allocation of residential stands was done and funds were looted. The level of corruption, looting and incompetency is what is now frightening.
Man’s inhumanity to man is deplorable. This does not fit in our system of thought. Gweru has lost millions of dollars to fraud, embezzlement and misappropriation of funds by councillors.
Imagine this scenario: over 400 cattle belonging to council are sold to the mayor and other council employees at prices averaging US$100, in some cases US$80. The whole process is done in a murky deal in which councillors and town clerk are implicated. Hold on, how does one explain councillors accumulating a bill of US$45 520 at a local hotel for meals and refreshments without documented official requests, when they weren’t undertaking council business. Ooops! Lunch time they would congregate at the hotel, eat on behalf of council, before returning back to loot the next day. And like the hyenas lured by the smell of blood, the councillors kept coming back for free lunch.
Picture this, a Germany company invites council to come for training on how to use new refuse collection trucks. Instead, senior management employees hijack the trip and proceed for the training. When they return, no training is given to the council drivers and the trucks remain unused. They enjoyed the allowances and the sojourn in Germany, that was enough, now the drivers will need to find a way of training themselves. Talk of profligacy and greed.
A staggering figure of US$155 812 for “travelling and subsistence allowances being paid to councillors for training workshops not relevant to their duties, like the the mayor attending an accountants’ conference and councillors attending fraud investigation workshops”. God forbid!
Ladies and gentlemen, can you imagine councillors buying housing stands in the Kopje area of Harare at US$3 per square metre instead of about US$25 per square metre. That was happening in Gweru and it doesn’t end there.
Recreational parks, and strategic vantage points in Mkoba, are being dug out, and turned into residential areas. Strategic beautiful points — marked with a beacon — that give you a beautiful panoramic picture of Gweru, are no more. Stands were allocated in a haphazard fashion that has perplexed old residents.
And how does one explain a council secretary without a legal qualification?
A city vantage point, a hill towards a local university, was meant to raise funds for council through the sale of residential stands. It was strategically positioned, awesome. But it has now been dug by a local construction company seeking gravel to build roads. We are told no money was remitted to council.
Who can monitor the other when all believe it’s their time to eat? Like Mobutu turning a blind eye to Kamitatu’s barefaced cheek, the Gweru mayor was handcuffed too.
It’s not that they were hiding it. They rammed it in the faces of poor struggling residents, caught up in myriad of potholes and poor refuse collection. I know corruption is everywhere, high up in government offices, civil service and municipal councils, but Gweru was beating almost every other record under the sun. This is the tragedy of cronyism; when you give jobs to incompetent elements hellbent on making money while residents suffer.
A company, name supplied, owes the council US$200 000 in unpaid water supplies. The bill is communicated to all and sundry caring to listen. To offset the debt, go to this particular company for lunch until a huge bill is accumulated. The water metre is immediately cut to avoid the bill from balooning even further.
Gweru is a small city. X knows Y. They have a fair understanding of each other’s economic status. Suddenly, one day residents woke up to find their neighbours digging mountains planting massive mansions and driving new Mercs. Some undeterred councillors were guzzling their loot in the surrounding bars, in every local township, displaying their new found riches in a brazen manner. The residents cared. By the way, these looters in town were their own cousins, brothers and sisters they had entrusted to run the affairs efficiently and competently.
But it was a diplomat who, staggered by the corruption around him in Kenya, banged a devastating commentary that earned him many friends and enemies, in equal measure, depending on who was in the firing line. Talking of the new corrupt elite, he said, corrupt ministers were “eating like gluttons” and “vomiting on the shoes” of foreign donors. But he went on to mischievously apologise for “the moderation” of his language, for underestimating the scale of the looting and for failing to speak out earlier.
I have no apologies to make for calling it cannibalism, to say it’s corruption is an understatement in Gweru.
It’s only fair that we end with prayer.
God, please help us. Amen!
Hungwe freelances for the BBC and is a qualified lawyer.