Lifestyle audit should include public officials

THE Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) has launched a lifestyle audit on high net-worth individuals and corporate leaders as it seeks to smoke out tax evaders, while raising money for the cash-strapped government.

Candid Comment Owen Gagare
ogagare@zimind.co.zw

As part of the move, Zimra has sent out questionnaires to business persons and company chief executives asking questions related to their lifestyles. The questions range from monthly living expenses and entertainment habits, among others. This sort of audit is common in many countries, including South Africa. The questionnaires are used to judge whether an individual’s monthly living expenses are consistent with their declared income and assets.

Although some people believe Zimra is invading their privacy, lifestyle audits are critical tools in identifying fraud and tax evasion. The tax blitz is therefore welcome, especially in a country like Zimbabwe which has endemic corruption.

Transparency International, which ranks countries based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived while also taking into account the views of analysts, businesspeople and experts in countries around the world, last year ranked Zimbabwe 150 out of 168. The ranking meant Zimbabwe is perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which it is.

While the Zimra move is welcome, the tax authorities should however extend the audit to politicians, senior civil servants, service chiefs and people in charge of public institutions. In fact, that is where the lifestyle audit should have started. Where potential fraud or corruption is suspected, law enforcement agents should swiftly investigate.

Unless the audit is widened to include public officials, people will question the sincerity and motive of the exercise.

It is public knowledge that despite modest incomes, some politicians and public officials have acquired vast real estate portfolios and enjoy luxurious lifestyles, which do not match their official incomes. Do they have other sources of income or are they abusing their positions to make money or acquire riches through corruption?

The wealth of some high-profile public personalities, such as Home Affairs minister Ignatius Chombo, who was local government minister for a long time, would ordinarily call for an audit. His high-profile divorce case in 2010 led to revelations that he owned companies, houses in several leafy Harare suburbs and stands all over the country. His estranged wife Miriam revealed he owned 20 stands in Crowhill Borrowdale and 10 stands in Glen Lorne. He also had stands in several cities and towns including Bulawayo, Mutare, Kariba, Victoria Falls, Binga, Beitbridge, Chirundu, Chitungwiza, Ruwa, Chinhoyi and Zvimba in addition to a fleet of luxurious vehicles.

If a minister can amass such a huge property portfolio, surely a lifestyle audit is justifiable. There should therefore be no sacred cows if the Zimra audit is to be effective and meaningful. The big fish should also be under scrutiny or else the exercise will just be a sham. No one will take it seriously.