Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) board chair Willia Bonyongwe is accused of a litany of corruption and bad governance allegations, leaving the state tax collector in a fresh storm of dishonest dealings.
By Hazel Ndebele
However, Bonyongwe denies the claims, saying she is being targeted by some “powerful” people because of her board’s anti-corruption stance.
In a damning seven-page letter addressed to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) chair Job Whabira by “concerned Zimra employees”, Bonyongwe is accused of attending many board committee meetings in order to collect board fees, dominating the committee meetings and ensuring they rubber stamp her wishes.
The employees, who are demanding that Zacc investigate the matter, also claim Bonyongwe personally conducts interviews of junior managers, thereby compromising issues to do with good corporate governance.
“The board chair personally conducts interviews of managers of level four to exert her influence on who should be hired for that post. Note that level four is the fourth level in the management hierarchy…This is usurping the authority of line management and the chair of the human resources committee who should be consulting interview panels for lower grades,” reads the letter.
“Good corporate governance gives the chair the right to be an interview panellist for the post of chief executive officer only.”
The employees cited the interview record of the post of chief loss control manager as evidence of their claims.
But in an e-mailed response to the allegations, Bonyongwe said: “Normally, when you want to attack any organisation, you cause divisions and they tried that with this board to make it dysfunctional and they failed dismally and hence of late they started to pick on the chairperson.
“The board has demonstrated serious commitment attending almost 100% of all meetings. The Zimra board has an unpopular stand against corruption, we have zero tolerance and that tends to create enemies within and outside Zimra. Consequently all the smugglers are up against the board and the Chairman in particular, and some of them are quite powerful.
“The stance the board has been taking is costing them millions of dollars. I therefore understand where they are coming from especially as you might be aware the term of the board is about to end. You throw enough mud maybe some will stick. But the board is appointed by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, who is not unhappy with the board or its chairman.
Even the Permanent Secretary who reads all our minutes and attends all board meetings if he is around or sends a proxy in his absence has not sat either the chairman or the board down to correct us on your allegations,” she added.
Bonyongwe scoffed at the allegation that she attends many board meetings in order to collect board fees and to ensure that her wishes sail through as well as the allegation that board members fear her.
“I am glad it is Zimra employees and not board members who say this because this is actually an insult to the rest of the board members to say they cannot raise their voice against the chairman and they just rubber stamp. These are professional people with high standing in our society. If you knew the composition of the board, the skills, experience and their backgrounds then you would not be giving any substance to that allegation,” she said.
“… Only a malicious person can say all these board members are intimidated by me. We do have very frank discussions in our meetings and I win some and lose some, we are always guided by the majority. All our decisions are backed by board decisions following discussions and I have never exercised any so-called ‘chairman’s powers’.”
She justified attending committee meetings, saying it was in line with good corporate governance practices.
“Corporate governance actually allows the chairman to attend any of those meetings and I always take the liberty, especially in the past year to attend most of them, especially initially, because all the discussions are at that level and I needed to understand the organisation. These days it really depends on the agenda. But like I say it is my prerogative to attend and not to attend,” she said.
“The allegation on collecting fees is laughable to those in the know for two reasons. Firstly when the board was appointed, management made their proposals based on their survey and we reduced both retention and sitting allowances and we have never asked for an increase. Secondly the board members, particularly the chairman, attends so many meetings concerning Zimra for which no payment is received.
The fees are actually public information and looking at the chairman’s fees and other board member’s fees there is no significant difference really to bring one to conclude that. I do attend so many meetings on behalf of Zimra for no remuneration and being a liberation cadre I count it as national service. Not everyone is motivated by money you know.”
On the issue of conducting interviews of some managers, Bonyongwe said if the board so wishes the whole board could be a panel. She said to date she has attended the interviews of three people, namely the board secretary, loss control officer and the commissioner-general.
“The chairman of the Human Resources committee actually invited me to those meetings. My question would be why the board chair should not attend the interview of someone who is very critical in the fight against corruption, which is one of the three specific goals of the Zimra board.”
It is also being alleged that Bonyongwe runs parallel structures which undermine the command structure of line management as she has allowed the head of the Electronic Cargo Tracking System (ECTS) to attend board meetings even though he is a manager.
In response to that allegation, Bonyongwe said: “The ECTS is a specific project spearheaded by the Zimra board after years of procrastination by Zimra management. Therefore, the Board took a particular interest…we even had a special taskforce including board members dealing with the ECTS.
Therefore, there is nothing unusual in inviting the manager in charge of the ECTS manager to relevant meetings. The board has often called for managers in other departments such as Legal, Information, Communication and Technology to explain specific issues, why are the ‘employees concerned about just the ECTS’ only? You might want to know that everywhere where this system is implemented there is a lot of resistance. Zimbabwe was no exception.”
The employees accused Bonyongwe of resisting to have her “business empire” audited as she allegedly ensured that one Phiri who is the acting chief loss control head is not hired permanently upon hearing that he had plans to audit her businesses.
However, Bonyongwe denied the claims, stating that she does not have a business empire as she only co-owns a farm and has a fuel dealing business. “To my recollection I have seen Zimra Value Added Tax auditors at my place and did not interfere with them.
As for Phiri, there were accusations against him for victimisation and we warned him through the Acting Commissioner-General of taking Zimra back to the old Loss Control era. We carried out interviews and they were collated by the consultant. I am not privy to how others scored him because I did not see the individual marks given by the others but as part of the panel was exercising my duty professionally. I do have a track record of professionalism you know across different organisations.”
The letter also accused Bonyongwe of influencing the award of a health check contract to a service provider without capacity.
“It is believed that the one to which the contract was given was influenced by the chair and is believed to be a relative who has charged plus US$500 000 versus the next bidder at US$350 000,” the letter reads.
Bonyongwe responded: “But the guilty are afraid. All decisions were taken by the board for specific reasons. The Ministry and the Office of the President and Cabinet are all aware of what we are doing. We are glad with how it is going and the main focus being to strengthen systems.”
The employees said they were frustrated that some incentives which management used to be offered were taken away. Bonyongwe confirmed that indeed there was rationalisation, but insisted that there is always continuous dialogue between board and management on such issues especially when targets are fully met.
Bonyongwe said the public needs to bear in mind that the board was more involved in Zimra business because of what had previously happened at the organisation. The appointment of the current board in June 2015 saw former Zimra Commisioner-General Gershem Pasi being suspended in May 2016 to allow for investigations into corruption, fraud, poor corporate governance and tax evasion allegations. The Zimra board accused Pasi of prejudicing Treasury of more than US$20 million between 2009 and 2016.
Pasi decided to resign just before being brought before a disciplinary hearing after indicating that he could not subject himself to a disciplinary process initiated by Bonyongwe. His resignation effectively collapsed the case. He had been charged in terms of the Zimra code of conduct, facing up to 40 counts of misconduct. Pasi had pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Bonyongwe said: “We are very proud of the turnaround in revenue and thank management and staff for a job well done. Now that there is a substantive Commissioner-General (Faith Mazani) the board is not going to be so active in the Zimra business,” she said.
Zacc investigations chair Goodson Nguni constantly said he was in meetings when asked to comment. Zacc spokesperson Phyllis Chikundura did not respond to questions.