Big Saturday Read: The General’s Misadventure
A can of worms
The tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe manifests not only in the incumbent who has proved to be ill-equipped for the assignment but also in those within breathing distance of his office who are equally inadequate. It manifests in the political, economic and social arenas, but also in their private spaces, where the conduct has significant ramifications for the national space.
The on-going legal duel, in which Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and his estranged wife, Marry, are trading hefty punches goes far beyond a dispute over nuptials. They may have called a ceasefire at the eleventh hour, a belated but wise decision to settle matters out of court, but by then it had already scandalised the presidency and caused many skeletons to tumble out of the Chiwenga family closet. Caught up in that storm are third parties who must have watched it unfold with trepidation, knowing they were powerless to do anything about it.
Chiwenga, who spent half of last year on the sickbed in South Africa, India and China is locked in a bitter divorce with his young wife. The accusations and counter-accusations are unseemly. Rampant allegations of sordid conduct paint an ignominious picture. Both accuse each other of addiction to drugs. While Chiwenga says his wife is addicted to Pethidine, she accuses him of “acute paranoia” induced by “his being under heavy doses of drugs including unprescribed opiates” – effectively saying he has been abusing drugs.
Perhaps more significant are the scandalous details relating to abuse of office by the Vice President and his circle of enablers. The wife was arrested last December on allegations that she had laundered money to South Africa, where she bought real estate. He also accused her, apparently as an after-thought, of attempting to murder him while receiving treatment in a South African hospital.
In response, she dismissed the bizarre allegation of attempted murder as “laughable”. She argued that all the transactions happened with her husband’s knowledge and also with the assistance of his business associates. In other words, if she is guilty of any offence, then her husband and his associates were enablers and therefore, equally guilty of the similar offences.
The chain of enablers does not end there. Money-laundering (cleaning proceeds of crime to look legitimate) is a process that is usually carried out with the help of professional enablers. In this case, they might include central and commercial bankers, lawyers and real estate agents who assisted in the movements of the illicit funds.
It exposes the fact that even if Marry might be a fair target of prosecution, she is by no means the only culprit. If the law enforcement authorities are genuinely fighting corruption, they would have to go against the enablers as well. Anything else would be selective application of the law. If the authorities have struck deals with any enablers, so that they are witnesses, the State must be transparent.
Bank at risk or penalties
But the washing of dirty laundry in public also exposes that Chiwenga and his bank were involved in a personal sanctions-busting scheme, which could lead to heavy penalties for the said Bank and forfeiture of property. Marry Chiwenga says her husband bought several overseas assets but registered them in the names of relatives. She alleges that he did so on “advice from the Bank” although it’s not clear what that Bank is. Whatever it is, it would suggest that “the Bank” was a professional enabler in circumventing personal sanctions against the Vice President. This could expose the bank to heavy penalties.
Zimbabwean banks have faced huge fines in recent years for involvement in sanctions busting, which Chiwenga’s wife is accusing her husband and his bankers. Last year, Standard Chartered Bank was fined US$18 million by the US for handing transactions on behalf of sanctioned individuals and companies in violation of targeted sanctions. Earlier, Barclays Bank plc was fined US$2,5 million for similar offences. Likewise, CBZ was fined US$385 million in 2017. A penalty for “the Bank” would hurt it while forfeiture of property would hurt both Chiwenga and his wife. For Marry, it could prove to be a case of cutting the nose to spite the face. But there is always a high price to pay for a bitter marital fallout.
A tale of two worlds
It has long been known that ZANU PF’s political and military elites have amassed obscene amounts of wealth. This marital battle has given the public a glimpse of the lifestyle of these elites. Chiwenga’s wife is demanding monthly maintenance to the tune of US$47,500 per month, inclusive of US$7,500 for the children.
That’s quite apart from additional demands for school fees, family upkeep and lavish holidays which are tiered at three levels – international, regional and local - and pegged at five star level. The international holiday carries an allowance of US$50,000 while the regional has US$25,000 and the local attracts a humble ZWL$25,000 per person.
That she can make such demands, even if one were to admit a strategy of hyperbole in maintenance cases, the fact that she can make such demands suggests someone who is fully aware of the extent of her husband’s vast wealth.
For perspective, the average state pension is ZWL$200 per month, which translates to US$12,50 at the interbank rate (and US$8,70 at the parallel market rate). These figures are indicative of the vast gap between the rich and usually corrupt political elites and the majority of citizens, who have been reduced to living from hand to mouth. Thie chasm is so deep and wide that a politician can, without flinching, spend hundreds of thousands of scarce US dollars importing an automobile while children in the constituencies they purport to represent attend school under trees.
The odd thing, however, is that it is not unusual for people surviving on a pittance to be the ones who get angry on behalf of and go to great lengths, including violence, to defend these political elites. The politicians take people for granted because the people allow them. The moment people become conscious of the power they wield over politicians and refuse them permission to take them for granted, the politicians will know the true meaning of servant leadership.
Captured Political Elites
But the embarrassing revelations in the Chiwenga soap-opera do not end there. After Marry Chiwenga demanded custody of a fleet of luxury vehicles, an ill-advised Chiwenga fought back but in doing so he exposed himself. He did so by revealing that two of the Mercedes Benz vehicles had been given to him by the Ministry of Defence from his time as Commander of the Defence Forces and later, as Minister of Defence. It suggests that not only has he been keeping property that should rightfully be at the Ministry but that his wife was using it so much that she gained the impression that they were hers.
But the more scandalous revelation was that one of the disputed luxury vehicles was bought for the Chiwengas’ children as an “escort car” by businessman, Kuda Tagwireyi. Tagwireyi has gained notoriety in recent years as a classic PEP (politically exposed person), who seems to have his fingers in every part of Zimbabwe’s shrinking economic pie. He is the public face of Sakunda Holdings, a company that has been at the centre of the highly controversial and corrupt Command Agriculture scheme.
Sakunda was also the recipient of a lucrative but dodgy contract to establish the Dema Diesel Power Plant in 2016. The company, which had no knowledge or experience in electricity generation, had not even submitted a bid during the public procurement process. The American company which had won the tender lost it unceremoniously and it was awarded to Sakunda on a silver platter. As a key player in the fuel industry, Sakunda has also been one of the major recipients of cheap forex from the central bank over the years.
Last year, its bank accounts were temporarily frozen by the regulator on allegations of corruption and money-laundering. Predictably, the matter did not go far. Tagwireyi, who is also a member of Mnangagwa’s marionette show, the Presidential Advisory Council, barely flinched. This is the man who Chiwenga says in court papers that he bought a luxury vehicle for his children. It’s not as if Chiwenga is desperate for financial assistance or short of vehicles. Such gifts from PEPs to public officers stink.
Conflict of interest
They stink because they create the risk of conflict of interest and compromise public officers. It is common wisdom that there is nothing like free lunch. Every gift has a price. If a PEP can do that to a Vice President, what more to impecunious junior public officers? It is not surprising that efforts by the Tendai Biti-chaired Public Accounts Committee have been frustrated. The arrogance of PEPs drives them to act with impunity, even treating Parliament with contempt.
Chiwenga’s defenders might argue that he, like any other person, is entitled to receive gifts from his friends. But he is not any other person. He is the Vice President of the country and there are certain ethical and legal obligations that require him to use more discretion. The Constitution of Zimbabwe contemplates these situations and includes provisions that seek to minimise conflict of interest. There is a particular one which was written with such situations in mind:
Section 106(2) of the Constitution prohibits Vice-Presidents from “expos[ing] themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and private interests”. In designing this provision, inspiration was drawn from rules that apply to directors of corporations. The law of companies has for years prohibited directors from getting into situations that create conflict between their interests and the interests of the company. The key in this particular case is that a Vice President must not “expose” himself to a situation that involves the "risk" of a conflict of interest. The mere presence of a risk is enough to trigger a breach of the provision.
It is eminently arguable that a PEP such as Kuda Tagwireyi giving a lavish gift to a Vice President exposes the latter to such a risk. It is not necessary for there to be an actual conflict. The mere presence of risk of such a conflict is enough. Given the many business dealings that Tagwireyi and companies related to him have with the State, his gift to Chiwenga creates such a risk of a conflict of interest. The Vice President should not be accepting such gifts.
However, Chiwenga might argue in his defence that he was not the sole recipient of Tagwireyi’s largesse. Yet that defence would only expose a bigger can of worms. It would mean Tagwireyi's tentacles are much wider and more pervasive. How many more public officers have been recipients of gifts from Tagwireyi or indeed from any other persons who have business dealings with the State?
Across the Limpopo, former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, faced many challenges which accounted for his eventual downfall but chief among them was the phenomenon of “State Capture”, which became a staple term among ordinary South Africans. His toxic relationship with the Guptas proved to be a scandal too much. But South Africans were blessed to have strong and independent institutions - a public protector who was relentless and tenacious in her job and a judiciary which stood firm and vigilant. But in Zimbabwe’s deeply corrupt and compromised state, where institutions are weak and flailing, the likes of Tagwireyi have no need to fret. It's not hard to see why the country is in dire-straits.
A soldier all his life until he exchanged the military fatigues for the suit and tie, Chiwenga is proof that old habits die hard. He may have left the military, but the military has not left his mindset. When his estranged wife was released on bail after three weeks in custody, she found that her home and business premises were cordoned off by members of the military. They denied her entry on Chiwenga’s instructions. She alleges that some of her property was whisked off from her business premises with the help of members of the military.
All of this was without a court order. Chiwenga had effectively resorted to self-help, with the aid of the military. “The presence of the armed forces at the premises speaks volumes of the extent of abuse of public authority …” says his wife in court papers. The use of extra-legal means and members of the military to fight his marital battles is inconsistent with the oath he took when he was sworn in as Vice President. If he, as Vice President, can resort to self-help, what more of ordinary people? It’s poor example for someone who holds high public office. Our soldiers must be treated with respect and protection from abusive leaders. Deploying them to fight marital battles is unseemly.
Sweet and Sour for Mnangagwa
What would Mnangagwa make of it all? It’s an embarrassing episode for the presidency. Whenever the family’s dirty laundry is washed in public, the embarrassment affects the whole family. Chiwenga has just exposed the futility of deploying force without engaging the mind. It was always going to end badly. His estranged wife has not held back, exposing skeletons that should otherwise remain in the family closet. A stronger and more independent media would have had a field day and put huge pressure for resignation. The opposition would be unrelenting in its criticism of abuse of office and all manner of transgressions that are apparent in the court documents.
Chiwenga’s counterpart in the vice presidency, Kembo Mohadi, has had his fair share of public scandals. Last year his ex-wife, Tambudzani Mohadi, alleged that he attempted to axe her when they had a fight at her home. So Mnangagwa has a duo under him who have scandalised the presidency. Still Mnangagwa does not have the mettle to fire them, even though they serve at his pleasure. As chief author of the coup, it is arguable that Chiwenga sees himself as a co-president. He has “acute paranoia,” says his estranged wife in her court papers, fuelled among other reasons by “his belief that his ascendance to the position of presidency might be in jeopardy”.
Adding to the political intrigue is Mnangagwa’s strange leave which is anything but a leave. Although it was announced, Mnangagwa has been carrying out official engagements. It could be that he lacks confidence in his deputies. Some suspect that his unusual leave is driven by paranoia. He can’t be away for too long. He certainly doesn’t have the same self-assuredness of his predecessor Mugabe who would drop everything and go away for more than at least a month. It may also be that he is just a control-freak who likes micro-managing. None of the engagements that he has attended to have been so pressing and unavoidable that they could not have been done by his deputy or even the foreign affairs minister.
Although the Chiwenga saga has scandalised the presidency, privately, Mnangagwa would have taken some delight over his deputy’s marital woes. That Chiwenga has ambitions to succeed him is by no means a revelation, but his estranged wife reaffirms their vaulting and increasingly paranoiac character. His failing health means those ambitions are gaining greater levels of urgency. Any scandal that lowers the estimation of an ambitious subordinate in both local and international eyes can’t be a bad thing. Chiwenga has exposed himself for his inability to manage his household, which gives his rivals ground to impugn his claims to manage the nation.
The generality of Zimbabweans may not make much of a fuss over a public officer involved in a marital scandal, but the heavy blows being traded has converted this into something far more than a marital dispute.
Marry Chiwenga showed some chutzpah by taking the fight to her husband, a lesson perhaps for all of us. A veteran of two previous divorces, Chiwenga had clearly underestimated his young wife’s resolve. And she literally threw the kitchen sink at the retired general. It’s not surprising that Chiwenga raised the white flag at the eleventh hour, as the parties opted for an out of court settlement. Friends of the retired general must have whispered in his ear. One suspects that Marry still had more arsenal in the tank, including salacious details which would have brought further embarassment upon the Vice President and the government. A ceasefire had to be called.
The former general may carry vast experience from the rugged battlefields, and he may have survided two previous divorces, but waging this war against his estranged wife was an act of folly. He did not exercise good judgment, which isn't a good sign for a man who aspires to lead a nation. When this is finally over, it will be hard to shake off the title of a serial and vindictive divorcee. But that won’t stop the man who still harbours presidential ambitions from giving it yet another go.