Big Saturday Read: The Great Scandal
BSR takes a moment to check the rear-view mirror. As usual, a lot has been covered each week in the BSR, but there can be no doubt that the two-part series on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Farm Mechanisation Scandal is one of the major milestones. There is stiff competition for the best BSR among the faithful followers, but I imagine the series on the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal must be somewhere in the top four. That heavyweight division would no doubt include the undisputed fans’ favourite Mamvura and Enablers’ BSRs!
A mark of the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal BSR’s impact is how it drew attention from other media houses, generating more programs that discussed its findings. For example, Zimpapers’ ZTN TV station hosted a live debate to which I was invited alongside the former RBZ Governor, Dr. Gideon Gono. When that happens, you know that the output of the BSR is receiving serious attention from serious people. It certainly generated a major talking point within the Zimbabwean community, attracting both praises from admirers and criticism from other quarters. It would be remiss to close the year without reflections on why it was so important for many people, admirers and critics alike.
First, part of the appeal of the BSR is that it revealed information that had been hidden away from public scrutiny for a long time. When something is kept a closely guarded secret, its value is enhanced in the opinion of the public. They wonder why it is being hidden away from them and begin to suspect that those keeping it secret have something to hide. Therefore, the longer the information is kept hidden, the greater the public curiosity to know what it is.
Besides, this was not mere gossip. The RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme involved the use of public funds. The public had a legitimate right to know how their funds had been used and who had benefitted from them. After all, the public was carrying the cost in their role as taxpayers. Unfortunately, the official gatekeepers were refusing to share this information. Both the government and the RBZ were adamant over the disclosure of the beneficiaries of the scheme. Efforts to get official disclosure had been stifled.
Second, because of the refusal to disclose information regarding beneficiaries, most of the public suspected that there was corruption involved in the scheme. The major concern was that the beneficiaries were Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) and they did not want their nefarious activities known to the public. Therefore, by continuously defending the non-disclosure of the scheme’s beneficiaries, the authorities only made the public more suspicious that there was corruption which they were covering up.
Third, the persistent refusal to disclose names of beneficiaries was at odds with the mantra of the government led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. When he took power following the military coup against President Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa made anti-corruption one of his flagship policies. However, the political rhetoric has not been matched by conduct. One would have expected the Mnangagwa regime to be more open and willing to disclose beneficiaries of programs under the old regime. However, the self-styled Second Republic or New Dispensation did little to show any distinction from the past. The public became more suspicious that it was hiding corrupt activities.
Finally, there was a strong interest in the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal because it was just one of several other programs in which beneficiaries have been kept secret. If this is what happened in the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal, what happened in other government programs where large amounts of public funds are used? Who have been the beneficiaries of these other publicly funded schemes? Is it the case that the same people benefit from multiple publicly funded schemes? These are the questions that many Zimbabweans were asking. People were aware of the secrecy surrounding the Command Agriculture Program, another scheme where large amounts of public money were deployed ostensibly to assist farmers. A parliamentary committee scrutinizing this expenditure had been told that more than US$3billion was unaccounted for. Therefore, when details of beneficiaries of the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme were revealed, the public was already primed for and curious to get information regarding the use of public money.
What the Scandal revealed
First, the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal revealed the complex web which includes a vast network of beneficiaries of public funds. These PEPs are the first in line whenever public funds are up for distribution under government programs. They use proximity to power to draw these benefits. This is also how enablers are created. The benefits from these public schemes are the “rents” they receive in return for enabling authoritarianism. Many readers of the BSR will remember the Enablers’ BSR from 2019.
Second, although there was a sprinkling of opposition-related beneficiaries, this network is composed of elites that are generally connected to ZANU PF. These elites are located in different spaces, including senior government offices, the business sector, professionals, the judiciary, and the church. It demonstrated a method by which institutions and individuals become captured by the ZANU PF system and those who control public funds. This is because when they are beneficiaries of controversial and secret gifts, they become beholden to their benefactor.
Third, the revelations showed why some key figures in the religious and business sectors lack the moral courage to challenge the government, even in the face of serious human rights violations that go against their teachings on the pulpit or in boardrooms. The revelations gave an insight into why certain religious leaders and business elites lean towards ZANU PF. The reason is that they are severely compromised. They cannot bite the hand that feeds them.
Much of the anger from religious leaders and their faithful was down to embarrassment after their deeds in the dark had become public. There was no sense of remorse or repentance given the wrongfulness of what happened, contrary to their religious teachings. Instead, they were defensive in their bid to justify their benefits. What they do not appreciate is that participating in these secret schemes not only compromises them but damages moral authority.
Finally, the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal revealed just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more corruption that goes on under the cover of government schemes. Also this year, the BSR examined the transfer of non-performing loans from commercial banks to the Zimbabwe Asset Management Company (ZAMCO). ZAMCO was set up by the government just when the current RBZ Governor John Mangundya took on his post after serving as the boss of CBZ Bank. It cannot be a mere coincidence that more than 60% of the non-performing loans that were bought by ZAMCO came from CBZ Bank. The rest of the banks make up the other 40%.
For those who have forgotten, a loan is referred to as a non-performing loan when the borrower is no longer repaying it under the terms of the loan agreement. If a bank is saddled with too many non-performing loans, it loses income and if the problem is too severe, it risks going bankrupt. In this case, CBZ had too many borrowers who were no longer repaying their loans. ZAMCO was therefore a huge relief because it bought a large amount of these non-performing loans, helping CBZ to recover money that it might otherwise have had to write off as bad debts.
Intriguingly and suspiciously, documents are showing CBZ Asset Management Company, a subsidiary of CBZ Bank applying to ZAMCO to be its adviser. If CBZ Asset Management did get this role, it would represent a potentially scandalous situation given that CBZ Bank went on to become the largest seller of non-performing loans to ZAMCO. It would mean that the same broad organization was both the main seller and adviser to ZAMCO. The potential for a serious conflict of interest is immense. This information ought to be disclosed in the public interest.
But where did ZAMCO get the money to buy these non-performing loans from CBZ? It was paid through Treasury Bills issued by the government. In layman’s terms, the money came from the public.
In these circumstances, surely the public deserves to know the names of the individuals and companies whose non-performing loans were bought by ZAMCO using public money? No, the authorities insist. Both the RBZ and ZAMCO refuse to disclose this information to the public. Just like the beneficiaries of the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme should have been disclosed, the beneficiaries of the ZAMCO scheme ought to be disclosed. This is in the public interest. The media and researchers must continue to dig to find this information.
Systemic Corruption in the Law Enforcement and Justice System
Also this year, the BSR explained the systemic nature of corruption in Zimbabwe. All the people who reacted angrily to the revelations into the RBZ Far Mechanisation Scandal did not understand the wrongfulness of their conduct. They were unwilling to take responsibility. They were more concerned that they had been outed as beneficiaries of the scheme than the fact that the scheme lacked transparency and involved the use of public funds. They felt entitled and saw nothing wrong with their actions. Likewise, beneficiaries of the ZAMCO scheme wonder why there is all this fuss over it. They see it as normal.
When secrecy, a lack of transparency, and selective approaches to distribution of public funds become the norm, you have systemic corruption in society. It is far more difficult to overcome because those involved in it can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. Several senior public officers, including President Mnangagwa, have confirmed the endemic nature of corruption. Chief Justice Malaba and the Prosecutor General Kumbirai Hodzi have both confirmed that there is serious corruption in the law enforcement and justice systems. The problem is that corruption is encouraged by the inaction of those who are supposed to be gatekeepers. Let us look at the latest case which reveals the extent of challenges in the system.
There was an outcry when the media reported that a gang of notorious armed robbers had been granted bail by the High Court. They were immediately rearrested on fresh charges. It later emerged that the prosecutor had effectively given consent to the bail application. The prosecutor has now been arrested. This came after media reports that he was on the run. He was also suspended by the Prosecutor General. However, the circumstances surrounding this case require a deeper investigation as it once again points to a systemic weakness in the law enforcement and justice systems. Focusing on the single prosecutor would be a gross mistake and a cover-up.
It did not make sense for the prosecutor to consent to bail for several reasons. These were notorious armed robbers who had been arrested while resisting arrest in a shoot-out with police. The shoot-out resulted in the deaths of some of the gang members. Now the prosecutor thought it was reasonable to consent to bail on condition that they report to the police? The notorious armed robbers who were desperate to escape and had shot at police had suddenly developed a respect for the police so that they could routinely report to them?
It was also ridiculous to consent to bail for a suspected armed robber with no fixed abode in Zimbabwe. The prosecutor stated in his response that the first accused, Masa Taj Abdul was not resident in the jurisdiction. Since he was aware of that fact, why did he think it was reasonable to consent to bail? From where would the accused person report to the police? Having a fixed abode within the jurisdiction and remaining on it is one of the standard and reasonable conditions whenever bail is offered or considered. So how could a prosecutor conclude that a suspected armed robber who has no fixed abode in Zimbabwe was eligible for bail?
However, these questions do not apply merely to the prosecutor alone. They also apply to the judge who handled the matter, unless all this information was withheld from him. He would have known that the bail applicants were notorious armed robbers who had been involved in a shoot-out with police before they were arrested. He would most certainly have known from the prosecutor’s response that the first accused was of no fixed aboard. The judge was not bound by the prosecutor’s misguided concession. His role is to consider the facts and come to a reasonable decision. There is a recent precedent, where the state was ready to consent to bail for Henrietta Rushwaya who was arrested for an attempt to smuggle gold but the magistrate refused to accept the consent.
The prosecutor was alive to the fact that his consent was not enough to get the accused persons out of jail. He left the matter to the judge’s discretion when he wrote when concluding the response, “Wherefore if part of the concession made is found to have been properly made and the Court finds favour with same. The Honourable Court may proceed to grant Applicants bail in terms of the proposed conditions with an amendment to their reporting conditions” (sic). It was for the judge to determine whether the concession had been properly made. By granting bail based on the consent, he had agreed that the concession had been properly made. This, of course, defies logic given the facts of the case. But if the prosecutor is in trouble for consenting to bail, it is hard to imagine how the judge can escape scrutiny for granting bail in such circumstances.
The handling of this case also reflects the selective application of the law. As already stated, this is not the first time that a prosecutor’s consent to bail has caused controversy. Just a few weeks ago, when Ms. Rushwaya was arrested, prosecutors were ready to consent to bail. It was only when the magistrate queried the consent that they changed their stance. Why had the prosecutors readily consented to bail in that case? Since they changed after the magistrate’s intervention, what action was taken against those prosecutors? If the prosecutor in the armed robbers’ case has been suspended and subsequently arrested, surely the prosecutors in the gold smuggling case must be treated alike? Why single out one prosecutor and exclude others who did the same thing?
One theory is that the prosecutors in the gold smuggling case were not acting alone and their punishment might drag more senior members of the National Prosecuting Authority into the dock. The absence of interest by senior members of the NPA to dig deeper into what happened in the gold-smuggling case is tellingly suspicious. Still, in the armed robbers’ case, it will be interesting to see what the investigations reveal because it is unlikely that the prosecutor was acting alone.
All this demonstrates why it is futile to expect the NPA to investigate itself. If senior members of the NPA are involved in corruption relating to specific cases, they are going to take a selective approach to investigations. If the government is serious about fighting corruption at the NPA and in the judiciary, it must appoint an independent panel of investigators, comprising preferably persons of international stature and high integrity to carry out a comprehensive investigation. It is not just prosecutors and judicial officers who are involved in corruption. Some members of the legal profession are also in on the racket. If prosecutors and judicial officers are taking bribes, it is because accused persons, through their lawyers are offering or agreeing to pay them.
It is apposite that we conclude the year with a BSR on corruption. It is a cancer that is corroding the moral fabric of society. The problem is that the drivers and enablers of corruption are those who are supposed to be its gatekeepers. The racket includes ministers, senior government officials, managers of parastatals, local authorities, the judiciary, law enforcement, and prosecution authorities. These are supposed to be the guardians that safeguard society from corruption.
However, either through publicly funded schemes or privately designed arrangements, it is the PEPs who are at the centre of corruption. They have no interest in pursuing corruption because it implicates them. A lot is swept under the carpet. The institutions that are ostensibly designed to fight corruption are themselves compromised. The outcome is that the rhetoric is not matched by conduct.
A starting point in preventing corruption is a culture of disclosure in publicly funded programs. Disclose who is benefitting and by how much. That way, over time, it becomes easier to see the bigger picture. There is no appetite for disclosure because the beneficiaries are the same repeatedly. But that is also why the country will remain in a mess, unable to escape the clutches of corruption driven by a small minority of PEPs.
From the BSR team, we wish you a merry Christmas. There may not be much to cheer on in material terms but please do celebrate the gift of family and friendship that you have after a very difficult year. We shall overcome.