BSR: The Political Resurrection of Fredrick Shava
Alex T. Magaisa
Fall and Rise
It is not often that a politician who has suffered an ignominious fall has a career resurrection which leads him to the very top echelons of government. For Dr. Fraderick Shava, a cabinet career that seemed dead and buried over 30 years ago has had a Lazarus experience. It has been raised from the dead.
To the ears of many young Zimbabweans, the name Frederick Shava is wholly unfamiliar. Most are hearing it for the first time. But for their older counterparts, the name brings back memories of an ugly chapter in Zimbabwe’s early years of independence. It is impossible to talk of President Mnangagwa’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, without reference to that scandalous past.
Shava fell from grace just over 30 years ago following probably the most notorious corruption scandal in Zimbabwe, widely known as the Willowgate Scandal. It has stuck to him like a bad smell.
Shava was one of former President Robert Mugabe’s senior ministers in the late 80s when that scandal broke. He was among high profile casualties who included Mugabe’s most senior comrades, Maurice Nyagumbo and Enos Nkala. Nyagumbo reportedly took his own life, unable to live with the shame of being caught in the scandal. But had he known that his comrades would go on to bankrupt the country with egregious looting, Nyagumbo might have thought twice before he committed suicide.
Shava lived. He even escaped jail. Later, he became Zimbabwe’s ambassador to China and has spent the last few years as the country’s top diplomat at the United Nations in New York. His has been a quiet but comfortable life, far away from the hurly-burly of active politics but still close enough to eat from the taxpayer-funded feeding trough.
What was the Willowgate Scandal? It was a great scandal involving the importation and sale of motor vehicles at enormous profits to corrupt politicians and their associates. Back in the 1980s, the importation of new motor vehicles was strictly controlled by the government. This presented rent-seeking opportunities to those who had the authority to import or were close enough to the system. The state-run company Willowvale Motor Industries was at the centre of the scandal since it had the facility to assemble and import vehicles. Ministers and other politically exposed persons used their proximity to import vehicles which they then sold on to desperate citizens at hefty profits. It was one of the early great scandals, with a pattern that has become familiar over the years.
Shava was among the ministers who were involved in this great scam. Veteran journalist Geoff Nyarota, editor of the Chronicle newspaper at the time is widely credited with exposing the scandal in 1988. It cost him his job. However, Mugabe was forced to appoint a commission of inquiry, headed by Justice Wilson Sandura. The Sandura Commission carried out a comprehensive investigation that exposed several ministers and senior government officials in the scandalous affair. Shava was one of them.
The Infamous Pardon
However, Shava lied under oath when he was giving evidence to the Sandura Commission. He was prosecuted and convicted of perjury. The court sentenced him to a nine-month prison term. It was a disastrous fall. However, Shava spent just a few hours in prison. He was released soon afterward when Mugabe granted him a pardon. Mugabe’s justification for the pardon is a reminder of the beginnings of the slippery slopes of impunity. “Who amongst us has not lied?” Mugabe said. “Yesterday you were with your girlfriend and you told your wife that you were with the Prime Minister. Should you get nine months for that?”
That is how Shava escaped jail. It was a signal to others in the regime that they could break the law, even lie to the courts, and get away with it. Shava was not the only one who had lied to the Sandura Commission or committed criminal offences that deserved prosecution. But his presidential pardon was a signal to the law enforcement authorities to drop the cases. Patrick Chinamasa was the Attorney-General at the time. He had other cases against senior ZANU PF officials who had lied to the Sandura Commission and had been involved in the corrupt scheme. He promptly dropped them."In light of that possibility, it is certainly not in the public interest ... to expend the energies of my staff or to marshal or commit prosecution and judicial resources in bringing charges against persons who might at the end receive a free pardo. I think for me to do that would bring the whole machinery of justice into disrepute and will make a mockery of the whole judicial process", said Chinamasa telling The Herald on 14 July 1989.
But the pardon was also Mugabe’s Machiavellian weapon. Shava was one of the young, educated, and worldly-wise members of Mugabe’s Cabinet. The claims of many of these old members were that they had spent years in the bush, fighting the war. Shava had spent years in London, studying. If being caught with his hands in the cookie jar was bad for his political ambitions, the pardon put a lid on them. How could he bite the hand that had saved him? Unsurprisingly, after the rescue, Shava quietly slipped into the background, seemingly destined for the Skeleton Coast of politics. He would be one less threat to Mugabe’s hold on power. “I failed him”, Shava had reportedly said after he resigned from Cabinet “My conscience does not allow me to continue in this office of high esteem”.
However, while in the background, Shava quietly underwent political rehabilitation. At some point, rose to the position of ZANU PF Chairman in the Midlands. The relevance of that this becomes more apparent considering that it is also home to the current President. It’s not surprising that his appointment as Foreign Minister has brought back whispers of the so-called “Midlands Mafia”. His political rehabilitation paid off when Mugabe sent him to China as the country’s ambassador, replacing Chris Mutsvangwa who had an ignominious exit. Zimbabwe regards China as an all-weather friend and Shava was trusted enough by Mugabe to be his top man in Beijing.
Not long before Mugabe lost office, he had sent Shava to New York, where he became the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Shava’s star was rising and shining more brightly than ever before. But not even he would have imagined that more than thirty years after his embarrassing departure from Cabinet, he would be returning as the country’s top man at foreign affairs. It’s one of the big cabinet roles.
To motivational speakers, Shava's case is a good example of never giving up, even when everything around you appears to have collapsed - there is always a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. To the ever-generous school of second chances, it's an example of the principle that everyone deserves another chance. They will say a man who has served his time must be allowed another chance. Except in this case, he didn't. To the critical voices, Shava is just another example of how elites look after each other. His was a case of "catch and release" before the cliche gained currency. The corrupt elites were just looking after one of their own. The current Speaker of Parliament was named in the Willowgate Scandal. Others were protected forever when the AG dropped cases against them.
What does he offer?
What will Shava bring to the table? Why has Mnangagwa gone for a man who carries so much baggage from the past? It was bad enough that he was the country’s top diplomat, but at least he was out there in the quiet zone where he was beyond everyday notice. Now he is in the limelight, inviting scrutiny which exposes the regime’s double standards. Mnangagwa wants to be seen as fighting corruption. But now his top diplomat, the face of the country to the rest of the world is remembered mostly for a corruption scandal. It is hard to see how he can have the moral authority to speak against corruption, or admonish the corrupt, let alone talk about the rule of law, seeing his conviction was for lying to a judicial authority.
Externally, however, Shava would have built strong links and relationships with the Chinese, whom Mnangagwa needs to keep onside. For their part, the Chinese will probably approve to have a familiar face in charge of a client state’s foreign desk. They might even see Shava as a potential successor to Mnangagwa, even though the man has no political constituency. This lack of political capital is something that made him attractive to Mnangagwa. Shava was so far out in the political wilderness that he would have to start again to build local political capital. He does not pose an immediate threat to Mnangagwa. Instead, he will be grateful for the political resurrection.
But Mnangagwa also hopes Shava would have built solid links with Western diplomats in New York and that his network and skills will help him in the re-engagement efforts. It may be that Shava will bring in a new dimension to the foreign engagements. But as I have said before, it does not matter if Mnangagwa brings a magician unless he fixes his domestic policy, which is abysmal. The late S B Moyo failed not because he did not try. There was just nothing to sell to the world. Shava will discover he has his work cut out for him. And with his baggage from the past, it’s not going to be easy.
Internal Dynamics of the Appointment
There are, of course, internal dynamics in ZANU PF reflected by the appointment. With a fellow Midlands chap near him, Mnangagwa is securing his base against internal rivals. With July Moyo controlling the powerful Local Government Ministry and Owen Mudha Ncube at State Security, Kazembe Kazembe at Home Affairs, and Ziyambi Ziyambi at Justice, Mnangagwa has his boys in the right spaces. The Retired General’s circle is dwindling and that will be some cause for concern in that camp. The so-called “Midlands Mafia” is not stopping.
But there are a few more who are unlikely to be amused with being passed over and Shava getting ahead of them. Take Chris Mutsvangwa, for example, who was a key player in the run-up to the coup that toppled Mugabe. After being appointed as a special adviser to Mnangagwa following the coup, he has been in the political wilderness. Shava replaced him as ambassador in China in 2007 and now he earns the favour of Mnangagwa ahead of him when he fancies himself a diplomat. Take Chinamasa, who as the AG effectively prosecuted Shava in 1989, securing his conviction, only to see it go to ashes with Mugabe’s pardon. He fancies himself a loyal man, but Shava has been preferred ahead of him. Then there is another senior official, reportedly one of those who blew the Willowgate Scandal also fancies himself a key player in the coup – now passed over.
For Shava, the pandemic has opened an unexpected opportunity for a return to the top. That Mnangagwa had to go all the way to New York to excavate a political dinosaur shows the paucity of talent in the ruling party. He could not even find anyone in his current Parliament, with a two third majority to replace his top diplomat. He had to look beyond the local crop to import a member of the original old guard to tend to the foreign desk. The face that is presented to the world is a face from the old and corrupt Mugabe era.
But for Shava, the gods of politics are smiling at him once again, after what seemed like an eternity in political obscurity. He must now sell Mnangagwa's struggling regime to the world. Whatever grumbling there is among his old colleagues at ZANU PF HQ, that is not his concern. They had their chance while he was shunted to diplomatic posts, far away from home. He can’t wait to be appointed to the Senate so that he takes up his seat in the Cabinet, a seat he left in the most humiliating circumstances back in 1989. And now that he is back, he might even start dreaming higher. It is dangerous to dream big in ZANU PF, but a man who has experienced a miraculous political recovery must be allowed the latitude to dream.