10 January 2008

Zimbabwe: Graft is Enemy No.1

editorial

Harare — A WORLD Bank Institute (WBI) report revealed recently that Zimbabwe was among the few African countries in the throes of a precipitous economic decline due to endemic corruption. This is hardly surprising!

Transparency International (TI)'s ranking of corrupt countries has shown Zimbabwe steadily sliding down the ladder to take up the worst spot among continental states ravaged by graft.

The rot has become so entrenched that it has ceased to be viewed as disgraceful but a way of life. And it has hit at the heart of central government.

Government's machinery to deal with the vice seems to have been attacked by the virus as the festering cancer of corruption spreads.

President Robert Mugabe has previously admitted the existence of rampant corruption among top members of his ruling party and Cabinet.

But despite an array of enabling legislation and state arms to deal with the vice, these agents lacked the teeth to bite these real economic saboteurs sowing seeds of corruption.

A report detailing massive looting at ZISCO involving politicians in high places was last year suppressed, while nothing has been done to apprehend top officials plundering the country's precious minerals despite startling revelations by the police that they have the names of senior government officials behind the smuggling of gold.

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General released early last year revealed widespread graft in government, with blatant violation of procedures in the issuance of monetary advances to officials. The report also highlighted widespread incompetence within government and the uniformed forces.

Government has responded by punishing the small fish and runners, as has been the case with the current war against "cash barons," and not those at the epicentre of corruption.

The WBI said while the quality of governance in 212 countries measured between 1996 and 2006, had greatly improved, Zimbabwe, together with Cote d'lvore and Venezuela were exceptions.

While government created institutions such as the Anti Corruption Commission, and even a ministerial portfolio specifically tasked with dealing with the scourge, nothing on the ground suggests the country is moving forward to deal with corruption.

The worrisome thing is that corruption is more rampant in high places, and subordinates have joined in because of the get-rich-quick syndrome now characteristic of attitudes among the country's restive workforce.

It is now common to pay someone a bribe in order to get a passport, or any other service, without waiting in the long-winding queues that are now a common feature in the country.

And the culprits in government know too well that their bosses will not deal with them because they are themselves the major drivers of dishonesty. This is not to say corruption has only been confined to the public sector alone.

Corruption levels are equally worrisome in the private sector, both at executive level and on the shopfloor.

A worrying trend, though, is the entry of ordinary folks into the corruption culture. High inflation has eaten into incomes, and to escape the erosion of their purchasing power, workers are engaging in all manner of illicit activities to survive.

Economic distortions are also prevalent in the economy, creating arbitrage and corrupt business practices. Multiple fuel and maize prices as well as fickle exchange rates are fuelling corrupt tendencies.

Government officials and their cronies are getting cheap, subsidised fuel and staple grains from the state granary, which they are quickly selling on the black market at extortionate prices.

Others are accessing foreign currency from the official market at hugely discounted rates, only to sell the scarce resource on the thriving parallel market at exorbitant prices.

When these corrupt tendencies become entrenched in an economy, and are made to partner skewed economic policies, a breakdown of the rule of law, and the government's destruction of the commercial farming sector - previously the bedrock of the country's economy - there is potential for a major economic condensation.

Zimbabwe's gross domestic product has contracted by a cumulative 40 percent over the past eight years, and it has the largest budget deficit in the world at over 10 percent. This has the effect of undermining confidence in the economy.

Levels of confidence in business and the economy dropped from 50 percent to 9 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to independent studies.

Last year, government announced its intention to conduct a baseline survey to determine the level of corruption in the country.

The survey, officials said, was meant to debunk the myth created by international bodies like WBI and TI, which ranked Zimbabwe among the most corrupt countries in the world. The survey was commissioned in February, but has been stalled by the lack of funding.

Even the Anti-Corruption Commission established a year earlier has failed to grit its teeth against powerful politicians busy plundering the country with impunity.

It's time the powers-that-be moved forward by showing real commitment towards tackling widespread corruption derailing economic revival efforts.

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