9 February 2014

Zimbabwe: Chombo's Actions Aid Plunder of Cities

The arrogance, stemming from the belief that one is so powerful that they are untouchable, must be the disease afflicting Local Government minister Ignatious Chombo who has over the past 10 years displayed a condescending attitude towards municipal authorities.

Chombo simply can't leave the authorities to run their business. A control freak, he has meddled in council affairs, fired elected mayors and replaced them with pliant officials at his beck and call. It's the kind of behaviour that he simply can't stop.

Last week he was at it again when he defended Harare City Clerk Tendai Mahachi in open defiance of Mayor, Bernard Manyenyeni.

Following the exposure of mega salary scales at Town House where executives are said to be earning monthly salaries several times above top managers running the city of London which has a GDP of US$500 billion, the mayor suspended Mahachi to facilitate investigations.

Despite the outrage that the massive earnings sparked among Zimbabweans, Chombo acted with the speed of lightning, summoning the mayor and other officials to Town House on a Saturday, and immediately nullifying Mahachi's suspension.

He sought to sugar-coat his unpalatable action by appearing to read the riot act on Mahachi and his management thus: "They must render unequivocal support to the mayor. I do not expect the Town Clerk to refuse with requested documents".

But then that is exactly what Mahachi had done to earn the suspension -- refusing to furnish the mayor and the council with the salary schedule for city executives. When the mayor protested against Chombo's reinstatement order, the minister reacted in one of his most irritatingly condescending manner, cutting Manyenyeni's protest midway by telling him that a letter was on its way reversing his decision. Full stop!

Hardly two days after Chombo's exoneration of Mahachi, it emerged, through media reports, that some city officials could have prejudiced council of more than US$100 million through inflating prices of equipment obtained for the refurbishment of water and sewerage treatment plants. Mahachi signed for the loan from China which was guaranteed by government.

That same day, chairperson of the Harare City Council's finance committee, Councillor Norman Markham resigned in protest over the manner in which city bosses ran the financial affairs of council and the refusal by the Mahachi-led executive to disclose its salaries. He said the top executive posts were over staffed while their packages were "extraordinary".

This is the kind of conduct that Chombo protected when he overturned a suspension that would have allowed for investigation into all these allegations and the hidden massive salaries and other inappropriate acts at Town House.

What comes to mind and raises the red flag now is the motive behind the minister's protection of municipal managers from scrutiny by city fathers in recent years. In the past, the whole thing may have appeared to be political; the reason being premised on the belief that since most urban mayors were members of the MDC-T party while city executives were predominantly Zanu PF appointees, Chombo was out to protect his own Comrades.

The Harare salaries saga and the US$100 million equipment scandal may however expose corrupt officials and their proxies. Even Zanu PF appears to have been woken from its slumber to understand the reason behind the sickening arrogance and impunity that people have had to put up with over the years.

It will be recalled how the Local Government minister appointed so-called rescucitation teams at troubled local authorities that proceeded to behave like bounty hunters, and when people complained to Chombo, the minister literally told them to go to hell.

While the intent sounded legitimate -- to find and stop corruption at Chitungwiza, Bulawayo among other cities -- Chombo's graft busting adventures all appeared to turn into acts of plunder and a "jobs for the boys" criminal activity.

For instance, two years ago, the Local Government minister ordered the Harare City Council to pay US$42 000 in fees to a team of investigators which he had commissioned to probe the alleged abuse of US$600 by two councillors, Warship Dumba and Casper Takura, who had allegedly made false fuel claims.

The then mayor Muchadeyi Masunda said: "I don't even know what they did to warrant a probe. All I hear is there is a team that we must pay US$42 000 but we are yet to get a report on their findings."

The two's case later went to court and they were acquitted.

Chombo set up another team to investigate massive corruption at Chitungwiza municipality and in no time residents of that city were up in arms against the Fungai Mbetsa-led team. They discovered that while the team had plugged the town's financial haemorrhage, it was itself secretly milking the city of thousands of dollars in obscene allowances.

Municipal workers discovered that Mbetsa was allegedly getting US$26 525 in salary and allowances per month, his deputy about US$14 500 while the other five team members got about US$13 500 each.

Among the allowances the commissioners allegedly got was US$375 for entertainment, US$300 airtime, US$300 lunch and US$200 for other necessities. The allowances were reportedly payable after every 10 days. And, by virtue of being chairperson of the team, Mbetsa himself allegedly got US$4 175 in allowances after every 10 days while council also paid US$2 000 weekly for his hotel bills.

Mbetsa's excuse was that: "The fees were fixed by the Minister of Local Government for a team of professionals who are not volunteers... " Where does this put Chombo?

And, even as the Chitungwiza furore raged, Chombo had set up yet another team, this time to investigate Bulawayo City Council.

Within hours of the team's arrival at BCC, it had allegedly squandered thousands of dollars in their personal upkeep.

Bulawayo residents and civic society immediately screamed in protest. They said if Chombo was so much concerned about corruption, he should first of all explain to the nation how he accumulated some of the properties revealed in his divorce court papers.

What sounds iffy is that Chombo sets up these teams, puts up a set of huge allowances and orders that the bleeding local authorities pay them hefty allowances!

Nelson Chamisa summed Chombo's behaviour as the ultimate abuse of office. "Two things that are bedevilling service delivery in this country are minister Chombo and minister Chombo."

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