30 June 2017

Zimbabwe: Mugabe Turns Blind Eye to Corruption

Photo: New Zimbabwe
President Robert Mugabe (file photo).

In many advanced democracies and in progressive economies, irregularities such as inflated payments and gross violations of regulations, which border on corruption and abuse of office within various government departments such as those exposed by Auditor-General Mildred Chiri in her 2016 audit reports, would certainly cause heads to roll.

Criminal investigations would be set in motion and the culprits prosecuted. In Zimbabwe, corruption, fraud and the theft of public funds are seldom punished, if at all.

In her report for the financial year ended December 31 2016 on appropriation accounts, finance and revenue statements and fund accounts, the audit report reveals that more than half a billion dollars was doled out by Treasury to senior officials without stating the reasons or identities of the beneficiaries being documented.

"Treasury did not disclose the details of the purpose and the names of beneficiaries (debtors) for loans amounting to US$567 537 792," Chiri's report reveals. "Failure to maintain a loans guarantee register and lack of supervision resulted in the omission of loan details."

The report also raises concern over various issues, including maintenance of accounting records, fraudulent activities, and transfers of money from fund accounts, outstanding payments to suppliers of goods and services, use of fund resources as collateral security and unsupported expenditures.

The report on State Enterprises and Parastatals (SEPs) reveals extreme cases of weak corporate governance, resulting in huge financial losses and misappropriation of funds. It highlights several weaknesses in SEPs, among them, governance issues, revenue collection, debt recovery, employment costs and procurement of goods and services, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars.

The audit on local authorities also found glaring shortcomings in the procurement of goods and service, revenue collection, management and debt recovery and governance issues.

Despite the damning reports, it is however business as usual in government, raising questions over President Robert Mugabe's commitment to fighting corruption and bad corporate governance. This is in sharp contrast to neighbouring Mozambique where the government last week instigated a probe after an audit raised questions over US$500 million in secret government loans.

The International Monetary Fund praised the Mozambican prosecutor's office for releasing the summary report of the audit, saying it was a step towards transparency.

While Mozambique is taking action, the Zimbabwean government, like it has done over the years, is turning a blind eye to Chiri's reports.

Ideally, one would think the audit reports would form the basis of concrete action like initiating investigations and prosecutions where necessary to restore public confidence in government.

Ironically, Mugabe has previously stated there was no evidence of corruption by officials in his government, insinuating he would act should there be evidence.

In an interview to mark his 93rd birthday in February, which was largely viewed as indicative of a lack of commitment to fight corruption, Mugabe challenged those alleging there is corruption among his ministers and senior government officials to present the evidence.

Asked why his government's anti-corruption efforts were only catching "small fish", Mugabe defended the stance, saying this was to prevent them from "growing into bigger fish".

"If small fish were real fish, one would say ah, fine we are catching the small fish. So, small fish have a tendency of growing big. So, you catch them before they grow big, but this is a human situation. I think the big fish, more of it has been talk, talk, talk and talk," Mugabe said. "We only hear so and so is corrupt. Well, this could be the case. Perhaps the big fish might also be capable of hiding their corruption. I don't know. Or are people afraid to come out and even come to us and say so and so steals such amounts and we investigate that? For now we only hear big fish, big fish, big fish. People were in the habit of accusing the others of being corrupt with no evidence ... If there is evidence we will pursue that evidence and certainly we will deal with the persons."

Chiri's audited accounts, presented to parliament last week, are arguably the best form of evidence for Mugabe, that is if he is really serious about dealing with corruption in government.

On some occasions, notably during the Zanu PF conference in Gweru in 2012, an embarrassed Mugabe revealed that former South African president Thabo Mbeki told him and provided evidence that some ministers had demanded a US$10 million bribe to facilitate a US$1 billion investment by African National Congress-linked investors.

Mugabe promised to take action, but nothing materialised. Transparency International Zimbabwe chairperson Loughty Dube said that government is not committed to act on Chiri's reports.

"The problem in this country is that the Auditor-General reports have never been taken seriously.

Despite exposing the rot in state-controlled institutions no corrective action has ever been taken. Year in year out there are damming exposés of corruption but despite compelling evidence to prosecute or dismiss offenders, nothing seems to show that the government takes the Auditor-General's findings seriously," Dube said.

Economist Eddie Cross, who sits on the National Assembly's Budget and Finance Committee and the Public Accounts Committee bemoaned the lack of government action on Chiri's reports. He said even parliament was doing little to investigate issues raised by the reports.

"The Auditor-General looks after 35 ministries, over 100 statutory funds, over 100 parastatals and nearly 100 local authorities -- it is an impossible job on a budget of US$3,7 million a year. In addition, the Public Accounts Committee has a clerk and a researcher and meets once a week when Parliament is sitting -- about 30 days a year for a few hours on a Monday morning," Cross said.

"In view of this situation we select only the worst cases for review and investigation and then only some of those get to public hearings. Once these are completed we present our report to the House and once debated we expect the ministers to respond. The reality is that only two ministers have done this since 2013. Follow up by the committee and the ministers is very poor. Officials do not fear the Auditor-General as they should or the committee which is very powerful.

"But despite this sad situation -- the AG has made massive strides since she was appointed and today we are getting much more up-to-date reports -- the latest set is an example. But we cannot hope to handle all the issues without more resources -- both for the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee."

Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said most of the government resources are used to illicitly fund Zanu PF programmes and individual projects.

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