Revelations of possible abuse of funds under the controversial command agriculture scheme amid claims that there are no records and accountability of how close to US$3 billion was disbursed are an indictment on President Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose administration claims to be fighting corruption.
The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) is investigating possible abuse of funds under the agricultural scheme -- Command Agriculture -- introduced by former president Robert Mugabe in 2016.
Mnangagwa, then vice-president, was tasked with implementing the controversial programme and his close allies were the main beneficiaries.
According to Lands and Agriculture ministry permanent secretary Ringson Chitsiko, and the ministry's finance director Peter Mudzamiri, the US$3 billion cited in Auditor-General Mildred Chiri's 2018 report never reached the ministry. Records to show how the funds were utilised are also not available.
The two officials last week told the Public Accounts Committee that the US$3 billion was never documented and hence cannot be accounted for. The funding disappeared through the system and the authorities are clueless on how the money was used.
Zimbabweans have reacted angrily to government's failure to account for the funds, saying such a huge amount of money, a large fraction of Zimbabwe's annual budget, cannot just disappear without a proper explanation.
The possible abuse of funds invokes memories of the 2008 Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) US$1,4 billion agriculture mechanisation programme which became a feeding trough for top government officials who looted the scheme with impunity.
Most of the beneficiaries did not pay for equipment, including tractors, combined harvesters, irrigation equipment and disc harrows, resulting in the RBZ assuming the debt which was ultimately passed onto the taxpayer. The debt was passed onto the public through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Debt Assumption Bill, without the authorities naming the beneficiaries.
According to analysts, the failure to account for the US$3 billion means government is running a shadowy parallel fiscal structure, funding corrupt and self-serving programmes.
At its inception, government supplied inputs to 2000 farmers with each of them tasked to produce 1 000 tonnes of maize.
The command agriculture scheme run by the Office of the President and Cabinet has in the past been implicated for several corrupt activities where names of fictitious resettled farmers were smuggled into the beneficiaries' list while some agricultural extension officers were nabbed after selling inputs meant for the scheme.
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information Nick Mangwana told our sister paper The Standard that the US$3 billion scandal was not about misappropriation of funds.
"At this point, we are dealing with accounting issues, not issues of misappropriation of public funds unless you have more information than I have. What came out in parliament was that the appropriation of the command agriculture funds was done through a different institution rather than the ministry, which was expected to lead," Mangwana said.
Mangwana said command agriculture was a "special project" and was not run through the expected line ministry, but other institutions.
Mnangagwa spearheaded the programme which also involved Agriculture minister Perrence Shiri, the military and Sakunda Holdings.
Former Finance minister and chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Accounts Tendai Biti said government lacked the political will to deal with corruption. He said Mnangagwa's coup rhetoric of dealing with corrupt elements surrounding Mugabe rang hollow.
"They carried out a coup to exorcise criminals but they themselves are implicated in these crimes. Command agriculture is Emmerson Mnangagwa's baby, so you cannot expect a mosquito to cure malaria," Biti said. "They are not interested in dealing with corruption. That US$3 billion was disbursed outside the public finance management system."
Biti said his committee was determined to hold government to account on corrupt activities.
"The job of the public accounts committee is to establish the truth and we expect the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, police and the executive to act," Biti said.
Sakunda Holdings director and Zanu PF benefactor Kuda Tagwirei was heavily involved in the scheme that started in 2016.
Government initially said Sakunda was financing the scheme, but it later turned out it was largely taxpayer-funded.
The Auditor-General's report for the year ended 2018 showed the Ministry of Lands could not account for expenditure of close to US$1 billion after the Ministry of Finance made direct payments to suppliers on their behalf without providing details of the transactions.
Economist Godfrey Kanyenze said government's rhetoric on tackling corruption had failed to inspire public confidence given such brazen corruption.
"The Auditor-General has done a splendid job in highlighting corporate governance issues, but there is no follow through. There is lack of accountability. We are yet to see that and an effective approach in dealing with corruption. We see that rhetoric runs ahead of action," Kanyenze said.
The command agriculture programme, launched in the 2016/17 season and prone to abuse by the ruling Zanu PF, government officials and military chiefs, was the centrepiece of Mnangagwa's campaign in last year's elections. A total of 6,7 million Zimbabweans are facing hunger and this is despite government's insistence that command agriculture was a success.
Economist John Robertson said government had failed to follow accounting procedures and allowed corruption to spread.
"It appears government did not following its own standards. All of the regulations have not been followed. Government should be sincere in imposing controls," Robertson said.
International Crisis Group's Southern Africa project director Piers Pigou said government should follow up investigations.
"There is a clear disjuncture between the major accountability challenges exposed by the Auditor-General in this instance and others previously, such as the mines and energy portfolio committees' inquiry into missing Marange revenue. This raises questions about what government is practically doing about this beyond setting up investigation units and appointing new commissioners," Pigou said.