Zimbabwe: Who Will Guard the Guardians?

editorial

Any large-scale anti-corruption drive, such as the one Zimbabwe is pursuing, will generate a lot of social commentary, rumour, innuendo and perhaps even corruption among the hunters.

At present one official of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, Eric Chacha, has come under fire from a number of people whom he has been formally investigating, plus a raft of social media messages. But, as ZACC has pointed out, there has not been one official complaint to ZACC or a formal report to the police.

Those being investigated by Mr Chacha, and presumably that means he is in the team or heads the team that is doing the investigation, want him removed from their investigations. But that is as far as they are willing to go. Not one of these accused officials has submitted a formal complaint with detailed allegations, saying who did what and when.

There are those who say that there is no smoke without fire, but the fire could well be effective investigation that some people want extinguished, so they make smoke. Smokescreens are an ancient defensive move. When you think about it from the point of view of a person under investigation, to the level where they are facing formal charges, it makes sense to pour as much doubt as possible on the investigator and even to have that investigator replaced by someone who may perhaps not be so good.

As anyone who sits in the criminal courts can easily discover, pouring doubt on the police is a fairly standard defence and this is one reason why these days police investigations are so heavily documented, in order to minimise the effectiveness of that defence.

So trashing ZACC and other anti-corruption agencies is an obvious approach by those who could be worried about being caught in their webs.

On the other hand, there are documented examples of bad police detective work, or corrupt police officers, that if not uncovered can lead to wrong convictions or criminals going free. The courts can do a good job of separating real evidence from manufactured evidence, evidence produced under duress, and plain bad evidence. And often in those cases the presiding magistrate or judge will make pertinent comments and suggest further investigation.

This problem, of "who will guard the guardians themselves", has been a persistent gnawing problem throughout recorded history. Several approaches have been found to work. First there is the personnel selection for the "guardians", looking at track records, levels of dedication and levels of effectiveness. In other words you try and choose the right guardians. But as history shows, even in the most carefully-selected and dedicated teams, you can find a mistake was made.

So then there is a system of checks. In almost all organisations dealing with finance, for example, you find auditors. And frequently there are two sets of auditors, the internal auditors who have a quite different chain of command from operational staff, and external auditors.

Even more importantly these auditors are not just looking for something dubious. They are responsible for ensuring that systems are in place, with appropriate paper or electronic trails, that first make dubious decisions very difficult, and secondly make them very easy to detect. Having such systems means that the audit staff can be very small in comparison to the operational staff, largely because the system itself throws up notifications of the bulk of dubious transactions that then be investigated in more detail.

And as every operational manager knows, these systems are continually refined. It is rare for even the most glowing audit report to not have the odd recommendation for some change to the system in use to make it better. Auditors talk to each other professionally to establish best practices, if only because they do not want to be blamed when something does go wrong.

One interesting set of changes in best practice is a regular turnover of audit staff, so that on the positive level you get some fresh thinking, and on the negative side to minimise the risk of a dishonest "guard of guardians" collaborating with dishonest guardians.

It would seem sensible to have a similar type of system for criminal investigation units, such as the police, ZACC and similar bodies, especially when they are hunting down people who might have a lot of money, earned dishonestly but still there to be "shared" if necessary.

Many modern police forces now do have a special department that does this, called Internal Affairs in many large American forces but with many other names. They not only sift formal complaints, but can also follow their own leads and dig into the processes. In many cases they, like auditors in the financial world, demand that set documentation procedures are followed that not only make investigation easier but which also make malpractice less likely in the first place.

And like audit teams staff are rotated in and out so that no one becomes embedded. Such teams, like auditors, have their effectiveness measured not so much by how many dishonest people they catch, but by how little dishonesty goes undetected. And, of course, they are really doing their job when they can clear the innocent as well as catch the guilty, for we need to remember that most people are not criminals and it is wrong that anyone doing their job properly should have to have any cloud hanging over their head.

In a society like Zimbabwe's, where rumour mongering has been a national pastime for decades with the advent of social media just making it possible for everyone to join in, the anti-corruption forces possibly need to think how they can maximise credibility. One possibility would be a small "audit team".

To avoid wasting resources that really need to be applied to hunting down criminals, this team could be a joint unit with one or two seconded officers from the police, ZACC and the other agencies involved in the fight that has an independent chain of command and can investigate complaints. It will never satisfy everybody, but reasonable people would respond positively and in the end having the innocent cleared is important.

But at the same time we do not need to become enmeshed in "wilderness of mirrors" where effectiveness is lost by chasing down the mirages instead of hunting the real thing. That is the most sophisticated way of trashing a decent enforcement agency.

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