When high-profile ZANU PF politicians and business executives Phillip Chiyangwa, James Makamba and Jane Mutasa were arrested at the beginning of the year following the turmoil in the financial sector and the crackdown on externalisation of funds, most people thought that the country was dealing with corruption at last.
As if to show his commitment to eradicating what is undoubtedly the country’s number one enemy, President Robert Mugabe appointed what he termed an “anti-corruption Cabinet” in February.
He said he was abandoning the “war Cabinet” because “the war is getting less and less political, vis-a-vis Britain and America. Those we have defeated. It is now the internal war to fight corruption and tendencies to access wealth through illegal means.”
One of the newly appointed ministers, Christopher Kuruneri, became the first casualty of the anti-corruption drive. But that was it.
The cases against Mutasa, Chiyangwa and Makamba have crumbled like a deck of cards. The suspects have either been acquitted on all the serious charges or convicted of minor ones that attract small fines.
But to maintain a semblance of pressure on graft, the same people have been arrested over and over again on spurious charges. Kuruneri remains in remand prison.
Observers believe the big fish have escaped the net. This is, however, not surprising. It has been the pattern since the first major corruption scandal in 1982 when businessman Sampson Paweni was arrested for swindling the government of millions of dollars in drought relief funds.
Though Paweni was convicted and jailed for the offence, most of the big names mentioned escaped the net. The same applied to the Willowgate scandal of 1988. Though it cost the scalps of five or so government ministers, the rest escaped.
Since then, the war on corruption seems to have been totally lost as not only senior government officials and ministers perfected the art, but juniors joined their ranks.
Corruption became so rampant that some people began to believe that it promoted development, according to a survey carried out by Transparency International Zimbabwe in Chitungwiza.
Their argument was that a corrupt person used the proceeds to go into business and create employment. In that sense, corruption promoted development.
The respondents of the survey should be excused for that warped thinking because practically that is what is happening. Corrupt officials are now among some of the most “successful” business executives. And no one is asking how they got their starting capital.
There were no major casualties after the plunder of the War Victims Compensation Fund. The tender for the construction of the new Harare International Airport went ahead despite glaring anomalies that amounted to palm-greasing. And those who made millions through corrupt oil procurement by the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe are still free.
All the culprits arrested after the massive corruption at the Grain Marketing Board, including then Minister Kumbirai Kangai, have got away. Those who corruptly obtained land also got away with it and now those who nearly milked the country to death last year are getting away.
People talk and ask questions: How do you explain an ex-traffic policeman running a fleet of buses and haulage trucks, a former ZIMRA clerk running a fleet of haulage trucks, a former district administrator running a chain of hotels?
But more importantly, how do you explain how some of the most wanted executives skip the country when the net is closing down on them?
Former High Court judge John Manyarara argued a few years ago that one of the reasons why corruption flourished in Zimbabwe was because politicians and government officials were no longer accountable to the people.
The same sentiments were expressed in a report by the Centre for Public Integrity.
“The intimate involvement of important political figures in business, officially and informally, weakens the will and capacity of government to combat corruption,” the report said.
“In spite of the occasional official inquiries into corruption, and judicial exposures and condemnation, Zimbabwe is relatively highly tolerant of deviance in public office,” the report added.
Corruption seems to have worsened as the country’s economic fortunes tumbled. In 1998, for example, Zimbabwe scored 4.2 points in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. It was ranked 43 out of 85 countries.
By last year it was down to 2.3 points and was ranked 106 out of 133 countries. This year it was ranked 121 out of 146 countries.
A report in April 2001 said US$5.45 million (about $33.8 billion) was changing hands in corrupt transactions annually in the public and private sectors in Zimbabwe.
What was even more damning about the report was the statement that: “The police do not seem to be aware of the extent to which organised criminal syndicates are involved in corruption in Zimbabwe, although there is awareness that a high proportion of corrupt transactions involve functionaries at senior levels of government.”
Manyarara said it was quite easy to solve this scourge. The only problem was that there was not enough will.
“Corruption would disappear from government departments if the incumbents and their superiors had to account fully to the general public for their conduct and the salaries and perks they receive for the work they are supposed to be doing.
“But,” he added, “any move in that direction would be crushed by the persons concerned because of its implications for good governance, and they have means of crushing it.”
“Lest anyone doubts the extent of this power, a government minister once told local journalists attending a press freedom workshop in Harare that unauthorised publication of even the number of cups of tea he drinks would be a contravention of some provision of the Official Secrets Act,” Manyarara said.
One of the major handicaps in curbing corruption could be that top officials already think they are doing something about it.