Council Putting Lives At Risk

Harare is Zimbabwe’s biggest city, home to one in 10 citizens, and Harare City Council is the country’s largest local government authority with easily the biggest budget funded by the largest flow of revenue from rates and fees.

Only the central Government itself is bigger in financial terms. Added to this, besides being the capital city, Harare is home to the largest concentration of industry and commerce and hosts the lion’s share of legal and financial services.

So when something goes wrong in the city council, it not only affects about 10 percent of the entire population of Zimbabwe, according to latest estimates, but can also damage the growth of the private sector so crucial for the growth of the economy.

In recent months, the council has been severely damaged by self-inflicted wounds.

First, a batch of councillors, including the then mayor, were recalled in the status dispute in the opposition MDC movement.

In any case, that recalled mayor is now on bail pending trial on corruption-related charges.

His successor as mayor and the deputy mayor are also on remand pending trial on corruption-related charges along with four other councillors. And four of the top officials, the town clerk and three of the departmental directors, are also on bail pending trial on corruption-related allegations. Most of the charges relate to land allocations, but there have been other complaints involving procurement and spending.

Two facts came to light in the past few days over the city’s response to Covid-19.

Most of us remember that at the beginning of the global pandemic, a lot of effort went into renovating and upgrading Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital to turn it into the main centre for treating Harare residents infected with Covid-19 who would need hospitalisation.

Led by a group of Chinese companies operating in Zimbabwe, the private sector took up the burden of funding and providing the necessary work, which in all honesty should have been done by the city council itself using a tiny fraction of its huge revenue flows. And we all thought that it was now fit for taking the strain on Covid-19 serious care.

Instead we hear from one of the few senior Harare officials still at work and against whom there are no suspicions of malpractice, director of medical services Dr Prosper Chonzi, that the hospital has no oxygen to give patients who would be seriously ill, and that the same problem exists at his larger Beatrice Road Infectious Diseases Hospital in Southerton.

We assume that he has been pressing the council to buy him what he needs, which seems a very small percentage of what other people chipped in with.

Considering Dr Chonzi’s professional reputation, and we need to remember he led the city’s highly successful battle against the last cholera outbreak, with Government and private sector help to be sure but he called for that help in time, that the council within reason would fund the few missing items not donated.

However the council was busy in other areas.

According to a report by another senior official who still has a good professional reputation, audit manager Archibald Nyamurova, the council was quite happy to pay a company that was not on the list of vetted suppliers more than $51 million for 10 000 sets of specialised overalls needed by frontline workers dealing with Covid-19.

Mr Nyamurova reckons that the council overpaid by almost $20 million, to be precise $19 720 000, and made the payment without even having a proper contract, although there are allegations of a double cab being used as a bribe.

Not only was the supplier not on the list of vetted suppliers, but the council’s own audit department had recommended three years earlier that the same company be blacklisted after another dubious deal.

This sort of deal seems to have similarities to a deal, blocked at the last stage by the Treasury, over Covid-19 supplies for the Ministry of Health and Child Care that led to the arrest and dismissal of the then minister and a huge shake up at NatPharm, following the arrest of a swathe of senior staff.

We would suspect that the $20 million could have bought Wilkins quite a lot of oxygen, plus cylinders plus the equipment needed so patients could use it to breathe.

None of this can be improving the morale of the city health workers, who do a surprisingly good job trying to keep Harare residents healthy and deliver most of the babies born in the city. And now they are expected to put their lives on the line to care for people very sick with Covid-19 and with the money they need squandered in some dubious deal.

So with the land scandals at one end of the council and a chunk of senior officials, and the dodgy and misdirected procurement at the other end, it is not surprising that President Mnangagwa has ordered a full forensic audit of the council and its finances to be done by the Auditor General of Zimbabwe.

The holder of this office has considerable independence and immunity against political pressure and certainly has no political axes to grind.

Her forensic audit of NSSA led, if we remember, to the arrest and dismissal of the responsible Cabinet minister.

There have been calls for a commission to take over the city council. But under the amended Urban Councils Act this is not legally possible any more.

A commissioner can only be appointed if there are no elected councillors present, and even then the commissioner is just a caretaker for a maximum of six months with the main job of keeping the city ticking over while steps are taken to get at least some elected councillors.

The theory is that voters are entitled to have their city run by those they elect, and if the overwhelming majority of those elected, as two previous MDC-T mayors bitterly complained, are unskilled nobodies reliant for their income on attendance allowances, meant to just cover out-of-pocket expenses, and perhaps whatever they can grab on the side, then residents should have thought seriously before voting the straight opposition ticket in the last election.

The central Government is not powerless.

It can reverse decisions that are irrational or potentially criminal, so long as it hears about these since some are well hidden, and it can order independent audits, as the President has just done, again on sound rational grounds.

And of course the independent State entities responsible for combating crime and corruption can stick their noses in, as they are now doing, although obviously the executive cannot give them orders to do so.

But the forensic audit should uncover both criminal activity, bits of which have already surfaced, and gross mismanagement, which many suspect might be rife.

It will then be possible to clean out the criminals and the voters must then call the useless to account and perhaps at the next election take more trouble and time to find competent and honest councillors who can oversee Zimbabwe’s second largest public entity and hire honest and competent officials to administer what should be a beacon in Zimbabwe’s economy, not a basket case.

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