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The Robert Mugabe-led government’s response to the Willowgate scandal in Zimbabwe will go down in history as a missed opportunity to set a precedent of combating malfeasance.
Though there had been earlier corruption scandals, such as the Paweni grain supply scandal in the early 1980s, Willowgate remains one of the country’s biggest “grand corruption” scandals, with some of its surviving beneficiaries, such as Frederick Shava and Jacob Mudenda, still enjoying the fruits of a culture of clientelism in the form of plum diplomatic assignments and continued service in public offices.
Malfeasance has become endemic in postcolonial Zimbabwe, as evidenced by other scandals dotted between Willowgate and Covidgate (also known as Draxgate, the 2020 Covid-19 medical supplies corruption scandal).
A structural corruption continuum has reinforced each president’s hold on power and enabled political elites’ personal enrichment. The evident absence of political will by the two respective presidents to acknowledge and support legitimate anticorruption citizen initiatives reveals their compromised standing in this regard.
First, Mugabe consciously and conveniently ignored Willowgate. This scandal occurred only four years after he had launched the Zanu-PF leadership code he ostensibly instituted to combat corruption after the Paweni grain scandal.
The main consequence of his and the governing coalition’s response to the Willowgate scandal has been the entrenchment, over at least three decades, of a culture of corruption in general, but also malfeasance with impunity. The perception of corruption in the institutions that are meant to uphold the rule of law and minimise malfeasance is widespread among citizens.
Wesley Mwatwara and Joseph Mujere’s analysis of grand corruption in Zimbabwe echoes these sentiments, noting that “in postcolonial Zimbabwe, the scourge has worsened because of the culture of impunity that the current government has established, especially in cases where politicians are involved”.
Public resources meant to support critical services in various sectors such as public health and education continue to be misappropriated and plundered without any political will to deter, punish or even recover and restore them to their rightful use of improving services and developing public infrastructure.
The prevalence of malfeasance in the health ministry at such a critical juncture — when the world’s resources are being channelled towards strengthening health-care systems in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic — has proven beyond reasonable doubt that ordinary citizens bear the brunt of high-level corruption.
The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance notes: “This commitment to saving livelihoods cannot be separated from the political commitment to transparency and accountability towards eradicating endemic corruption for such measures to be affected and effective. Alas, in countries like Zimbabwe and SA, clientelism continues to mar such commitment through corruption scandals involving senior government officials and their families.”
Though the Zimbabwe constitution provides for mechanisms to ensure the integrity and accountability of public officials, the investigations, prosecutions and sanctions of such identified cases has largely remained cosmetic.
The government’s response has instead been an onslaught against citizen expression and media freedom. Three decades on, the response is still designed to protect the offender and disable, censor and even punish the whistle-blower. The sense of déjà vu in Geoff Nyarota’s dismissal as editor of The Chronicle after exposing Willowgate, and Hopewell Chin’ono’s arrest on July 20 this year for engaging in an unwavering social media anticorruption campaign, is crushing.
In a bid to ignore the corruption scandal, Chin’ono’s arrest was framed conveniently as being for “inciting public violence” and not as exposing malfeasance. Though he was eventually granted bail after 44 days in pretrial detention, the stringent bail conditions that curtail his freedom of movement and bar him from using Twitter are testimony to the risks that accompany investigative journalism and the anticorruption crusade.
The case also points to how endemic corruption has eroded, in its wake, the independence of the country’s judiciary. To ensure the protection of public officials, there is a plot to control the operations of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, whose chairperson, Loice Matanda Moyo, is married to foreign affairs minister and November 2017 coup announcer Sibusiso Moyo. It is a clear case of a conflict of interest.
There is now also a structural threat to the freedom of the judiciary in chief justice Luke Malaba’s memorandum directing that all judgments are to be “seen and approved by the head of court division” before being issued. While this was strongly contested, the directive’s threat to the independence of the judiciary is evident in the delays and uncertainties that characterised Chin’ono’s case.
He was not only denied bail three times but was deprived of his right to fair legal representation. The targeted personal attacks on his lead lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, her intimidation and subsequent barring from representing him, all point to the multisectoral cost of malfeasance in Zimbabwe. It has not only eroded the country’s economy, but tragically the independence of institutions that are meant to protect the citizens.
However, the Zimbabwean case confirms that despite the supreme law of the land having defined provisions for combating corruption, this is insufficient. Much more needs to be done, as noted by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, to combat “the culture of clientelism that has bred continued disinvestment in infrastructure on the African continent”.
Transparency International’s Delia Ferreira Rubio observes a correlation between high levels of corruption and weak rule of law, curtailed access to information and reduced citizen participation. Corruption is a threat to citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Transparency International calls for strategies that will nip corruption in the bud, such as putting in place legal frameworks and institutions that reduce impunity for the corrupt and enlarging space for civil society voices, as well as entrenching integrity and values through education.
As Zimbabwean citizens continue to dispute the legitimacy of the current government, it is worth imagining a different future, a future in which adequately punitive and judiciously executed consequences (that serve as a sufficient deterrent to corruption) are instituted.
The Zimbabwean fight against malfeasance must indeed go beyond the verbal remonstrations characteristic of both eras, and the “catch and release” approach that has largely been a feature of the Emmerson Mnangagwa regime.
Mashingaidze is senior researcher in the human security and climate change programme at Good Governance Africa.