EDITORIAL COMMENT : Fighting scourge of corruption

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Corruption is an insidious rotting of society, not just allowing the dishonest to grab money and assets, jump queues and reap where they did not sow, but also demoralising the honest and removing all incentives for honest, smart and hardworking people to lead the uplifting of the country.

It became entrenched in Zimbabwe through several factors.

There were those who reckoned they were entitled to rewards; there were those who reckoned that “everyone was doing it” they would be daft not to; there were the more conventionally criminal who just wanted to be rich without work; and there were the desperate who faced with corrupt officials budgeted for the bribes they had to pay to get anything done.

On the enforcement side, after a fairly strong start at independence, energy seemed to go out of the top layers of Government. Little or nothing was done to stop the growth. It is all very well to demand proof, that is a legal requirement for convicting someone.

But you will not get proof by not initiating investigations when suspicions arise, by interfering in investigations, and by refusing to believe that mounting reports of wrong doing are a sign of something very wrong.

One of the biggest problems with corruption, as with most white-collar crime, is that the illegal activities are not done in broad daylight in front of witnesses.

But that does not make the hunt for evidence impossible, just more difficult and might need some smart people who understand the murkier footpaths in a set of documents and accounts to start hunting.

But one legal change has made life simpler, the introduction of the crime of abuse of public office. This follows a different approach. A person holding a public office at national or local level is expected to follow procedures; even in an emergency there are procedures and established short cuts that allow swift action without fraud.

Here the proof is simpler. Motives can be ignored. If the evidence shows something was done that benefited someone because procedures were not followed, then guilt is established. Motives come into the evidence in aggravation and mitigation when sentence is being determined, not in the trial on facts.

This is an approach pioneered in the private sector, with ever stricter audit and accounting standards being initiated, usually after some well-known business leader has finally been driven off to prison, or has escaped prison on a technicality.

It might be shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but shutting the door does stop the next horse bolting.

This is why in the public sector audits, paper trails and the like are so important. They generate the evidence. To that must be added political will to take action and to ensure those taking the action have the resources, usually clever and honest investigators.

Then comes the most frustrating part. The law and the court system are there to protect the innocent, as well as punish the guilty. So we get those on corruption charges using their high-priced legal talent they seem to afford using every possible means to delay and sidetrack the trial.

And when they fail on each point they appeal to a higher court, another delay even if they lose. It almost seems as if some want to die of old age before they finally hear the verdict.

Considering the alternative is a kangaroo court we have to live with this, but we then need to ensure the prosecutors have the manpower and skills to move swiftly to minimise delays.

The Second Republic has been pushing down hard on corruption. At the highest level, besides a former Vice President and three former ministers before the courts, one finally jailed recently when he ran out of appeals, there are at least two others whom the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission and the fraud squad are “anxious to interview” when they return to Zimbabwe.

But President Mnangagwa has gone further. When he appointed his first team he made it clear that fighting corruption was one of their priorities. Even after weeding out people he did not trust, he has had to fire two ministers, one dealing with Social Security and one with Health.

He has been careful in choosing his words when firing them, to avoid prejudging an issue that must be decided in court. But a minister making bad decisions, or allowing others in their ministry to make bad decisions, is not doing the job: so they must go.

Interestingly the Health Ministry scandal of contracts for grossly overpriced medical supplies showed the effectiveness of the new system. The pricing problem was picked up when the deal went to the Treasury for payment, and was blocked when the value-for-money check was made.

And that caused a hunt back by other authorities to find out why it was signed in the first place. And that has seen at least eight people in the dock, including the relevant minister.

Too many, immersed in party politics, see the corruption endemic as something involving central Government and the majority party. But local government, especially in large cities, has a growing list of scandals, mostly that perennial problem of corrupt councillors and officials conniving on land issues.

And cities are run by opposition parties, no big deal since they were elected to those posts, but simply being in an opposition party does not grant haloes.

Besides the group of officials, Harare Mayor Herbert Gomba and some senior police officers now before the courts on a couple of Harare land scams and their possible cover-up, there have been growing complaints from quite reputable people over the sudden conversions of public open spaces and wetlands to development, with the developers just appearing out of nowhere and no advertisements, no hearings and no inquiries into major changes, or even, if the changes are desirable, to find the best change and the best developer to manage this.

And the audit into public land allocated to cooperatives shows that this just opened the doors to criminal land barons in far too many cases, with a lot of poor people even poorer and a few greedy people with bulging wallets.

The authorities have already ratcheted up the effectiveness of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, and in the general police clean-up have pushed the anti-fraud units higher up the ladder. The President has set up the coordinating authority, his Special Anti-Corruption Unit.

Like Covid-19 the scourge of corruption can hit everyone, the temptation coming from having power to do good or evil and then choosing evil. But we are blocking that route fast. But it has to be blocked case by case, person by person.

We can all decry crime, but each criminal has to be tracked down and the evidence gathered, heart-breaking hard work, but a million times more effective than piously shouting that we dislike criminals.