Corruption watch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI
An unsaid but angry war is raging in the State Residences department as you fret over the prices of essential commodities, government’s cluelessness to fix the economy and, of course, the swarm of corruption in almost every place you go to.
The department falls under the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC). Like the line ministries and other key units of government, it is headed by a principal director whose power ego is systematically massaged by a host of other senior managers who fall under him. Yes, him, because it’s never been headed by a woman.
Then there is a fawning crowd of lesser employees who you will always feel because they have their own tonnes of ego plus this weird way of creating a mystery around their jobs, be that cleaning toilets or mowing the lawn.
The department superintends over State residences and related assets that included the State House, Zimbabwe House, VIP mansions, all the way down to the cutlery. Inevitably, it finds itself mired in presidential, foreign affairs and ministerial protocol too. But while, technically, the principal director is the one that runs the department, ultimate power lies elsewhere.
You see, State Residences must be viewed as the president’s domestic affairs department. It takes care of the first family’s shelter needs, the food and all attending issues. The tradition, therefore, is that the first lady wants to know what’s happening and how it’s happening. So, the first lady naturally becomes the boss and, in all cases, the principal director reports to her. In other words, while the first lady doesn’t hold an explicit position in government, she is unofficially but practically in charge at State House. By implication, she becomes a critical member of the OPC without anyone having to write that down in a book of rules.
And, given the sensitivity of State Residences, the department has tended to enjoy a whole array of immunities and favours. Procurement is not subjected to ordinary processes. Employees are regarded as sacred cows. You can only question their deeds and lack thereof at your own peril. Because an injury to the staff is an injury to the first lady. And an injury in the first lady is an injury on the president, so you don’t want to end up on the spikes.
There will be more about Grace Mugabe, the fiery former first lady who called herself Dr Stop It in the last days of her husband’s rule, below. During her tenure at State House, she was a shrewd super director of State Residences. But she got overexcited about things and got her husband booted out by the army in late 2017 for her loudmouthed efforts.
Auxilia Mnangagwa took over after the coup. She is shrewd too, having worked as a senior intelligence officer who knows the privileges and blessings of being in control of State Residences. And once she took over, she got busy sniffing into all the corners. A lot of the staff that worked under Grace has been removed or transferred. That makes sense, of course. You don’t want to keep people who will put poison in your husband’s ice cream if they get a second chance to do so. Or skip to turn on the generator when power goes away as it always does in Zimbabwe.
But Auxilia seems also worried about things that go beyond her family’s security and health. She seems a bit more decent than Grace. She looks like she wants to turn staff that works in the State Residences department into a more professional bunch. That’s commendable if it’s her genuine drive. It’s coming with a painful premium, especially for the spoilt hoodlums that worked under Grace and are still there, though. They are angry with her for taking a good approach where a bad one used to give them nice bucks. They are wishing her dead, her husband assassinated in a second coup or something equally bad, so to speak.
Here is the thing. State Residences had become a cash cow for many in preceding years, particularly after Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, and before Auxilia’s entry. That means during Dr Stop It’s time. Grace treated staff not as State employees, but lesser partners in crime. They enjoyed lots of protection from her, not because she particularly liked them. She used the department to do all manner of dirty things for the love of money and riches.
Big money goods were brought into the country in the name of the department. They were declared as donations and gifts. Some of them though came through the diplomatic bag. These goods were either kept as her personal possessions or were traded on the market for huge profits. Lots of people speculated about where Grace got the money to do million-dollar shopping sprees all the time she went outside the country, and how she funded her rebel sons’ extravagance. The answer could partly lie in the fact that State Residences had been turned into a mafia house and a cauldron of money-laundering.
Senior and junior employees in the department took advantage of that. They smuggled things in under the pretext that they were going to State Residences. No-one is making up stories here. Who doesn’t know how directors in that department smuggled in luxury cars and what not, using the department’s date stamps? One is already facing trial and will be presumed innocent till proven guilty, as a bookish requirement under our law.
You will notice that Grace enjoyed the company, 24/7, of a band of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and high-powered politicians in her husband’s political twilight. They fawningly addressed her as “mother” even though she looked younger than them. They saluted her every rant in public and whole men kneeled before her. The truth is, they were singing for the breakfast, lunch and supper.
They were gaining from the loot that came through State House. For instance, there is this ex-minister who belonged to that greedy band of hangers-on who is still in possession of at least one high value luxury truck that was smuggled into the country sometime in 2017. One day, intelligence guys tried to wrest it from the minister’s driver, but he got it back when the powers-that-be intervened.
It’s encouraging that Auxilia’s entrance has coincided with the top notch arrest of Douglas Tapfuma, the former principal director at State Residences, for allegedly smuggling close to a hundred cars using the OPC stamp. He was, by the way, an aide to her husband for a long time and at one time looked untouchable.
But even though the first lady might have ventured into a thorough clean-up of State Residences after Grace, it’s too early to celebrate that. Power often corrupts the powerful. She is still in her early days in power and, with time, she might abandon what seems to be her good will at the moment. And she is working within a very corrupt system.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on email@example.com