Time for Harare Mayor to step aside in Chiyangwa-Chombo probe

COMMENT–There are growing calls by Harare residents for an immediate probe on the dramatic withdrawal of criminal defamation charges by controversial businessman Phillip Chiyangwa on Harare Mayor Muchadeyi Masunda amid reports of the Mayor’s newly found financial and economic interests in the construction industry, this at a time when Mr Chiyangwa’s is the President of Zimbabwe Construction Industry Federation (CIFOZ).

At Harare City Town House, a special investigations committee headed by Mt Pleasant councillor, Warship Dumba unearthed irregular acquisition of land by top government officials in connivance with senior council employees. (Read Full Report).

The report named Local Government and Urban Development Minister, Ignatius Chombo, and controversial businessman, Phillip Chiyangwa, as among top government officials that had illegally acquired vast pieces of prime land in Harare.

The Council through acting mayor, Charity Bango reported the matter to police at Harare Central Police Station and later to the serious fraud section at Ahmed House.

In turn Chiyangwa reported the committee to the police, accusing them of criminally defaming him.

The councillors together with Harare Mayor Muchadeyi Masunda were hauled before the courts and asked to pay $20 bail each.

However, in a spectacular turnaround, on Tuesday, Chiyangwa withdrew defamation charges on the Mayor in a Bizarre twist that leaves more questions than answers.

On the same day, adding to the controversy, at a press conference at Harare Town House, Mr Masunda told the media that there was need to set up an independent committee acceptable to both the councillors and Chiyangwa to investigate the alleged theft of land. However, this has since been rejected by the councillors who are claiming legitimacy through the mandate given to them by Harare residents who voted them into office to manage the City’s affairs through the Urban Councils Act.

The latest call by Mr Masunda has also raised eye brows from Harare residents who are now urging him to refrain from making any future comments as if he is Mr Chiyangwa’s lawyer and some councillors have urged him to “recuse” himself from the Chiyangwa-Chombo probe due to his new position arising from his interests at construction company John Sisk & Sons Zimbabwe Ltd.

Sometime this year, a consortium led by Mr Muchadeyi Masunda acquired a 49 percent stake in construction firm John Sisk & Son Zimbabwe as part of the indigenisation regulations, which came into force in February this year, forcing foreign companies to cede at least 51 percent from foreign firms with an asset value of US$500 000 and above.

Previously, John Sisk & Son Zimbabwe was wholly owned by John Sisk & Son Africa Ltd and the Harare Mayor Mr Masunda is now a 24.5 percent shareholder while other senior executives hold another 24.5 percent.

On record, Phillip Chiyangwa, who is President Robert Mugabe’s nephew is the President of Construction Industry Federation of Zimbabwe (CIFOZ), an umbrella body of the Zimbabwe construction companies which Mr Masunda now finds himself part of through his stake in John Sisk & Son Africa Ltd.

"I am a 24.5 percent shareholder in the company and other senior managers have 24.5 percent, said Mr Masunda bragged.

"We have already communicated with the Ministry (of Youth Development, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment) about the status of our shareholding and they are happy."

All of a sudden, Mr Masunda has turned the guns on Harare councillors who have been pursuing land corruption cases against Mr Chiyangwa and Local government Minister Ignatius Chombo.

While there are no hard facts and evidence of Mr Masunda and Mr Chiyangwa colluding and agreeing to find common grounds, the prospects of Mr Masunda’s financial and economic interests being served in a construction industry federation body led by Mr Chiyangwa are profound and compelling and his dramatic shift in resisting or seemingly trying to block Harare councillors’ pursuit of justice has become a cause for concern at Harare Town House.

The councillors insist that they are empowered by the Urban Councils Act to investigate anomalies in land acquisition among other mandates but Mr Masunda is now pursuing an agenda whereby a so called independent body whose terms of reference are set up by Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo who will handpick his associates to deliberate on a case in which he is the accused.

Dumba yesterday insisted that there was no going back and Harare residents are prepared to back the council all the way.

“The committee, as empowered by the Urban Councils Act, has already recommended that we recover all land that was improperly acquired and that is exactly what we are going to do. The mayor might have his personal opinion on the issue, but he will have to come back to a full council meeting to discuss this.

“There has been talk that we came to some agreement with Chiyangwa – its lies. We were voted in by the people to ensure that we stop the rot in our city. We cannot allow individuals to illegally amass vast tracts of land yet millions of people are homeless. It is the people who tell us what to do not individuals,” said Dumba.

At the press conference, Masunda said the special committee which probed the land theft had also not consulted the accused persons and added that this called for an independent commission.

The clash between Masunda and the councillors comes as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which appointed Masunda, urged council to push for the prosecution of Chiyangwa, Chombo and others accused of improperly acquiring land.

“On Tuesday, Chiyangwa threw away his side show which he started after an eight-member commission implicated him in illicit deals involving vast tracts of municipal land which his companies acquired in suspicious circumstances between 2001 and 2008.

“Although the council filed a complaint and made a counter report to the police for investigations into the corrupt deals, citing Chiyangwa as a prime suspect, the police are yet to do something about it.

“For the record, the MDC does not condone any form of corruption in local councils.  The MDC assures the residents and ratepayers that any illegal land deals and other forms of corruption anywhere in Zimbabwe shall be exposed and the perpetrators brought to book,” read part of the statement.

Former Zanu PF chairman Phillip Chiyangwa, a former Rhodesian police officer turned businessman and Local government Minister Ignatious Chombo are accused of illegally grabbing vast tracts of prime land from Harare City Council using their influence.