Councillors vow to act on Harare land grab

Harare city councillors investigating the irregular acquisition of prime council land by mega-rich Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo and controversial businessman Phillip Chiyangwa have vowed to pursue the recovery of the land.

The councillors have started a second round of investigations which has already revealed that more council land could have been improperly acquired by top government officials and the politically well-connected.

The councillors who carried out the investigation and the mayor of Harare, Muchadeyi Masunda, were arrested and charged with criminal defamation early this year at the instigation of Chiyangwa. Even the Sunday Times correspondent who exposed the land grab scandal was interrogated by police, again at the instigation of Chiyangwa.

But two weeks ago, Chiyangwa withdrew the charges, claiming changed circumstances, while last month he claimed that the councillors had apologised to him and withdrew the resolution to recover the land they say he irregularly acquired.

Chiyangwa claimed he had reached a deal with Masunda to retain the contentious land but the councillors are adamant that they will carry on with their probe.

Councillors and Masunda appeared to clash last week when the mayor said the probe on the land grab should continue but with a new committee agreeable to both the councillors and Chiyangwa.

Probe committee chairman Warship Dumba, however, dismissed Masunda’s view.

"I am not sure what excited the mayor when he claimed that there needs to be an independent committee. We were elected by the people to serve them and one of the main tasks we have is to reverse the wanton land grab.

"The Urban Councils Act clearly stipulates that we have the power to investigate and we have the power to reverse everything that was done wrong. If the people who voted us into power say we should stop, then we will stop, otherwise land grab investigations will continue.

"Actually, I can reveal that we have already started investigating and we have discovered more land thefts by the same people. By mid-December, we will have produced a supplementary report to the main one we produced in March. We are not going back because the evidence of more looting of state land is coming up now," said Dumba.

The report by the investigation committee unearthed massive looting of council land by individuals close to President Robert Mugabe in connivance with senior employees.

Meanwhile, Harare mayor Muchadeyi Masunda, says he still wants allegations of unlawful acquisition of council land against Harare business mogul Phillip Chiyangwa and Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo investigated and brought to a logical conclusion.

The mayor told NewsDay this week that when he said “let bygones be bygones” he did not mean that the land saga should be swept under the carpet, but that little personality squabbles between Chiyangwa and the city fathers should not be allowed to influence their professionalism.

Council’s committee on land investigations had been angered by what they had perceived as a “unilateral” decision by the mayor to “forgive” Chiyangwa for the alleged unlawful acquisition.

They wrote a hard-hitting letter to the mayor telling him he had no mandate to absolve Chiyangwa and that council and the residents of Harare were not bound by his “private thoughts or views” about Chiyangwa.

Masunda made his “bygones” statement immediately after the latter had withdrawn criminal defamation charges against the mayor and the councillors for accusing him and Chombo of massive land acquisition in the capital.

“The elected councillors do not regard Mr Chiyangwa’s withdrawal of charges against the councillors as a favour. Mr. Chiyangwa laid charges against councillors and yourself in order to intimidate them, thereby preventing them from robustly interrogating the issue of his acquiring vast tracts of council property in a less than transparent manner.”

The councillors’ letter to the mayor expressed unusual fury, only falling short of totally dismissing the mayor.

They unequivocally reminded the mayor that the land at the centre of the controversy does not belong to the councillors or to him and therefore none of them had a right to decide to bury issues to do with its alleged unlawful acquisition.

“The elected councillors in the Special Investigation Committee do not purport to fully comprehend what you meant by suggesting that “let bygones be bygones”.

If you meant that the City Council should drop charges against Mr. Chiyangwa for the unlawful acquisition of council land, the elected councillors in the committee take this opportunity to inform you and the Harare residents that is unacceptable.

“The land that the available documentary evidence suggests Mr. Chiyangwa unlawfully acquired does not belong to yourself (the mayor), the councillors or any individual.

“The land constitutes public property. None of us therefore has the mandate to forgive Mr. Chiyangwa on the issue of the unlawful acquisition of council land”.

The mayor said he had received the scathing letter and said the city fathers had misinterpreted his “bygones” sentiments.

He said he was only trying to counsel patience and tolerance on the part of the city fathers.

The councillors, he said, should not handle the Chiyangwa issue in an “angry” manner otherwise they would lose fair judgement.

“People think I made a generous statement when I said let bygones be bygones. I want the matter investigated to its logical conclusion but the councillors should not be in a warlike mood, declaring that they will not forgive Chiyangwa for calling them hoodlums. If they do that, how are they going to be impartial in dealing with the issue?” said Masunda.

“How can Chombo and Chiyangwa appear before a committee of councillors who are breathing fire and are in a warlike mood?” he asked.

The mayor said council would next Thursday hold a special meeting to discuss the Chiyangwa-Chombo issue.

His suggestion, he said, would be to bring in an independent team of investigators who would look at the 54-page allegations against the two and would also consider any other information from any quarter that could assist in the case.

The councillors reminded the mayor in their letter that he had contributed to the 54-page damning report accusing Chiyangwa and Chombo of fraudulently acquiring vast tracts of city land.

“You will appreciate that whatever private thoughts or views you may hold towards Mr Chiyangwa or the investigation into the manner in which he corruptly acquired property, you cannot unilaterally shift the position adopted by elected councillors to suit your private thoughts or views,” said the letter, which was signed by Warship Dumba, the chairman of the council’s land investigation committee.

“The report therefore is as much yours as it is the city councillors’.”

Masunda said he did not want the councillors to hold “township grudges” against a person they were investigating otherwise that would influence their partiality.

He said he had many times been humiliated and called names but he had managed to put that behind him and continue to act professionally.

The fact that Chiyangwa had at one time verbally attacked the councillors, calling them “a bunch of hoodlums” was “part of the heat in the kitchen”.

“I have been humiliated myself and called names.

“At one time Chiyangwa called me ‘Uncle Tom’ and accused me of serving the interests of corporates and that he would see to it that the council I lead was dissolved. But did I say anything?”

“If you are going to be in the kitchen expect the heat and if it becomes too much, then get out of the kitchen.

“Expect the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.  

– Times Live and NewsDay