Zimbabwe urban councils looted

HARARE – Corrupt councillors, commissioners and politicians in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare and other cities looted hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, land and other assets in an unprecedented orgy of self enrichment over the past decade while service delivery collapsed in the various municipalities.\r\n

Extensive investigations and research by ZimOnline, including examination of various council documents and audit reports revealed that Harare alone could have been fleeced of more than $100 million in shady land deals and contracts during the tenure of illegal commissions appointed by Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, a former university lecturer whose wealth soared upon joining government.

Chombo has during the period accrued an impressive property portfolio around Zimbabwe’s urban areas, raising many questions about the source of his wealth.

Results of a probe team established by the Harare City Council last year confirmed residents’ biggest fear, that influential politicians linked to President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party were beneficiaries of choice housing and industrial stands, which they paid very little for or nothing.

In a telling case, Phillip Chiyangwa, a businessman and Mugabe relative who boasts owning more than a third of Harare, entered into a land swap deal with the city in 2008, where he exchanged his swampy 17ha piece of land near Chitungwiza for council land in the plushy Gun Hill suburb.

Under the deal, Chiyangwa would receive 10ha in GunHill, but in fact received 17ha in a fraudulent transaction that prejudiced the Harare council $525 000.

Efforts by a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-led council to have the maverick businessman arrested failed and instead the city’s mayor Muchadeyi Masunda and councillors who carried out the probe were locked up by police for criminal defamation.

But by far the most controversial deal to hit Town House was the awarding of a contract to construct a motorway between the city centre and Harare International Airport, which was given to Ukrainian based but Estonian registered shelf company Augur Investments without going to tender.

Investigations by ZimOnline show that the controversial project will cost $60 million but Augur has quoted the city council $87 million, with town house sources saying the difference would pay bribes to senior government and council officials who facilitated the deal.

As part of that deal, Augur will receive 733.9ha in stands around Harare, whose value was recorded as $52.3 million but independent valuations by our Harare-based city valuer have put the true value at $76 million. The rest would be paid in cash.

Augur agreed to handover all equipment used to construct the highway to Harare council but has not brought any equipment on site, in breach of the contract and instead sub-contracted South Africa-based Power Construction to do the work.

Commissions and Corruption

The trail of corruption at Harare Council can be traced back to the tenure of the late first executive mayor Solomon Tawengwa, who was to be fired in March 1999 on graft and fraud charges related to the construction of a footbridge and a bus terminus at Machipisa shopping center in the low-income suburb of Highfield.

Chombo, the longest serving minister of Local Government, installed a commission led by Elijah Chanakira to replace Tawengwa, which residents and critics say marked the start of grand corruption and abuse of council resources and assets.

The legacy of the Chanakira commission was the hiring of 600 ZANU-PF supporters as employees to non-existent posts and leaving council with debts of $8 million at today’s value.

Chombo in 2003 moved to expel MDC mayor Elias Mudzuri on trumped up charges. In fact Mudzuri was expelled for canceling a contract awarded by the Chanakira commission to Harare businessman and ZANU-PF member Macdonald Chapfika to import water treatment chemicals from Zambia, when the chemicals could be locally procured.

Mudzuri was initially replaced by her deputy Sekesai Makwavarara, who later defected to ZANU-PF and was appointed to chair another commission, which facilitated the issuing of housing stands, often at discounted prices to top government officials and ZANU-PF members who did not appear on the council housing waiting list.

Harare has a housing backlog of more than 1 million residents.

But under the commission led by Michael Mahachi, which a High Court ruled was illegal, corruption was taken to a new level. 

Mahachi, a lawyer, is a former classmate of Chombo at Kutama College and the two have remained close friends to date.

Mahachi masterminded the land swap deal with Chiyangwa and another transaction in which Chiyangwa was given 17.6ha of land in Glen Lorne and Hatfield in return for providing vehicles and Zimbabwean dollars for council workers’ salaries in 2008, at a time of raging hyper-inflation.

“One wonders why our learned (council) officials could exchange land with salaries in an inflationary period where the Zimbabwean dollar was depreciating in value while land was appreciating,” according to the probe by the city council.

In a flagrant case of conflict of interest and possible fraud, Mahachi was project manager of Augur Investments and on one hand being Harare City commission chairman.

Sources say he was Chombo’s inside man in the council to make sure the airport road construction deal sailed through. Mahachi only declared his interests after resigning from council and also after having identified land that would be transferred to Augur.

The Mahachi commission is fingered in the controversial sale of reserved council land in Glen Lorne to then government ministers, who included Oppah Muchinguri who got 3 000 square metres at a tenth of the price and Rugare Gumbo who got 2 500 square metres under the same deal.

Senior army officials also received housing stands at knockdown prices as little as $200 for 2000 square metres in Glen Lorne after Mahachi heeded Chombo’s illegal directive to transfer reserved council land to the government.

The land was reserved for schools, hospitals and police stations and costs $35 000.

Corruption has not spared town councils outside the capital. In Bindura, then mayor and now Mashonaland Central governor Martin Dinha bought a mayoral house he had lived in for a miserly $40 in 2008. The house costs at least $70 000.

Former deputy mayor of Chegutu town Phineas Mariyapera was fingered in a 2003 government audit for siphoning the equivalent of $4 million today from the council. Mariyapera, a ZANU-PF official, was never prosecuted.

The previous Red Cliff town sold Chiyangwa’s Pinnacle Properties 200ha of residential land at $0.17 a square metre, far below council price of $3 per square metre, prejudicing Red Cliff $5.6 million.

Chombo, Man of Many Properties

Analysts say Chombo sits on the top of a corruption pyramid and has always moved with speed to dismiss MDC mayors who threaten his interests and installing pliant commissions so he can have unchecked influence on the affairs of the councils.

His critics say the former university lecturer has used his office to corruptly acquire real estate, especially in Harare where he is notorious for leaning on commissioners he would have appointed to carry out his directives. (see list of stands below).

Chombo bought a 20ha council stand in the up-market Helensvale suburb in 2008 which was earmarked as a natural reserve after forcing the council to apply to him to change the status of the land.

Between 1996 and 2006 six different people had applied for the same piece of land but were turned down on the understanding that it was reserved council property.

But four days before the March 2008 election that nearly swept Mugabe’s ZANU-PF from power and ushered a new council, the Mahachi commission held an urgent meeting at the behest of Chombo, pegged a price and sold the stand to him on the same day.

Chombo paid $2 400 for the property, which was registered in one of several dozens of his companies Harvest-Net Investments. The actual market price for the property is $3 million.

“When a senior civil servant does that, he has become a threat to residents that he is suppose to serve and protect,” said Precious Shumba, a coordinator with Harare Residents Trust.

Chombo also used his office to buy housing stands in such areas as Epworth, Chirundu, Chishawasha and even remote Binga, Victoria Falls and Chegutu, spreading his real estate footprint around Zimbabwe.

Commissioners or Cartels

Residents are angry that commissioners that replace elected councilors get hefty payments even if they are illegal.

Mahachi was given a 4 200-square metre residential stand in Greystone Park as an exit package by Chombo. The property costs $63 000 on the open market.

Before the package, Mahachi had, through his Mahachi Estates and Partners and Mahachi, Gwaze and Partners bought 10ha of residential stands in Harare’s plush suburbs at a total cost of $110 000 at today’s prices instead of the market price of $1.5 million.

Sashekat Jogi, a commissioner in the previous Harare commission was handed 4ha of a choice residential stand in Borrowdale as an exit package. Jogi was retained as special interest councillor by Chombo in the current MDC-led council.

“It is common cause that since Chombo and ZANU-PF fired the democratically elected council, led by Elias Mudzuri and replaced it with illegal commissions for nearly five years, Chombo was effectively the actual executive mayor of Harare for nearly half a decade. In that period, the city slumped into an abyss, lost its patina and became a ZANU-PF looters’ closet,” an MDC spokesman said.

Critics accuse Chombo of presiding over urban councils like his personal fiefdom and the ZANU-PF politburo member has continued to court controversy with a recent directive to Harare council to fork out $100 000 to a probe team that conducted investigations of abuse of office against MDC councillors last year.

The Muchadeyi Masunda council has rejected Chombo’s directive, arguing that the council had already paid $37 000 to another Chombo appointed investigation team for the same job.

In Mutare, the MDC led council has rejected two directives by Chombo to give former commission members packages for running the affairs of council after then mayor Misheck Kagurabadza was fired by the local government minister.

Chombo wants Mutare council to pay former commission chairman Fungayi Chayeruka $30 000 and that he be given a vehicle, house, commercial stand, residential stand and 100 litres of fuel at government prices for three months. Chayeruka, a senior ZANU-PF official, would also be exempted from paying council rates for eight months.

Council Corruption, Way of Life?

But residents worry that corruption may now be a way of life at urban councils.

When MDC councillors took office in the country’s various urban councils in 2008, residents rejoiced, hoping they were breaking with the corrupt past of Chombo’s commissions.

But they have been disappointed after MDC councillors were fingered in several cases of corruption and impropriety.

In Harare at least seven councillors were accused of changing title deeds to council houses which were meant for tenants who have rented the properties for decades. The councillors deny the charges.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party had to fire all its councillors for Chitungwiza town last year after a probe found out that they were amassing housing stands, which they would sell at a huge profit or exchange with vehicles.

The councillors also sold land meant for schools and hospitals, with one councillor accused of selling 30 residential stands valued at $150 000 but the council only got $15 000.

The corruption has not spared smaller towns, including the border town of Beitbridge, where the MDC’s five councillors in the six-member council are under investigation for corruptly awarding housing stands to relatives and friends.

“City councils have now become the melting pot of corruption. It is scandalous that even MDC councillors who residents expected to bring an end to corruption are partaking to it with so much zeal,” John Makumbe, a veteran political commentator said.

As councillors line their pockets, residents continue to go for days without water, potholes are not filled and sewers continue to burst under the weight of creaking infrastructure and growing population. — ZimOnline