Uproar in Zimbabwe : Just for Once, Corruption's a Real Scandal

Times Staff Writer

As with so many good scandals, the one called "Willowgate" began unraveling with a misdirected letter.

The letter and an enclosed check landed on the desk of a businessman here named Obert Mpofu. Mpofu was mystified as to why he would be entitled to a $1,900 rebate from the Zimbabwean government's Willowvale auto assembly plant for a car he had not ordered and would not be entitled to buy for many years.

Then he noticed that both items were actually meant for one A. Mpofu. This man turned out to be an employee of a leading Bulawayo businessman, who turned out to be up to his ears in shady deals with a number of Zimbabwean politicians.

In time, these documents came to the notice of the Bulawayo Chronicle newspaper, which one day last October, under a huge headline screaming, "CARS RACKET," proceeded to make African history.

No Parallel in Region

What followed was a public inquiry into official corruption that has no parallel in sub-Saharan Africa, and little enough anywhere else in the world. In countries from Kenya to Zaire, such corruption is institutionalized, explained away or kept safely out of the media.

Thus, in a region where few investigate official malfeasance lest they be tossed into jail as dissidents, Zimbabwe mounted an inquiry that placed roughly half of its Cabinet under threat of perjury prosecution.

The investigation, conducted by a three-member commission led by Wilson Sandura, the chief judge of Zimbabwe's second-highest court, climaxed with the resignations this month of three Cabinet ministers. President Robert Mugabe has pledged to take action against at least three others accused of misdeeds by the Sandura panel.

At the center of the racket uncovered by the Chronicle is the government-owned auto plant, Willowvale Motors (hence the "Willowgate" label). Willowvale and a sister plant, which assemble Toyotas, Mazdas and Peugeots from imported "kits," are the only legal importers of cars into Zimbabwe.

There is a long waiting list for these vehicles, but the law allows ministers and members of Parliament to jump to the head of the line, on grounds that they need cars for official business.

Instead of keeping these cars, however, many officials were reselling them at markups of as much as $30,000, in violation of a law controlling the prices of secondhand vehicles.

As it happens, the money made in Willowgate would barely merit a cocked eyebrow in, say, Japan, where the Recruit Co. scandal involves millions of dollars. It even pales in comparison to the millions of dollars socked away by some African leaders. One of the busier participants, Minister of State Frederick Shava, who bought and sold so many vehicles that the Sandura commission criticized him for "behaving like a car dealer," made about $70,000 in a year.

Yet the spectacle of ministers and legislators trading in their privileged automobiles for cash has struck a chord in the Zimbabwean psyche the way a complicated scheme to siphon money out of, say, a government utility company would not. "The average guy really understands this one," one Harare diplomat remarked.

In part, this is because automobiles are at the center of the scheme.

Starved for Vehicles

Zimbabwe is starved for vehicles. It is one of the few countries in the world where the number of registered automobiles has dropped in the last few years.

The reason is that Zimbabwe simply does not have the foreign currency to import vehicles. Oddly for one of black Africa's more prosperous countries, Zimbabwe is one of the most strapped for foreign exchange.

Partly this is because it has chosen to pay off its foreign debt on schedule, rather than stretching out interest and principal payments over a longer period, as have most other African countries. Thus, last year more than 33% of its $1.8 billion in foreign income went to pay off debt; most of the rest was spent on oil imports and a highly trained military.

So Willowvale, which has the capacity to turn out more than 4,500 cars a year, in 1987 built only 1,400. Meanwhile, the government estimates that the country needs more than 20,000 new vehicles a year to replace old cars and trucks and fill business demand.

The car famine has turned Zimbabwe into a nation of hitchhikers. With buses scarce at rush hours, people crowd Harare's bus stops with their arms outstretched into the street, palms facing down and fingers waving, trying to cadge a ride from passing motorists.

Even for those with money to spend, the tiny output of Willowvale makes buying a car virtually a lifetime enterprise.

"Most motor dealers have stopped taking names for the waiting list because there's no point in it," says James Brown, head of the national Motor Trade Assn. "It would be 10 or 12 years."

Until last year, Zimbabweans were permitted to pool their family vacation allowances of foreign exchange--about $200 per member--to buy a used car abroad.

Junkers From Botswana

People flooded into neighboring Botswana, paying for anything that rolled. Many of these cars did not roll far, however. The highways back to Zimbabwe became littered with hopeless wrecks that broke down before reaching the border; those making it all the way home often ended up as not much more than decorations of their owners' yards, for the other great shortage in Zimbabwe is of spare parts.

"They were bringing back rubbish," Brown said.

Finally, concerned that the holiday sprees were costing $5 million a year in foreign currency, the government closed the loophole.

Public indignation here over the car racket also reflects something else that sets Zimbabweans apart in their reaction to corruption.

It is almost an article of faith among visitors to Africa that corruption--from the petty graft of a customs officer to the majestic thievery of some national leaders--is somehow a natural feature of the landscape, like baobab trees and potholed roads.

Even aid officials and diplomats become inured. Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, the head of one of the most corrupt African societies, is said to have spirited so much of his country's enormous wealth into European mansions and bank accounts that a Kinshasa diplomat was recently moved to explain the phenomenon this way:

"Coming from a tribal culture, Africans believe that their chiefs' power and status should be reflected in their wealth," he said. "That's why they never complain."

Willowgate belies this facile theory.

"It's a tremendous testimony to the fact that average people in Africa don't like corruption," said one Western diplomat in Harare, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

In truth, Zimbabwe has the advantage of a leader whose personal probity is unquestioned. Mugabe has gone so far as to enact a "leadership code," restricting the number of homes and other possessions top politicians may own. (Nonetheless, many here complain the code is more honored in the breach than the observance.)

It may also be that Zimbabwe's struggle for independence, which ended only in 1980, remains fresh enough in its people's minds for its slogans of universal opportunity to be taken to heart.

Still, Willowgate has also exposed the limits of the Zimbabwean government's tolerance for investigative reporting.

Soon after the Chronicle began investigating the scandal, its crusading editor, Geoffrey Nyarota, was promoted by Zimbabwe Newspapers, the government-controlled publisher--and Nyarota was effectively silenced by being given a headquarters public relations job.

Despite appeals by prominent writers and politicians, Mugabe has refused to reverse the decision, arguing that the new post's higher salary should be considered Nyarota's "reward."

In many ways Willowgate unfolded in a way that connoisseurs of Western scandals would appreciate. The first stories in the Bulawayo Chronicle produced blustering denials.

Callistus Ndlovu, the minister of industry and technology, called the first article "a shoddy piece of slander conceived by tricksters and mobsters." Another minister challenged Nyarota to a fight.

Yet once it became clear that the allegations had merit, Mugabe acted to preserve his own reputation for integrity by appointing the Sandura commission.

Over seven weeks the commission called 72 witnesses, including six Cabinet ministers, two deputy ministers, three members of Parliament, two senior army officers and 40 directors and managers of private companies, generally the buyers of the politicians' cars. On March 31 the panel gave its report to Mugabe, who ordered it published about a week later.

Every day that the commission sat in Harare, hundreds of people lined up outside Zimbabwe's largest courtroom for seats. The demand was so great that spectators were rotated through, like art lovers queuing up to glimpse the Mona Lisa before being moved along.

What they saw was a series of Cabinet ministers threatening the commissioners. But Sandura brooked no intimidation. Several times he impassively cut short truculent ministers with a reading of the commission's broad investigative charge. Twice he threatened ministers with arrest.

Then there were the politicians' seemingly transparent defenses.

One claimed to have been "surprised" when, after surrendering his Peugeot sedan as a loan repayment, he was simply given another $23,000 by his creditor. (Remarked the report, "This is an incredible story which does not deserve serious consideration.")

Higher Education Minister Dzingai Mutumbuka called it "coincidence" that he and his wife placed $55,000 in their bank accounts on the same day they sold their Toyota Cressida, which they said they sold for a legal $27,500. (The buyers admitted paying $55,000.)

Several chose to blame their wives. "If you do find any racket at the end of the day, I was not in any way involved," Defense Minister Enos Nkala testified.

Nkala's wife, Thandiwe, said she meant to sell her Cressida to her employers for about $15,000, a legal price, but the businessmen forced another $30,000 on her.

Others showed less than ministerial decorum. As he was being sharply questioned about some mysterious deposits in his private bank account, Minister Mutumbuka was interrupted by grumbling and catcalls from the public gallery.

"One fool at a time, please," he growled.

At that point Sandura saw fit to warn both the minister and the people about their behavior.

"A lot of the people had never been to a courtroom before, and they were demonstrating," Sandura said in an interview. "I kept having to remind them it was a courtroom, not a rally."

But then he added: "I didn't expect the ministers to behave as they did, by showing contempt. I didn't expect ministers to have to be told how to behave. I expected them to realize this inquiry was being undertaken in the president's name."

In almost every case, the commission produced documentary evidence undermining the politicians' denials; in almost every case, the politicians stepped forward to recant--sometimes lying in the morning session and coming clean in the afternoon.

The commission's success was symbolized by its dealings with Enos Nkala, perhaps one of the most powerful, if unpopular, politicians in the government.

A week after his first, unconvincing testimony, Nkala returned to the commission to face its clear documentary evidence of his guilt. As usual, there was a standing-room-only crowd.

"The atmosphere in the public gallery was very tense," Robert A. Stumbles, one of the commissioners, recalled. "They were waiting for him to announce his resignation."

Reduced to mumbling, Nkala said, "I come to you as a humble sheep to the slaughter." Then he announced his resignation, and the gallery erupted in cheers.

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