HARARE, May 30 (The Source) – When Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo condemned corruption last week, laughter echoed across the country.
It is easy to understand why. With his vast property wealth, laid bare in a messy divorce case in 2011, Chombo has become something of a monument to President Robert Mugabe’s refusal to deal with top level graft.
Corruption costs money, because someone always has to pick up the cost of the arbitrage opportunity that arises. Usually, it is the public that pays. In the City of Harare, for instance, documents dating back a decade show just how Chombo has cost ratepayers in land deals.
In 2010, a committee of Harare city councillors was set up to investigate councils land deals. It reported how Chombo had used his influence to acquire prime pieces of land in Harare.
Take for instance, the case of Stand 61 in Helensvale, a prime property area in the affluent northern verges of Harare. In the 1990s, the council had abandoned a plan to allocate the land for residential purposes. Residents of the area had successfully fought against the land being allocated for residential use. A council resolution was then made to keep the piece of land as a natural reserve area. It would not be sold to anyone.
Six different applicants had their eyes on the piece of land, among them churches and private buyers. They applied to the city council for the land. They were told the land was not for residential purposes, according to a council resolution.
Unbeknown to them, Chombo also had an eye on the property. Between 2004 and November 1, 2006, the six applicants were all turned down; the land was not for residential use, they were repeatedly told.
On December 13, 2006, a month after the last applicant had been turned down, a letter arrived at city council from Chombo. Addressed to the then town clerk Tendai Mahachi, Chombo’s letter expressed his desire to buy Stand 61. He wanted it for residential purposes.
“Director (of Urban Planning Services) Psychology Chiwanga responded to the Minister’s application advising him that he would assist Dr Chombo to get the stand,” the councillors investigation found. “The Director also recommended to Council that, the Minister be sold the stand without going to tender as per Council Policy.”
On March 25, 2008, council pegged the price on the property and, the very same day, sold the stand to Chombo. Three days after Chombo bought the property, the council applied for “change of land use,” to allow it to be used for residential purposes. Who did the council apply to? To Chombo himself. It was, predictably, approved immediately.
“Director Chiwanga was acting more like Minister Chombo’s agent since he influenced the Commission to sell the stand without going to tender as per the Council policy and he continuously updated him on progress on the matter,” the report said.
The councillors investigating committee found that the Minister would spot a piece of land he liked, informed his allies at council, have them hold off any other bidders, before having council apply to him for change of land use of the stand he wanted. This is how Chombo ended up with a swathe of properties, all owned through a web of shelf companies.
“The Ministerof Local Government also benefited from these irregularities by acquiring several stands for himself through his Investment Vehicle companies, which include Harvest-net investments, Waywick Investments, Waycorn Investments, Tonewick Investments and Nedbourne Investments.”
Said the councillors: “Contrary to Council policy that an individual must not get more than one residential property from the Council, the Minister acquired vast tracts of land within Greater Harare and registered them in companies associated with him.”
Chombo, according to the report, used these same tactics to acquire three stands in Glen Lorne. He simply “gave a directive” to council to surrender the land for free to the government. There is a “10% commonage” on land retained by government for council. The land is meant for future public developments, such as schools, police stations and hospitals. However, the land Chombo took over, ostensibly on behalf of government, was sold off to private buyers.
Among those who got these stands were Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri and Debra Marufu, the wife of Reward Marufu, first lady Grace Mugabe’s late brother.
“All the stands were sold to people who were not on the housing waiting list through directives from the Minister. This was against the standing council policies and regulations.”
Because the land transfers were not done by the book, which must include “advice of sale forms”, it is most likely that whoever is holding this prime land is not paying rates. There is no official record of them owning the land, so they may be sitting on the land for free. This is likely costing ratepayers large sums in lost potential revenue up to today.
“According to the Treasury Department, this means these properties are not paying any rates, water charges, sewer charges nor refuse removal charges to Council. The full price for the properties may not have been paid for these properties because no one can trace it when there are no advice of sale forms issued,” the councillors found.
To make the job of grabbing land easier, the report said, Chombo had deployed pliant officials from his office to council, especially in the housing and planning departments, the report said.
For their troubles, the investigating councillors, led by Mt Pleasant councillor Warship Dumba, were arrested at Chombo’s insistence.
Corruption is costing Harare ratepayers money, but beyond the rhetoric, there is no real move to end the bleeding.
If Chombo could break the rules by simply making a call to council, before presiding over his own applications for stands, Zimbabweans can be forgiven laughing each time Chombo, or any senior government official, rails against graft.