letter from Harare

Zimbabwe: Covid-19 drugs scandal lays bare the rot in the system

By Edmund Kudzayi

Posted on June 23, 2020 06:12

A picture that went viral on social media in Zimbabwe at the end of last week reminded many of an equally famous picture from 2007 of a young boy smiling as he carried wads of notes at the height of the country’s hyperinflation.

The picture showed two men lifting a brown box outside the Harare Magistrate’s Court.

Inside the box was apparently Z$50,000 in small denomination notes – Zimbabwe has no higher denomination than 20 dollars – bail money for Zimbabwe’s beleaguered Minister of Health and Child Care.

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Assuming he followed cash-withdrawal limits imposed by the central bank in response to an acute cash shortage, it would have taken him a year to withdraw the amount.

Obadiah Moyo, a former disc jockey who claims to be a medical doctor without being able to prove that he has a medical degree, is one of the least respected figures in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s increasingly unpopular government.

He is a man who can be said to have enthusiastically taken every crisis in the health sector as an opportunity to worsen it.

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In 2018, he mismanaged a long running doctor’s strike. Hospitals are chronically short of essential supplies. In February, he cheerfully told the nation that it was perfectly fine to travel to China, while welcoming all visitors at a time when China was not only the epicentre of the Coronavirus, but the Beijing government itself was restricting travel.

And the family of Zimbabwe’s first Covid death, the broadcaster Zororo Makamba, has implicated him directly in the negligence that led to his death.

So it was a surprise to no one that he is now embroiled in a public procurement scandal.

Over the last few months, Moyo awarded a US$60 million Covid-19 supply contract to a shelf company called Drax without going to public tender.

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The scandal, initially broken in April by Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of a popular online tabloid, came to full public attention at the end of May after it emerged the company involved, Drax International, had invoiced government US$28 for disposable masks whose wholesale price is under US$4 from reputable local suppliers.

The inflated invoice triggered sustained public outrage forcing the government, who had initially denied that payment had been made, to take action. A parallel Interpol investigation, triggered after US$2 million was paid to the company’s newly opened account in Hungary, has put to rest government claims that no payment had been made.

To add embarrassment to scandal, Drax, initially said to be registered in Switzerland, then in the UAE, seems to be a fraud orchestrated by Delish Nguwaya, a known career criminal who has a record of extortion, armed robbery, cocaine possession and impersonation of a law enforcement agent.

The minister was arrested, as were three executives at the state-owned National Pharmaceutical Company. Nguwaya is also behind bars awaiting trial on fraud charges. Legal analysts have dismissed the prosecution as deliberately incompetent, noting that Nguwaya signed a contract and delivered as per that agreement. Culpability lies elsewhere.

In a country with transparent processes, Moyo’s arrest would have been greeted as positive.

To Zimbabweans however, now cynical after arrests of many high level officials that don’t end up in successful prosecution, this is simply another theatrical act in what they call a “catch and release“ programme that is meant to fool the public into believing that Mnangagwa is cracking down on corruption while no one actually pays for it.

In any event, many of the arrested are rivals of Mnangagwa.

Just recently, a former Energy minister linked to a faction loyal to ex-president Robert Mugabe was sentenced to 30 months in prison for awarding a US$12,000 public relations contract without going to tender.

Meanwhile, two permanent secretaries that signed off on the Drax deal have not been arrested.

This failure to act on seemingly unassailable evidence against officials loyal to Mnangagwa accused of far graver abuses has thus laid bare the impotence of Zimbabwe’s various anti-corruption organs of state.

To add to the murkiness around who authorised Nguwaya is speculation that Moyo is taking the fall for persons closer to the president than he is. Pictures have circulated online showing Nguwaya with the president, his wife Auxilia Mnangagwa and one of their sons, a businessman frequently linked to illegal currency trading.

That a known criminal was cleared to have such proximity to the President and his family has raised speculation that Nguwaya either exploited this proximity, or he is merely the front for others, suspicions that were only strengthened when Zanu PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa held a press conference to threaten journalists for linking Nguwaya to members of the president’s family.

After his arrest, Moyo promptly posted bail and was freed.

The kid glove treatment extended to the minister and other public officials highlights the selective nature of justice in Zimbabwe.

In contrast, three young women from the main opposition party are in prison on charges of breaking Covid 19 public order regulations during a flash protest over rising food prices.

The women claim that they were abducted and tortured by suspected state security agents.

They now face additional charges of filing false police reports. In denying them bail, a magistrate said their alleged actions had caused harm to the economy.

Zimbabweans may well wonder why it is that the actions of a minister who abuses his office to conspire with a known criminal to prejudice the state of millions of dollars are not similarly considered prejudicial to the state.

It is no wonder that many believe that far from fighting a battle against a global pandemic, and against the more localised pandemics of corruption and rot in government, the state is now at war with its own people.

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