Editorial Comment: Transparency needed at City of Harare

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In this week’s issue of The Sunday Mail we report on preliminary findings by investigators into alleged misuse of water and sewer infrastructure funds by the City of Harare. The allegation is that the city splurged on luxury vehicles using project funds sourced from a Chinese loan. From the word go, the whole project has been dogged by controversy.

For starters, questions have been raised about how the city came to the project cost of US$144,4 million.
On at least one occasion, the Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Ministry has said it will probe how the deal — signed by Town Clerk Dr Tendai Mahachi — was structured.

That was several months ago. We are still waiting. And while still waiting, the project team has gone on to buy some 50 vehicles using part of the loan.

Senior city officials are at pains to tell ratepayers that the cost of vehicles comes to “just” 0,00-something percent of the total loan.

This 0,00-something percent translates to more than US$2 million. That is no small sum of money, especially for a municipality that cannot set aside US$1 million — which would be even less than the “just” 0,00-something percent spent on cars — to put up a few streetlights.

It is also a small sum of money when council clinics do not have sufficient stocks of medicine and other basics for them to operate optimally.

Yes, city officials will argue that they cannot take water and sewer money and divert it to street lighting or public health. And that would be rather inane because water money can buy a “project” Range Rover for the Town Clerk.
It all comes down to a matter of priorities and impunity: wrong priorities and acting with impunity.

Consider how the entire matter unravelled.
Indications are that under the already contentious loan agreement, there was provision for the purchase of less than 10 vehicles.

Then at a full council meeting last month, the acting town clerk, Engineer Christopher Zvobgo, claimed that the city had bought 13 project vehicles.

Councillors said they knew of 25 vehicles, and Eng Zvobgo said he would go and verify.
And then it emerged that the city had in fact bought 50 vehicles, a significant number of which were allocated to council bosses who only last year took delivery of new, official cars. If this is not a case of grossly skewed priorities and the most brazen impunity, then we surely do not know what is.

The issue does not end there.
After the mayor instituted a probe into the saga, we got half-hearted assurances from Government that it would act decisively on the recommendations of investigators.

A Local Government official on one hand said they would crack down on looters, but on the other hand said he saw nothing wrong with the purchase of project vehicles.

Last week, Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Minister Dr Ignatius Chombo said more or less the same thing.

There are some things Dr Chombo and his ministry officials should consider before they make such statements on such an emotive issue as alleged abuse of funds by public officers.

It does not look good and does not instil confidence when State authorities appear to be cleansing a matter before investigations are complete. They are creating the impression that they are unlikely to act on a negative report.
Further, people are not questioning the purchase of project vehicles.

What is of concern is that luxury cars are classified as project vehicles and allocated to senior officials so that they do work that we normally expect them to do anyway.

What is also of concern is that this is money that can better serve ratepayers — who, by the way, are the ones who will ultimately repay that allegedly grossly overstated loan — if it is deployed more fully to what it is meant for: water and sewerage infrastructure.

There is an unsubstantiated belief in many circles that there might be an unhealthy relationship between the Local Government Ministry and Harare’s town clerk.

The ministry must not be seen to always be jumping to protect the town clerk and shielding him from public scrutiny.

Ratepayers have a right to demand transparency and answers whenever opacity is suspected.
It is our sincere hope that investigators probing this matter do their job thoroughly and come up with recommendations that serve to bring accountability and to strengthen systems at the City of Harare.

Secondly, it is hoped that Government will take the findings seriously and not sweep things under the carpet.
And thirdly, hopefully we will see a wider and deeper probe into the entire US$144,4 million deal and not end on only looking at procurement of project vehicles.

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