When investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono appeared before a magistrate at Harare’s Rotten Row Courts today, he was chained in leg-irons. His lawyers had to apply to the magistrate for the leg-irons to be removed.
Clad in the trademark red and white striped prison jumper and khaki shorts, Chin’ono along with his counterpart Jacob Ngarivhume have become symbols of victimisation by a vindictive and repressive State.
Many people have said or read that Chin’ono’s real crime for which he is being punished is that he exposed corruption at the highest level. But it’s often referred to in passing that most people who are unfamiliar with Zimbabwean affairs have little understanding of what happened. This short piece explains the events before Chin’ono was jailed.
The story begins with an unlikely character. On 22 August 2019, an Albanian man called Ilir Dedga together with his Zimbabwean agent, one Delish Nguwaya approached Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Welfare as Drax Consult SAGL. They had an expression of interest to supply medical goods and equipment to NatPharm, the government pharmaceutical entity. The expression of interest was worth US$20 million.
The two men had submitted a similar expression of interest before but through a different company called Papi Pharma. That interest had been rejected. Undeterred by that rejection, or perhaps spurred on by a newfound opening, the two returned, but this time as Drax Consult SAGL. Somehow, Drax Consult found favour where its sister Papi Pharma had hit a brick wall.
Whatever it is that they did as Drax Consult, it paid off rather handsomely because, by December 2019, the Zimbabwean government had signed a contract. This was despite objections from senior civil servants. For Dedga and Nguwaya, it was the perfect Christmas present. They had got themselves a US$20 million public contract without having to go through any competitive process.
How these individuals whose corporate vehicle had been rejected miraculously ended up winning the same contract under a different corporate vehicle is a mystery. But its unravelling has since claimed the scalp of a Cabinet Minister. Now one investigative journalist is in jail while another is in hiding – these two because they dared to expose corruption at high levels.
While Chin’ono is an unwilling guest of the State at Chukurubi, Mduduzi Mathuthu editor of ZimLive.com has only just avoided a similar fate by keeping away. His nephew, Tawanda Muchehiwa, was abducted and tortured. They arrested his sister in a diabolical plot to draw him out of his lair.
The regime has tried to use the relative freedom of Elias Mambo, another journalist who played a prominent role in the corruption story to suggest that the plight of Chin’ono has nothing to do with corruption. But it’s the same regime which specifically singled out Chin’ono at a time when he was relentlessly pursuing the corruption scandal.
Drax got the major contract without going to tender, as should be the case with public procurement deals. The Ministry of Finance had raised objections to the agreement, but it quickly capitulated. The Permanent Secretary of Finance, George Guvamatanga, had doubts about Drax. After all, it was fronted by a man with significant criminal credentials to his name. It would appear that someone significant had put their weight behind Drax, making it easier to get the contract. This caused Guvamatanga and his team to drop the initial doubts they had about the deal.
The government of Zimbabwe went on to pay US$2 million to Drax. The money was paid to a Hungarian account at MagNET Bank in Budapest. This raised the eyebrows of money-laundering authorities in Hungary, who wrote to their counterparts in Harare.
Incredibly, by March 2020, another contract had been signed with the government, but this time Drax Consult SAGL had transformed to Drax International. The new deal was bigger and more lucrative. It was worth US$40 million and apparently “based on trust from the previous engagement”. But there was nothing previous about the “previous engagement”. It was current and incomplete. Again there is no evidence that rules of public procurement were followed.
The scandal broke when it was revealed that the government had paid exorbitant charges for COVID19 goods. The supplier of the goods was Drax. The Ministry of Finance had earlier advised that the contracts with Drax should be cancelled. But they made an exception on this occasion and allowed the goods to come in. But the fact that goods worth less than US$4 were being sold to the government at US$28 each caused a major public outcry.
The investigative work by Chin’ono and Mathuthu took the Drax scandal to the doorstep of the president’s household. ZimLive.com a news website edited by Mathuthu which first reported the scandal on 21 April 2020 said that the Zimbabwean government was “funnelling US$60 million to a company linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son, Collins, in a murky coronavirus deal”. It was said that Nguwaya, Dedga’s Zimbabwean agent, was a friend of Collins’.
When the scandal broke and links were made between Drax, Nguwaya and Collins, one of a pair of Mnangagwa’s twins, there were major denials from both parties. On 30 May, Drax issued a statement denying any links to the Mnangagwa family and threatened to sue publications making the allegations. One the same day, Collins issued a statement of denial. But this was a mistake. Chin’ono’s investigations and analysis of the two statements with the help of experts suggested that they had been written by the same hand.
Collins’ other error was more devastating and embarrassing. He denied any knowledge of or personal relationship with Nguwaya. It’s easy to see why he wanted any association with Nguwaya to remain outside the public eye. The ZimLive.com report had described Nguwaya as a man with “a colourful past – including multiple arrests for armed robbery, cocaine possession and extortion”. It was easier but eminently unwise, to run away from a friend.
Chin’ono and Mathuthu proved on a balance of probabilities, if not beyond a reasonable doubt, that Nguwaya, the man with a criminal history had close proximity to the Mnangagwas. He was particularly close to Collins. Photographic evidence suggesting two men who were over-familiar with each other was enough to debunk the myth that the younger Mnangagwa had spun that he did not know Nguwaya.
But there was more evidence in the public domain which wasn’t hard to dig up. On 8 April 2020, Nguwaya had attended an event at State House where he was pictured with President Mnangagwa. It was reported that he was donating US$200,000 worth of goods to fight the COVID19 pandemic. It was at this function that President Mnangagwa claimed to have made a “personal appeal” for assistance to Drax and that Drax had donated US$60 million in response.
President Mnangagwa’s claim that Drax had donated US$60 million was false and misleading. As a matter of fact, the opposite had happened. It was Drax which had been awarded a US$60 million contract without going to tender. The President’s claim of a donation was embarrassing but it could not be denied. It was captured on state television, the ZBC.
The discovery that the video had made it to the ZBC news bulletin contrary to attempts by the secretary for propaganda, Nick Mangwana to deny it reportedly caused some discomfort. It allegedly took the intervention of a senior PEP to rescue the ZBC cameraman and journalist who had been thrown under the bus.
Although the story had begun earlier in April 2020, it did not get momentum until another news site ZimMorningpost.com edited by Elias Mambo returned with the tale of improprieties in the payments to Drax. This was on 27 May 2020. It alleged that the goods had been overpriced by more than 200%, Drax quoting a price of US$987,000 for products worth US$500,000 less. The scandal got more attention on this occasion.
It was then that Chin’ono picked up the story and pushed it with great vigour, using social media to significant effect. The drive catapulted it to higher levels. A story that might have died in the pages of news websites became a staple diet for Zimbabweans as they got a full picture of how politically exposed persons (PEPs) and their political godfathers were looting public funds. Chin’ono was so relentless that he earned a scathing attack from the ZANU PF acting spokesperson, Patrick Chinamasa who defended Mnangagwa and threatened Chin’ono. He described the journalist as an “unscrupulous character”.
The fact that ZANU PF mandarins came out so aggressively to defend Mnangagwa against Chin’ono gives away more than a hint as to why the investigative journalist now finds his freedom curtailed at the notorious Chikurubi gaol.
Chin’ono and Mathuthu demonstrated that Drax was a fraud, which claimed falsely to be based in different jurisdictions including Dubai, Switzerland and bank accounts in Budapest and Mauritius. In the final analysis, Drax was essentially making big profits through overpricing COVID19 goods. It was the PEPs around Drax who made it even more scandalous. But Nguwaya insists it was all above board. Drax is taking legal recourse to enforce the contract.
Chin’ono also pursued another corruption scandal, also connecting the Mnangagwa family, although this is often forgotten in favour of Draxgate. It involved the supply of COVID19 goods by a Namibian registered shelf company, Jaji Investments also to the Zimbabwean government. Like the Drax scandal, the Jaji deal did not go through the public procurement processes, and the goods were overpriced. Chin’ono’s investigations indicated that the beneficial owners of Jaji Investments connected to the Mnangagwas.
The story was widely reported in the Namibian press because of earlier misrepresentations by members of the Zimbabwean government that the goods had been donated by Namibia. The Namibian government denied this and had to engage their Zimbabwean counterparts to clear the air. The revelation of this scandal would also have embarrassed not just the government but Mnangagwa at a personal level. He might have thought Chin’ono had something against him. But if there had been no corruption, the cases would never have arisen.
Meanwhile, back to the Drax affair, revelations of corruption through overpricing forced the Minister of Health to backtrack. Dr Obadiah Moyo appeared on television claiming that Drax had agreed to reduce prices of their goods. But this was a damage limitation exercise. The damage was already done.
Nguwaya was arrested, but the State deliberately weakened the case against him. Predictably, when he appeared before the High Court, the judge made some scathing remarks against the police and prosecution service. The case against Nguwaya is dead in the water. But it was never supposed to lead anywhere, because, with his proximity to the Mnangagwas, he would not sink alone.
The former Minister of Health lost his job, but it’s alleged he walked away with a handsome compensation package. He was arrested but more as a show than an act of seriousness. He did not spend a night in the cells and appeared in court with his bodyguards and cardboard-box-full of cash to pay his bail.
The irony is that despite this unholy picture of corruption at the highest level, it is the men who exposed it, Chin’ono and Mathuthu, who find themselves in trouble. The perpetrators are walking free. Yet the Mnangagwa regime wants Zimbabweans and the world to believe that it is committed to fighting corruption. How does a system which persecutes those who reveal corruption while mollycoddling the corrupt claim anti-corruption credentials?
Chin’ono, along with Ngarivhume are in the worst possible situation during a dangerous pandemic, and Mnangagwa knows it. The two men are being given the merry-go-round in Zimbabwe’s justice system, which has seen better days. Meanwhile, they remain incarcerated at Zimbabwe’s most notorious prison, Chikurubi, on the outskirts of Harare. It’s home to Zimbabwe’s most dangerous criminals. But it is these two men who are yet to be tried whom the Zimbabwean authorities keep chained in leg irons.