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Debt secrecy is bad governance



The High Court has passed a landmark ruling which highlights the scandalous manner in which public finances are managed in this country.
Justice Happias Zhou ordered Finance minister Mthuli Ncube to publish details of all loans and guarantees incurred by the government from January 2017 to 1 December 2020. This includes loans from the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) and other international financiers.
Harare North Member of the National Assembly Allan Markham and the Community Water Action Trust filed a lawsuit against the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and Afreximbank in September 2019. The government has routinely contracted debt without seeking consulting Parliament, in violation of section 300 (3) of the Constitution.
The illegal contracting of public and publicly guaranteed debt is a clear manifestation of the governance deficit that has contributed to the destruction of the economy.
There is abundant evidence showing that Zimbabwe’s public and publicly guaranteed debt is grossly understated. Grey debt — and some would even argue secret debt, too — is a reality. For instance, the authorities stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the financial liabilities arising from the hitherto unresolved farmer compensation saga would further burden the taxpayer in future. We did not have to wait long to see that happening. Effectively, the nation’s debt was grossly understated to the tune of billions of dollars.
It is no longer sustainable for officials to continue pretending that there is no debt crisis. When you consider that total public and publicly guaranteed debt is estimated to reach 78.7% of gross domestic product by the end of 2020, you begin to see how the debt issue poses a clear and present danger to economic stability and national survival.
There are countless examples of shambolic debt management, bordering on criminality. The US$200 million farm mechanisation debt which was offloaded by political elites onto the shoulders of taxpayers is one of them.
The powerful rulers of the land and their cronies freely walked away with expensive agricultural equipment. Instead of paying for this machinery, they placed that burden on the poverty-stricken taxpayer. It stinks to high heaven.
It beggars belief that such brazen officially-sanctioned looting can happen in the 21st century, with citizens not lifting a finger. Primitive accumulation has its limits and officials who abuse power must be brought to justice. The beneficiaries of that equipment are known and most of them are still alive. Why on earth would a government preside over such naked looting?
In a constitutional democracy — which Zimbabwe claims to be — public and publicly guaranteed debt must never be considered a state secret. In terms of the law, all debt contracted by the government must be communicated to the National Assembly. The willful failure to abide by that stipulation is tantamount to criminal conduct. But for political leaders to go a step further by forcing the long-suffering taxpayer to inherit such toxic debts is adding insult to injury. Treasury and the central bank must never be used as conduits for looting. For a long time, the RBZ was captured by political elites and used like a personal feeding trough. Institutional decay, fuelled by politicians, is at the heart of the governance malaise that has devastated this country.
Faced with political leaders who do not respect the law, citizens must stand up and take an active interest in matters of economic management. It is vital to also ensure that parliament plays its oversight role. A rubber-stamping legislature is of no use to the taxpayers. In addition, we must see civil society and the media playing a more robust role in holding the leaders accountable.
The Constitution spells out the tenets of good governance: transparency, accountability, justice and responsiveness. These important values must guide the conduct of every public official.