I WAS at the time two months short of 38 years of age and a little-known editor of The Chronicle, the Bulawayo-based daily newspaper.
In a building in our neighbourhood in central Bulawayo was the sumptuously appointed office of Jacob Francis Mudenda. Aged 40 at the time, he was the affable provincial governor of Matabeleland North. He was very approachable and we got along very well.
Far away, in the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare, was the office of one of government’s lesser known but increasingly powerful functionaries.
Aged 39, little-known Dr Frederick Musiiwa Makamure Shava was minister of state for Political Affairs in the government of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
In certain circles of the Zimbabwean motor vehicle market, Shava had recently acquired a growing reputation as a motorcar dealer of note.
In June 1988, for instance, he paid $32 780 for a brand new Toyota Cressida straight from the vehicle assembly plant at Willowvale Motor Industries.
This was the luxury car of choice for the elite of Zimbabwe in and outside government. The amount paid was the dealers’ price.
After registering the car in his own name, Shava disposed of the vehicle early in July for a whacking $95 000.
The profit realised on this one vehicle was $62 220, or his own gross salary for 31 months at the time. Shava was not the only top government official involved in this profitable line of business, buying new vehicles off the assembly line at factory prices and disposing of them at extortionate profit. There were several others.
Also involved was the belligerent minister of Defence, Enos Mzombi Nkala, now late. The biggest player was the humble, but also powerful senior minister of state for Political Affairs, Maurice Tapfumaneyi Nyagumbo, now also late.
He clandestinely processed a total of 36 vehicles. Then there was the erudite, but exceedingly arrogant Professor Callistus Dingiswayo Ndlovu.
As minister of Commerce and Industry, he was the mastermind of the racket. He is now also late. May all their souls rest in eternal peace.
The minister of Higher Education, Dr Dzingai Barnabas Mutumbuka, was one of the smaller players. Finally there was the aforementioned Mudenda.
By the time the Willowgate Scandal hit the streets of Bulawayo and Harare on 21 October 1988, and effectively put paid to their nefarious business deals, these five cabinet ministers and a provincial governor were wealthy car dealers.
In the case of the provincial governor, he purchased a monster 30-tonne Scania truck and trailer.
He claimed he invested in the huge truck and trailer to replace the donkey cart that comprised the entire fleet of his father’s refuse removal business in Dete, the small town of his birth north of Bulawayo close to Hwange.
The Willowgate Scandal came about as the result of a dubious scheme introduced by the Mugabe government to help alleviate a severe shortage of new cars in Zimbabwe.
Through this Machiavellian arrangement, cabinet ministers and other top government officials were entitled to accessing new vehicles directly from the country’s two new motorcar assembly plants.
The bigger plant was Willowvale Motor Industries in Harare, which became the major source of the illicit ministerial acquisitions.
In due course, early in 1988, some of the beneficiaries of the scheme enjoyed multiple allocations, with vehicles that were excessive to their legitimate personal needs being sold at exorbitant prices on the black market.
Also in due course, allegations went viral by telephone about the racketeering among the President’s top lieutenants in brand new cars.
The campaign against corruption in Zimbabwe, of which the Willowgate Scandal became symbolic, did not occur in a contextual vacuum professionally or politically.
It was instigated by none other Mugabe himself. With the vocal support of his Vice-President Simon Vengai Muzenda, Mugabe urged the public to submit any reports of corruption to the authorities, complete with well-documented details.
This happened in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s first case of corruption, the Samson Paweni scandal, involving the inflation of charges for the transportation of drought relief maize shortly after Independence.
The public was incensed when Paweni was found guilty of making millions out of the scandal. While he was jailed, his accomplice of record, Kumbirai Kangai, a government minister, got away scot-free.
While Kangai’s name was mentioned in court, newspapers in Harare covered up for him. They did not disclose his name in their court reports.
Meanwhile, The Chronicle in Bulawayo published full details of the Paweni Case, including Kangai’s name.
The idea was thus planted in the public mind that the Bulawayo paper was in the forefront of the fight against corruption.
When allegations of illicit motorcar deals at Willowvale started to float around, it was to The Chronicle that the information was directed.
Around mid-1988, Mugabe, infuriated by increasing reports of brazen corruption, challenged Zimbabweans to desist from peddling spurious allegations of corruption among his officials without producing any copper-bottom evidence.
When the Willowgate scandal broke, the pages of The Chronicle were replete with comprehensive details of a thoroughly investigated and well-documented story that became the first instalment of an investigation that we had put together over a period of many weeks.
The Willowgate scandal had been born.
Reacting to the enormity of the scandal that shocked Zimbabwe and rattled the government, Mugabe hastily summoned me to Harare and to State House.
There he subtly threatened me. While the President had initially exhorted Zimbabweans to come forward with proven cases of corruption accompanied by irrefutable evidence, Mugabe executed a somersault once The Chronicle published its first instalment of the Willowgate scandal.
“Don’t publish any falsehoods against my ministers,” Mugabe now demanded in the intimidating ambience of State House.
I did not reveal to him, but I had notebooks full of unsavoury notes about his ministers.
“I shall not publish any falsehoods about your ministers,” was all I said instead.
And, indeed, no falsehood were ever published against any of his officials.
As more shocking details unfolded, Mugabe was forced to establish a Commission of Inquiry under Justice Wilson Sandura, Judge President of the High Court. It was for good measure that he set up the Sandura Commission to verify the accusations published by The Chronicle, in the hope, no doubt, that the allegations were all false.
Zimbabweans filled the courtroom for days on end to witness the spectacle of otherwise haughty and untouchable Zanu PF ministers being humiliated right before their eyes.
While The Chronicle broke the Willowgate scandal in response to the President’s request for well-documented reports of corruption, at the first veritable evidence that widespread allegations of sleaze among his ministers were not fictitious, the President backtracked.
In the case of Shava, the first culprit nailed for Willowgate-linked corruption, the President rushed to spring him out of prison on the very day he was incarcerated.
“Who has not lied?” Mugabe asked while pardoning Shava at a hastily convened press conference. “Yesterday you were with your girlfriend but you told your wife that you were with the President. Should you be jailed for nine months for that?”
Then the President turned on me.
While the commission’s findings had vindicated both The Chronicle and me, confirming that no falsehood had been published by the newspaper, Mugabe now started to display hostility.
“Nyarota suffers from a certain overzealousness,” he suggested to both the amazement and the amusement of those who heard him.
The Sandura Commission established that in just one year, Shava had made a profit of about $140 000 from buying and selling motor vehicles. This was the equivalent of a government minister’s gross salary for five years eight months at $2 000 per month.
“That sum represents the profits which Shava admitted in his evidence,” the commission’s report stated. “In reality, the figures may be much higher. It is obvious from the evidence that Shava was behaving like a car dealer.”
Of the five cabinet ministers and a provincial governor implicated in the Willowgate Scandal by the commission, only three are surviving. Mutumbuka lives in retirement in Maryland, United States. He relocated to the US after Willowgate and worked for the World Bank.
For him and another two of the culprits, Willowgate was akin to a springboard to success. Following a 25-year period, during which he pursued further studies and established a law firm in Bulawayo, Mudenda returned to active politics in 2013.
He was appointed as Speaker of the House of Assembly. He is arguably the best Speaker to grace this office since Independence.
As for the new Minister of Foreign Affairs appointed this week, Shava has not looked back since Willowgate.
He served a term as Zimbabwe’s ambassador to China and another as representative at the United Nations in New York. From this week, he shoulders the onerous responsibility of mending Zimbabwe’s sour relations with the powerful Western nations.
Perhaps, like Mudenda at parliament, he will become the most successful minister of Foreign Affairs since Independence.
In any case, the appointment of Shava to the position of our nation’s topmost diplomat has become steeped in controversy, not because he is perceived as incompetent or that he lacks suitable diplomatic qualities or credentials, but because he is a controversial figure.
By far the greatest victim of the Willowgate scandal was Nyagumbo, one of the highest officials implicated. He resigned in shame after admitting to selling 36 new vehicles and committed suicide through taking poison.
This was a most painful experience for me. We were related through marriage and had enjoyed a game of tennis a short while before.
As for Davison Maruziva, my deputy, with whom I worked to investigate the scandal, we were both removed from The Chronicle to appease those powerful men we dared to investigate and expose. Long before the Sandura Commission held its first session, we had both been fired.
Long after the Sandura Commission had exonerated Maruziva and me, it was patently clear that the Mugabe administration had not forgiven us, especially me.
Likewise it remains obvious that despite the oft-repeated anti-corruption sentiments of the Second Republic, I remain unforgiven, essentially. Over the past two years, commissioners have been appointed to two statutory commissions, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) and the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).
Four prominent lawyers, including former Harare mayor Muchadeyi Masunda, nominated me for appointment to Zacc. After my name was short-listed, The Sunday Mail reporter Brian Chitemba caused the newspaper to publish a fake article to the effect that I had been investigated by the same Zacc for corruption. Zacc promptly issued a denial.
The National Assembly was falsely alleged by Chitemba to have been the recipient of a report about my investigation.
More recently, I was variously nominated for appointment to the ZMC. My name was not even short-listed.
As fate would have it, the nephew of Shava and my own son married into the same family a few years ago. So in our Shona custom Shava is now Babamukuru or Big Brother to me.
As such, as soon as the proverbial dust has settled at Munhumutapa Building, I propose to pay the new minister of Foreign Affairs a visit, both to welcome him back home and to congratulate him on his new appointment.
Nyarota was Editor of The Chronicle from 1983 to 1988 and founding Editor-in-Chief of The Daily News from 1999 to 2003.