‘The Willowgate Scandal that caused the fall of the mighty’

The Willowgate Scandal, the most celebrated case of investigative journalism in the early days of Zimbabwe’s independence, was exposed in 1988 in The Chronicle, a Bulawayo-based, state-owned daily newspaper.

This investigation became the first serious challenge posed by any newspaper to the fearsome régime of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, eight years after his ascendancy to power. Willowgate exploded during the first year of his first term as President of Zimbabwe. Up to 1987 he was Prime Minister.

The catalyst for the investigation into the corruption of several of Mugabe’s ministers was the signing in December 1987 of the Unity Agreement between his ruling ZANU-PF party and PF-ZAPU, led by his long-standing political adversary, Dr Joshua Nkomo. This landmark agreement signalled the end of the notorious five-year Gukurahundi campaign waged by the Zimbabwe National Army’s 5 Brigade in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, in which thousands of innocent citizens of Ndebele ethnic origin were massacred or brutally assaulted. To cover up the murderous campaign, Mugabe’s government had enforced tight controls over the media, especially in Bulawayo.
The year 1988 ushered in a new era of relaxation of those controls. The Chronicle started to flex its muscles as reports of corruption within the ranks of government escalated. Alarmed, Mugabe warned the public not to make spurious allegations of corruption against his officials. Any allegations must be accompanied by evidence, he said.

The stage was set for the dramatic sequence of events that culminated in the investigation mounted by the newspaper into the corrupt acquisition of brand new motor vehicles from the Willowvale Mazda Motor Industries (WMMI), a motor vehicle-assembly plant in Harare, the capital city, more than 400 kilometres away.

Cabinet ministers bought almost the entire output as the vehicles came off the assembly line and disposed of them at breath-taking profit margins.
Due to the unavailability of foreign currency, Zimbabwe was faced with a serious shortage of new cars at the time. Buyers paying a deposit at the official car dealers waited for up to two years before taking delivery. Mugabe’s cabinet devised a scheme whereby ministers were allocated one vehicle each directly from the Willowvale plant, which was partly owned by government. Some ministers exploited this loophole to purchase several cars each.

One minister acquired a total of 36 vehicles. One car was purchased for Z$29,000 in the morning and re-sold for a cool Z$105,000 that day. Business boomed as some of Mugabe’s ministers became full-time car dealers.
The story began when Obert Mpofu, managing director of the Zimbabwe Grain Bag Company and a Member of Parliament, received a mysterious windfall by mail (Chronicle, 21 October 1988).

The cheque from WMMI was a refund for an overpayment on a vehicle. A cover letter explained that Mpofu had overpaid on a recently purchased truck. Mystified, Mpofu brought the cheque to me, as Chronicle editor. We immediately launched an investigation. The refund was in fact intended, not for Obert Mpofu, but for one Alford Mpofu, who had indeed overpaid on a vehicle. This simple clerical error triggered off a series of events that ultimately rocked the Mugabe government to its core.
Incensed assembly plant workers gave me the list of names of all officials who had fraudulently purchased vehicles, along with the engine and chassis numbers (Chronicle, 14 December 1988). We then traced the vehicles to the individuals or companies to whom they had been re-sold and found out the grossly inflated prices. We subjected the fraudulent ministers to rigorous interrogation.

The exposé was explosive when the story hit the streets. Readers queued to buy a copy of the hardly legible newspaper, as it came off a 57-year-old printing press.

One of the culprits, Enos Nkala, the temperamental Minister of Defence, who was then acting Minister of Home Affairs, took umbrage when we sought to interrogate him. He breathed fire on television, threatening to arrest my deputy, Davison Maruziva, and me (Chronicle, 14 December 1988). Senior police, army and intelligence officers visited my home.

Government could not ignore a scandal of such magnitude. Mugabe set up Zimbabwe’s first official commission of inquiry, headed by Judge President Wilson Sandura (Chronicle, 29 December 1988). When Mugabe’s much-feared ministers were paraded before Sandura, the courtroom was packed with incredulous citizens unused to the unprecedented spectacle of usually haughty politicians being humbled as they lied under oath. The commission established that the allegations published by The Chronicle were authentic. Five cabinet ministers and a provincial governor were forced to resign. In a tragic anti-climax, Maurice Nyagumbo, Mugabe’s closest confidant and one of the ministers incriminated in multiple car deals, committed suicide. The rest were exonerated by the President.

There was a massive public outcry as details of the scandal unfolded. Outraged University of Zimbabwe students staged demonstrations and set on fire the official Mercedes-Benz of Vice-Chancellor Prof. Walter Kamba. Former ZANU-PF secretary general, Edgar Tekere, mounted a crusade against corruption, culminating in the formation of his own political party in 1989. He stood and lost as a presidential candidate against Mugabe in violence-ridden elections in 1990. Reporting on the Willowgate Scandal, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times said: ‘What followed was a public inquiry into official corruption that has no parallel in sub-Saharan Africa and little enough anywhere else in the world.’ While the authorities took stern action against me as Chronicle editor and Maruziva, my deputy, the Willowgate Scandal signalled a turning point in the practice of journalism in Zimbabwe, away from the speech-reporting that had become a feature of journalism, especially in the vast government-controlled media empire. The scandal opened the flood gates of investigative reporting, especially in the privately owned newspapers

While I lost my job at The Chronicle, I received more than fair compensation by way of international recognition: a Commonwealth Press Union Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1989, the Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award a year later from the Association of Black Journalists in the USA; and seven further international awards over the years, including the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen Award and the prestigious UNESCO Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Award.

Big Racket in New Cars
Geoffrey Nyarota, The Chronicle, 21 October 1988

A cheque issued to a client by Willowvale Motor Industries, but sent to a different person in error, has led to the uncovering of what appears to be the tip of a massive iceberg, involving the illegal sale of new motor vehicles. The practice whereby new vehicles are allocated to certain individuals in contravention of laid down regulations is, according to inside sources, widespread and allegedly involves top government officials who utilize their influence to direct officials at the car assembly plants to allocate new vehicles to certain people, some of whom are used only as fronts. Toyota Cressidas, Nissan Sunnys and Mazda B2200 trucks have allegedly been allocated to dozens of people, mostly in Harare and Bulawayo. It is alleged that in some cases the people receiving the cars have only had their names used, with money being provided to them by certain individuals who later collected the vehicles. In other cases the new vehicles are delivered to registered car dealers in the normal way. The dealers are then instructed by ‘people in the ministry’ to sell the cars to specific individuals whose names are supplied.

Most of the vehicles have then been re-sold at highly inflated prices, with Toyota Cressidas sold in the box by Willowvale for around Z$29,000 being sold on the black market often within 48 hours of collection for up to Z$70,000. Early this month Cde Obert Mpofu, the managing director of the Bulawayo firm, Zimbabwe Grain Bag Company and a non-Constituency Member of Parliament, could not believe his eyes when he received an unexpected cheque for Z$3,968. His joy was short-lived, however, as closer inspection of the Willowvale Motors cheque revealed that it had in fact been made out to one A. Mpofu.

Mystified, Cde Mpofu contacted the assembly in Harare. ‘They told me that Mr Mpofu, the managing director of Zimbabwe Grain Bag and MP had bought a truck from Willlowvale,’ he said, ‘and that he had telephoned the company the previous day asking for a refund as he had overpaid for the vehicle.’ Cde Mpofu said when he asked for further details he had been referred to a Mr Wilde at Willowvale. Mr Dudley Wilde, the factory manager at Willowvale, is said to have explained that he had acted on instructions from the Ministry of Industry and Technology to issue a car to Cde Mpofu. He is alleged to have said in confidence that the instructions had come from the Minister himself, Cde Callistus Ndlovu. Mr Wilde said the Mpofu who had phoned the previous day asking for his refund had given his address as Kezi Shopping Centre, Box 1796, Bulawayo, and his contact telephone number as 74622, also in Bulawayo. While Kezi Shopping Centre is not listed in the phone directory, the BoldAds Commercial Directory of Bulawayo lists Box 1796 as being rented by the Wholesale Centre.

Wholesale Centre (Pvt) Ltd of 62 Main Street is listed in the telephone directory. The box number is given as 1796. The name and address of the manager are given. He is one Mr Manilarl Naran of 3382 Gorebridge Road, Killarney. When The Chronicle rang the number 74622 the phone was answered at Spot-On, the large liquor wholesale outlet at the corner of Fort Street and 5th Avenue. Spot-On is also owned by Mr Manilarl Naran. Mr Naran is a high-profile Bulawayo business tycoon with strong and equally prominent connections in top political circles. The Chronicle investigations revealed that the vehicle in question, a Mazda B1600 truck was collected on or about August 24 from the Willowvale plant on behalf of Cde Alford Mpofu, a manager at Spot-On, who has adamantly refused to answer any questions put to him. A cheque for Z$24,382.80 had been made out in favour of Willowvale in anticipation of the purchase of a diesel Mazda B2200 pick-up truck. Apparently none was available and the cheaper petrol model B1600 was allocated

This accounted for the refund of the Z$3,968.40 which eventually landed on Cde Obert Mpofu’s desk at Zimbabwe Grain Bag. But that is only part of the story. Another vehicle was collected at the same time, a Mazda B2200, purportedly purchased by a Cde Don Ndlovu, a part-time accountant at Spot-On. Cde Ndlovu says late in July or early in August he received a telephone call from the deputy secretary in the Ministry of Industry and Technology, Cde Elias Mabhena, who is also chairman of Willowvale, a company which is governmentowned through the Industrial Development Corporation. Cde Mabhena has since been promoted to the position of permanent secretary for the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. Cde Ndlovu says that Cde Mabhena advised him that his name and that of Cde Alford Mpofu had been brought forward for new car allocations.

When I asked him under what circumstances our names had been brought forward he said we were not to worry,’ said Cde Ndlovu. ‘All we were required to do was to supply certain details about ourselves.’ Cde Ndlovu said he and Cde Mpofu had then supplied the required details and Cde Mabhena had said that a Mr Gibson would contact them later. In due course, they contacted Mr Dave Gibson, managing director of Willowvale Motors. ‘Mr Gibson said two trucks would be ready in about 10 days and Mr Wilde would contact us about that time,’ said Cde Ndlovu. ‘Later Mr (Manilarl) Naran asked us to go and see the manager of the Bank of Credit and Commerce in Bulawayo, Mr Aktar, who would issue us with cheques for the purchase of the vehicles.’ In August BCC issued two cheques in favour of Willowvale Motors, each for Z$24,382.80 and handed them to Cdes Don Ndlovu and Alford Mpofu. Cde Don Ndlovu apparently collected another cheque the following day, this time made out in favour of Leyland Motors and for Z$22,087.20 …

Cde Ndlovu said an air ticket was later given to him and he flew up to Harare where a car had been hired for him. He picked the car up at the airport and with a driver whohad also travelled from Bulawayo, he drove to Willowvale Motors where they saw Mr Wilde. After handing over the cheques they collected the two trucks, a B2200 and a B1600. Cde Ndlovu then received a cheque for Z$3,968 to cover the difference on the B1600. ‘I, however, lost the cheque when we went to Meikles for lunch,’ he said. ‘The cheque that Cde Obert Mpofu eventually received was a replacement cheque for the one that I had lost.’ He said when he arrived back in Bulawayo he contacted Cde Alford Mpofu who advised that ‘CD has given instructions that the vehicles together with keys and the papers should be given to Mr Naran’.

Asked who ‘CD’ was, he said it was the Minister of Industry and Technology, Cde Callistus Dingiswayo Ndlovu. ‘That was the last we ever saw of the cars,’ said Cde Don Ndlovu. ‘In fact, in the case of Cde Alford Mpofu I don’t think he ever saw the truck’ … Asked this week to explain in which circumstances instructions were issued to dealers to sell new vehicles only to certain individuals, Cde Lukas Mahoko, a senior administrative officer in the ministry said the practice whereby vehicles could be issued to certain individuals on advice from the ministry had been discontinued in 1986 after car dealers had complained. ‘If individuals approach the ministry for new cars we tell that the ministry doesn’t handle new cars,’ he said. ‘They must approach dealers direct.’ Asked to account for the letter which he signed in 1987 he said the letter had been written to the dealer on the instructions of the then deputy secretary in the ministry, Cde Elias Mabhena. ‘Where this has happened we have always been instructed to do so from above. Most people who want cars go through him because he is the chairman of Willowvale.’ Back at Willowvale Mr Wilde said he received his instructions on the allocation of vehicles from above and he was not prepared to disclose any details.

‘I have already received a threat on my life,’ he said, ‘and I am not prepared to give you anything that goes into the Press. All I’m doing is obeying instructions given to me. I don’t want to get involved. I value my safety and that of my family. Mr Dave Gibson … said while he was aware something fishy was happening he did not know the extent of the racket. ‘We are often asked to assist people who are alleged to have difficulties with transport in their businesses,’ he says. ‘The Ministry of Industry and Technology asks us to assist’ …