Zimbabwe’s anti-graft body forced to drop mega-million tax evasion case

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Tawanda Majoni and Nkosana Dlamini

Harare–A docket on the shady importation of Isuzu bakkies worth more than US$8 million by the ruling Zanu PF has been grabbed from junior investigating officers at the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) following pressure from senior politicians.

The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) confirmed it was “aware of the matter you have referred to” and was working to recover the tax owed to it over the non-payment of duty for the vehicles by Zanu PF, the majority beneficiary in the tax evasion scam.

Between mid-2017 and just before the 2018 general elections, investigations conducted by this publication in partnership with Information for Development Trust revealed, at least 165 Isuzu trucks were procured from South Africa but, up to now, no duty has been paid.

The majority of the already registered cars was allocated to the ruling Zanu PF and traditional chiefs for last year’s election campaigns and most of them have been added to the provincial operational fleet and are now also emblazoned in party colours.

“Removing the docket from the IOs (investigating officers) is a clear sign that the superiors want to kill the case. It’s a political case that is now being manipulated by senior politicians,” said one of the sources.

Zacc arrested and took to court, the former principal director of State Residences, Douglas Tapfuma, in early August for allegedly importing personal cars using the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).

Tapfuma had worked in Mnangagwa’s office from 2014 when he became vice president and promoted to head State Residences after the current head of State took over from Robert Mugabe in military assisted succession.

Zacc arm-twisted

In the fanfare of Tapfuma’s arrest and subsequent trial, Zanu PF, led by Patrick Chinamasa, former cabinet minister and the party current finance secretary, silently rushed to Zacc and reportedly requested that the docket be frozen as the party looked for money to pay off duty for all the cars that it had received, more than a year after.

The party is frantically looking for funders to raise the money, it was established.

After Chinamasa’s meeting with Zacc, led by its chair, Loice Matanda-Moyo—wife to ex-general and Foreign Affairs minister, Sibusiso Moyo—the three IOs who had been investigating the alleged evasion of duty through the irregular importation of the vehicles were immediately taken off the case.

The three, identified as Emmanuel Mutunami, Guta and Chinembiri, were instructed to hand over the docket to the new Zacc deputy chairperson, Kuziva Phineas Murapa, a former OPC senior employee, and the commissioner in charge of investigations, Frank Muchengwa, who at one time commanded the police Commercial Crime Unit (CCU).

One of the IOs, speaking off the record “because the case is still hot”, said they had requested that the order to surrender the docket be made in writing.

But his superiors at the commission did not heed that request.

Front man

Muchengwa would not entertain questions and cut the phone when he was called for his comment.

John Makamure, a Zacc commissioner and commission spokesperson, said: “Who told you we have such an investigation? I am not aware of any investigations, I am the spokesperson. I am not aware of any interference (with our work)”.

Chinamasa claimed they had duly paid the duty. “We paid duty for the cars. You are scraping the bottom there, so find another story,” he said, but repeatedly refused to say when the duty was paid.

Simon Khaya Moyo, the Zanu PF spokesperson, however, said: “That issue (the procurement of the bakkies) doesn’t fall under my purview”.

The man at the centre of the alleged tax evasion is Tino Machakaire, the Zanu PF MP for Wedza South in Mashonaland East province and a leading transporter who owns Tinmac Motors.

He was first summoned by Zacc in April this year. Recently, he admitted to a Zimbabwean independent weekly that he had been questioned by Zacc over the possible evasion of duty.

But in a U-turn, Machakaire at the end of August flatly denied to our team of investigators ever being summoned by the commission when contacted for a comment.

“I’m not even aware of those Isuzus, I don’t do cars. Maybe it’s not me. I don’t know where they (the newspaper) got the information from. I saw the issue (newspaper story in which he was quoted confirming being summoned by Zacc) but didn’t even speak to the newspaper in my life (sic),” said a disjointed Machakaire when called for his comment.

He has been named by the influential Zanu PF Youth League as one of the party bigwigs accused of corruption, but the same party organ later announced that his name had been removed from the list.

A named senior authority in the State Residences department, insiders said, approached Machakaire to help fund the importation of four-wheel trucks for use by Zanu PF during the 2018 elections.

Machakaire reportedly agreed to fund the procurement of the cars through Autoworld Zimbabwe, a leading car dealer which acted as the agent to source the four-wheelers from a South African Isuzu supplier.

Investigators were keen to establish Machakaire’s interest in the procurement of the vehicles and if he was the sole funder, sources privy to the probe indicated.

The sources suspect he was being used as a mere front to enable Zanu PF to avoid paying duty for the vehicles.

Autoworld was supposed to procure the vehicles and bring them to Zimbabwe on its own. However, once the cars, which came in batches, got to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) at the Beitbridge Border Post, Machakaire, the sources said, took charge.

Dribbling the taxman

Zimra released the vehicles through a Report Order that Machakaire facilitated. A Report Order is a special facility to enable the importation of goods for the government and VIPs, with duty being paid later.

Ordinarily, the cars were supposed to be declared under a bonded warehouse facility that also entails paying duty after importation, after which the cars would be released for sale or allocation.

But even under the Report Order arrangement, Autoworld took possession of the consignments and kept them at its showroom.

From the showroom, Zanu PF took away the Isuzu trucks in batches and, under unclear circumstances, got them registered even without duty being paid, after which they were dispatched for election runs and also allocated to selected politicians.

As the fleet depleted, Autoworld management reportedly got alarmed that all the cars would disappear without the dealer receiving payment for its role in the procurement.

So, later in 2018, it moved the remaining 15 trucks to Paza Buster, another showroom in Harare which Autoworld had for long used for the sale of its Isuzu vehicles.

According to sources, that move was made in anticipation that Autoworld would manage to arrange for the payment of duty for the remaining cars and sell them at a profit to recover its costs.

At that point, Zacc developed interest in the cars when its intelligence unit dominated by Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and military intelligence operatives pushed the case over to Zacc investigators.

Autoworld management failed to respond to emailed questions sent through its business development manager, Piet de Klerk.

De Klerk referred the questions to Autoworld’s two directors, Sean Waller and Paul Chenjerai. Waller said Chenjerai was best suited to respond, but the latter ignored repeated calls.

A crack team of investigators bringing together Zacc as the leaders, CIO, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and the police’s Vehicle Theft Squad (VTS) was set up and made an unexpected visit to Paza Buster In December last year.

The involvement of this team seems to have been triggered by Autoworld’s decision to divert the remaining cars to the market.

Well-informed sources revealed that Paza Buster management told the team that the cars were “for big guys” and had been brought in through a report order, which the investigators discovered had expired and no duty paid.

Paza Buster management did not bother responding to emailed questions.

Zimra was subsequently brought in and the tax authority embargoed the remaining cars as it awaited payment of duty and when that took too long, the vehicles were taken to Manica Freight, a warehouse in the southwestern industrial area on the outskirts of the capital after a notice of seizure was issued towards Christmas.

The tax collector acknowledged that it was dealing with the case involving the non-payment of duty for the Isuzu bakkies. It also hinted at the possible abuse of the Report Order facility.

“Zimra is aware of the matter you have referred to and wishes to highlight that, as part of our debt collection and clearing of legacy issues affecting our revenue collection, we have been working on cases involving clearance of goods through report orders,” said the Zimra head of communications, Francis Chimanda, in an emailed response to questions sent to the tax utility.

Some of the vehicles were allocated to senior Zanu PF officials and high-ranking government employees.

The director of State Residences called the joint team of investigators to a meeting at State House after the seizure of the cars by Zimra, but, curiously, VTS did not show up.

Nor did it heed calls from Zacc to do a market track of the vehicles to establish their final destinations.

The meeting is said to have been short, but the director reportedly remarked that President Mnangagwa was not aware of the scandalous importation of the vehicles.

Open secret

“It’s highly unlikely that the president didn’t know. He is the head of Zanu PF and government. He would naturally want to know where the vehicles had come from and who was involved. There are high political stakes in this. What if the party’s election campaign transport system was being sponsored by his enemies?” said one of the sources.

Besides Mnangagwa, numerous other highly placed individuals seemed to be in the loop about the attempted evasion of duty too. These included the former CIO Director General, Happyton Bonyongwe.

Bonyongwe’s wife, Willia, then the chairperson of Zimra who has been accused of corruption, is said to have known too, together with senior management at the tax authority.

Former police commissioner general, Augustine Chihuri, who was relieved of his post after the 2017 coup, kept abreast with developments relating to the importation of the vehicles, so did Tapfuma’s predecessor at State Residences, Innocent Tizora, said the sources.