In the 1980s, a lowly government officer, Obert Mpofu, provided information that several Cabinet Ministers had abused a car loan facility to enrich themselves. This resulted in what became known as the ‘Willowgate’ scandal. President Robert Mugabe instituted the Justice Wilson Sandura Commission to investigate the matter. The Ministers who had been implicated were later dismissed. Today, two of those dismissed are back in government in different capacities. Advocate Jacob Mudenda is now the Speaker of Parliament and Frederick Shava is now Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to the United Nations. The man who blew the whistle on their corrupt activities is also a Cabinet minister.

Given this background, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s new policy to reward those who supply information that leads to the arrest and prosecution of money launderers and corrupt officials has failed to generate any real excitement among ordinary Zimbabweans. In 2015, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority suspended a similar whistleblowing fund facility under circumstances that have remained unclear.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Photo: Arthur Chatora

Whistleblowing requires a safe environment with enabling legislation for it to be effective. It also requires strong political will. It is a risky business, even in so-called developed countries, where we have seen data privacy activists like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden having to escape into exile for their attempts to expose the secrets of their governments. In countries where governments have very little regard for the rule of law, the consequences may be worse.

Read: Is Nigeria’s whistleblower policy really working?

The Nigerian Example

Nigeria, a country known for rampant corruption, has introduced a whistleblowing policy that seems to be producing positive results. According to news reports, the policy has led to the recovery of more than USD180 million from various corrupt individuals. This includes the USD9,8 million that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recovered from Andrew Yakubu, the former group managing director of Nigeria’s state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 03 February 2016. Photo: ANP/EPA Patrick Seeger

The Nigerian government, under the stewardship of President Muhammadu Buhari, has upped its efforts in the fight against corruption and claimed the scalps of influential people in society. This has raised hopes among the general public that the government has the intention and capacity to fulfil its pledge to fight corruption.

Failing to Follow Through

The same cannot be said for the government of President Robert Mugabe, which rewards corruption and promotes a culture of impunity. It has even undermined its own corruption-fighting institutions by shielding those who had been implicated in corrupt practices.

Read: Zimbabwe at 37: Betrayed aspirations or ‘total emancipation in progress’?

The case of Minister of Tertiary Education, Professor Jonathan Moyo, who had been accused of diverting government funds for his own benefit, demonstrates this point. Although the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission had instituted investigations and recommended prosecution, President Mugabe said that the parties should resolve the matter without involving the police and then instituted a commission of senior party members to investigate the anti-corruption body.

File picture. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (C) flanked by his wife Grace (R) attends the One Million Men March, Photo: ANP/EPA/Aaron Ufumeli

The government of Zimbabwe is also good at issuing threats that it never follows through on. In 2016, after the country began experiencing serious cash shortages, the current Reserve Bank Governor, John Mangudya, threatened that those involved in the ‘externalisation of cash’ would be prosecuted. Last year, a number of Zimbabweans appeared on the list contained in the Panama Papers, which exposed those who had been sending money to offshore tax havens. There has not been a single arrest, investigation or conviction of the perpetrators named in the Panama Papers.

The governor has also accused government departments of hoarding cash and not banking it, as required by the law, but no one has been held accountable for a practice that is causing untold suffering to ordinary Zimbabweans who cannot access cash. If the government cannot lead by example and ensure that its own departments are following the law, this will not inspire confidence in ordinary people that it is sincere about fighting corruption.

Culture of Impunity

People who step forward to disclose wrongdoing, particularly when public safety, health or resources are at stake, should be acknowledged and protected, not punished and ostracised.

Although there are some aspects of the Zimbabwean legal system that can be relied on to protect whistleblowers (Part XIV A of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act – Protection of Vulnerable Witnesses, for example) Zimbabwe does not have a comprehensive, national whistleblowers protection Act.

The Zimbabwe Supreme Court building Source: Free & ; Fair Zimbabwe Election

Corruption watchdog Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) has approached many members of parliament, portfolio committees and other state institutions to advocate for the enactment of whistleblower protection legislation, but this has not yielded any results. Without enabling legislation to protect the whistleblower from potential lawsuits, victimisation or harm, people are likely to be reluctant to risk their personal wellbeing to disclose wrongdoing.

Zimbabwe does not have a history of dealing decisively with people implicated in corrupt activities either. In many cases the police and constitutional Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission have refused to investigate or take any action after people came forward with reports of alleged corruption in government institutions.

There has not been a single arrest, investigation or conviction of the [Zimbabwean] perpetrators named in the Panama Papers.

With the victimisation of whistleblowers so common in the country, many Zimbabweans are unlikely to feel safe enough to report influential members of society.

In a case of persecuting the messenger, in 2009, a man who accused the then vice president, John Nkomo, of sexually assaulting him was arrested on allegations of supplying false information. Similarly, in 2011, a 28-year-old man from Harare who reportedly wrote anonymous letters to seven police stations, claiming that then Vice President Joyce Mujuru, as well as John Nkomo and Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri were facing assassination threats, ended up in the dock himself.

Joice Mujuru, Former Vice President of Zimbabwe, at the 2012 Horasis Global Arab Business Meeting. Photo: Creative Commons

In 2015, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, was reported to police for corruption by his former advisor, Munyaradzi Kereke, but the police refused to take any action. Another subordinate to Gono testified in court that the former governor would often make verbal requests for cash at the bank. This money would then be delivered to him in bags, but again no action was taken by the relevant government bodies.

With the victimisation of whistleblowers so common in the country, many Zimbabweans are unlikely to feel safe enough to report influential members of society. In addition, while providing a 5% incentive for whistleblowers may help to motivate the public, the system assumes that people will only do good if they have the hope of getting rewarded. However, some people just want to make a difference in their communities by being model citizens, and the government must create an environment that allows such people to thrive. This can only be done when the citizens are confident that their well-intended efforts will be augmented by their government taking concrete action against offenders.