I took my first deep dive into data from the Auditor General’s reports in 2013. I was working with a colleague on a research project to pry into the goings on at the Marange diamond fields. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Here lay before us a real treasure trove of information and data. The reports we looked at then gave an account of the poor corporate governance and downright brazen corruption at state owned enterprises such as the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC). I remember the excitement I had; I pored through those reports with disbelief.
Here was a quasi-independent ‘government agency’ doing such a great job exposing rot in state owned enterprise. Auditor General Reports are quite voluminous but surprisingly they are part fun (and of course part infuriating and sad). In the 2014 report on State Enterprises, the auditor general noted that;
The Chairman of the Mining Development Board (Godwills Masimirembwa- former ZANU PF Harare Province Chair and CMED Chair) retired from the Mining Development Board on June 30, 2013 and was paid US$ 261 000 as gratuity for his three and half years service on the board which is in contravention of the best principles of corporate governance which state that non-executive directors shall not receive excessive payments on contract termination. The gratuity payment was also not taxed in contravention of the Income Tax Act [Chapter 23:06] 13th schedule which states that any amount paid or payable to any person by way of gratuity constitutes gross income and should be treated as gross income and taxed under the Pay As You Earn ‘PAYE’ system.
The auditor general then recommended that ZMDC should consider a remuneration policy which is in line with Corporate Governance Practices and should comply with the Income Tax Act. SOEs are given a right of response in the reply and ZMDC in its response said;
The Corporation will adhere to the best principles of Corporate Governance and comply with the Income Tax Act. The Corporation will remit the PAYE on the gratuity in July 2014.
But hold on. Mildred Chiri and team were not satisfied with the response as it meant essentially meant tax-payers would bear the burden. In other words, Godwills Masimirembwa should pay his own PAYE as we all do. ZMDC should not do that for him. The Auditor then noted that;
By paying the PAYE in 2014 the Corporation utilises its resources, of which it should have withheld the PAYE through the system.
This initial research resulted in a report we titled ‘Tracking the Trends: An Analysis of Diamond Mining Tax Contributions’ and also led us to another research project where we were looking at current disclosure practices in Zimbabwe’s mining sector. We sought to assess the extent to which the private sector, government and quasi independent institutions proactively disclose information relating to Zimbabwe’s mining sector.
As part of that research we wrote a bunch of letters to various government departments, Zimstats, Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe, ZMDC and others. We also wrote to the Auditor General requesting a couple of reports. We already had most of these reports but were interested in testing the institution’s responsiveness. And this is when I got newfound respect for that office and the work that Mildred Chiri was leading.
We got a response to our letter within 2 days of having delivered it. I remember getting an email and a call from the OAG’s office acknowledging our letter and requesting that we visit the office for a short meeting and to pick up the requested reports.
To be clear, when we wrote these letters, we were working for a local NGO but we intentionally did not the institutions we were affiliated to and the reasons why we had made our request. The idea was to request for information as ordinary citizens.
When we got to the office, all the reports we had requested had been put together. The courteousness on display and to which we were treated has stuck with me, three years on. We were casually asked why we wanted those reports and we mentioned that we were just interested in the work of the OAG office as citizens and that was good enough.
I distinctly remember that Valentine’s Day (14 February 2015) was around the corner post our meeting with the OAG’s office. We mooted the idea of sending the OAG flowers to show our appreciation of her and her team’s consistently sterling work. For no reason at all, we unfortunately, we did not go ahead with that plan.
What set Mildred Chiri apart, in my eyes, was how unassuming she was. She was not loud or boisterous. I would wager that more have gone through her reports than have heard her speak. She assembled such a great team and managed to keep those ‘civil servants’ motivated. You do not produce such reports year in year out on the back of so little resources without having and leading a great team.
Through the years, I have always pondered though- why didn’t she quit? She surely must have been frustrated. You produce good and factual reports that have clear indications for action; and those that have the authority to address concerns raised equally consistently ignore them. In my imagination, I think she stayed because she felt she had a moral duty to continue exposing rot. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing because it is the right thing.
I do not know the clear circumstances surrounding her departure and even the Finance Minister seems confused and appears to have bungled the dismal or whatever they are calling it. What I am pretty certain of is that her team will miss her, I will miss her and the nation will miss her. She was one of the good ones. Working in the muck but keeping her head high and doing the best she could. People often say we should build institutions and not focus on individuals. True. But individuals are important to. You can have the best institutions and systems and still have that individual- ask the Americans. For once I choose to focus on her, the individual. I choose to celebrate her and hold her up as a hero to my kids. Maybe, soon, I will find a way to give her those flowers she so deserves.