Zim NGOs Battle State Media Onslaught

By Sij Ncube

BULAWAYO – Zimbabwe’s non-governmental organisation (NGOs), already under financial stress due to dwindling donor funding blamed on donor fatigue, are battling state media accusations of graft allegedly by executives as President Robert Mugabe’s administration put the screws on civil society groupings thought to be aligned to the opposition and the so called regime change agenda.

The state-run Herald has been carrying a series of stories alleging rampant corruption and abuse of $850 million donor funding in “pursuit of illegal regime change” in the final stages of the inclusive government in 2013.

The paper claimed donors were stopping funding local NGOs after they allegedly failed to account for the $850 million particularly named the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and 14 its allies it claimed were under investigation by USAID.

Executives from Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) were among those listed as having enriched themselves by allegedly looting USAID and were under investigation by the US agency, which on its party denied its funds had been abused.

Among those named in the damning state media reports include McDonald Lewanyika, Crisis in Zimbabwe executive director, Okay Machisa, ZimRights national director and Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, the executive director of ZESN.    

But some of the NGOs fingered in the stories have moved with speed to deny what they say are spurious allegations by the Zanu PF official mouth-piece.

Lewanyika, who has been a subject of malicious ridicule in the state media, strenuously denies the allegations peddled by the state newspaper when contacted by Radio VOP.

“We are debating doing a statement,” he said.    

ZESN has set the ball-rolling and on Tuesday issued a statement, describing the reports in the state-run paper controlled by Mugabe’s office as “unfounded, malicious and highly prejudicial claims” made against the organisation.

“ZESN categorically states that the organization is not under any investigation whatsoever with regards to alleged abuse of donor funds. The network conducts annual audits, which have never been qualified,” read part of the statement.

In defending itself, ZESN said last year it engaged Baker Tilly Gwatidzo Chartered Accountants to conduct its annual audit and an unqualified report was issued, adding that in addition, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) was engaged to independently conduct an assessment of the current financial systems and procedures review parallel to the exercise on institutional capacity assessment and evaluation that the organisation was undertaking. PWC also presented an unqualified report.

 ZESN said it would remain resolute in supporting and advocating for the creation of a more conducive environment for the holding of democratic elections in Zimbabwe, as it has done for the last 15 years.

“ZESN will not be deterred by these unfounded claims seeking to tarnish its image, and will consider and rigorously exercise all its legal options against The Herald should such unfounded articles continue to be published in such an unethical and unlawful manner.”

ZimRights has also come out refuting the allegations, pointing out the organisation noted the peddling of false allegations, further denying it was being investigated for fraud.

It has lodged a formal complaint with the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe.

“ZimRights engages independent auditors for purposes of institutional audit and its partners send their own auditors for normal routine checks. Our partners also conduct reviews periodically and no evidence of abuse of funds has been found,” it said in a statement.

Sources in the NGO sector said all civil society organisations mentioned in the “damaging” stories would by the end of the week have issued statements to “set the record straight”.

But critics of the NGOs, in letters published by the state media, have been adamant “there is no smoke without fire.”