I walked away with nothing, says ex-Zimra boss Pasi

HARARE - Former Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) commissioner-general Gershem Pasi was sent on forced leave in May 2016 to pave way for investigations into allegations of corruption and poor corporate governance unearthed by a forensic audit instituted by the Auditor-General’s office.

Pasi, who resigned in May 2017, sits down with Daily News reporter Farayi Machamire for a wide-ranging interview covering his 16-year tenure.

Find below excerpts of the interview.

Q: What did you achieve in your 16-year tenure as the head of Zimra?

A: Sometimes history will be the judge but from my point of view, we achieved quite a lot. One, setting up the institution itself, because it was a blank page, putting systems in place and recruiting competent staff and making sure that revenue was coming in. Its unlike when you are building a company, you have the luxury to build before you start to expect revenue but government wanted revenue even as we were building because there was nowhere else we were getting financing and mind you, this came at a time when we had started the land reform programme and international financial institutions had scurried away because of the our land reform programme, so there was no other meaningful funding for government other than Zimra.

Q: Given that Zimra was a principal funder of government, did you ever feel under pressure to surpass targets?

A: It’s a high pressure job, there is no debate about that and you are employed 24/7 there is no off, as you know government is working around the clock and that work needs to be funded by Zimra. What people may not realise in meeting targets is that there is a lot that goes in, for instance you need trained staff. Like now, when I meet staff both within Zimra and former, most of them thank me because we started a degree programme with Nust (the Bulawayo-based second largest public research university in Zimbabwe, National University of Science and Technology,) initially with degree programme and then a master’s programme.

Q: Were you ever under pressure to support Zanu PF fund-raising events?

A: My philosophy and it comes from the old school is that there needs to be separation between professionals and politicians. So I never brought my politics into the work area and most people may not know what is in my heart and that’s why you find Zanu PF may say “he is an MDC”, MDC may say “he is a Mujuru”, (Joice) Mujuru will say “no, he is something else.” But none of them will say they ever saw me at a political rally.

Q: We saw former first lady Grace Mugabe donate second hand clothing which she claimed she got from Zimra. There was a sense that Zimra was working hard to raise her profile. And this was paraphernalia seized from desperate cross border traders?

A: That’s a simple one because it’s not only the former first lady who received those goods from us. You know, at law, when we confiscate those goods, the commissioner-general is empowered to destroy those goods, if he so wishes. But my view was, we had a lot of those goods coming in, which we were confiscating but you also realise that the country was going through a very difficult time and we invited, through the ministry of Social Welfare, all organisations, orphans, old people’s homes and from time to time, they would come and we would give them those goods. As for the former first lady, the request came through the Office of the President (OPC) saying “Zimra you have lots of goods which are decaying and yet out there, there is drought and all that, could we have some of the goods so that the first lady . . .” So, I looked at the office she occupied and the request having come through the OPC and it made sense to say as first lady, she is the mother of the nation, so it had nothing to do with politics or anything but it was administrative, following procedures which we had previously used to give other charitable organisations.

Q: Under your watch Zimbabwe’s borders became porous and there was rampant smuggling?

A: At that time, I think if you are to plot a graph from the time we formed the revenue authority, you will see that smuggling declined. But with the economy as bad as it was, you get people in desperate situations and when people are desperate, they take desperate measures to survive and that increased smuggling. But that’s not to say it’s something we want but it’s a reality and for you now to kill that, you need more resources, you need to patrol virtually the whole length of our borders because everyone is saying “I can’t I watch my children die of hunger when I can go across the bush and bring a few trinkets, sell them on the side of the road.”

Q: What about claims that your officers were part of the smuggling syndicates?

A: I think as the chief executive officer, I put certain measures and systems in place, that’s why you recall that under my watch we were really pushing for computerisation of systems and we had achieved that under the difficult circumstances of limited funding. I think we achieved it to an extent where Zimra became the envy of many countries across the continent and beyond.

Q: As the government purse man, did you get a sense that Zimbabweans were over-taxed?

A: Of course anybody would want lower taxes but I think the major challenge for Zimbabwe was that we still need to link the revenues coming in and the programmes people see on the ground. Because you don’t want to pay even half a cent for every dollar when there are no services, people coming together to buy rubbles to fill in pockets of potholes, people will say we don’t have any water, refuse is not being collected and yet I am paying so much tax. So you find that the absence of that link between the services rendered and the amount, make the taxation, whatever level, it makes it look out of proportion. So I think perhaps that’s where as a country we need to work on.

Q: Turning to the audit that saw you being mired in widespread allegations of corruption and in the end saw you leave Zimra unceremoniously, what do you make of it?

A: That’s a difficult one, as you have seen in the papers. I am now being taken to court. Of course I will challenge that in court. So I am limited in so far as the details I can give.
I can only give you a general response to say it was very sad what happened and very much unexpected. For me, it was a shock.  I didn’t think it would happen to me because in the 16 years I was at the helm of Zimra, I think more than $50 billion passed through my hands in terms of government revenue and every year we were audited without fail and on time and not once did we have a report that even a cent had been misappropriated. We were improving our systems, yes they were not perfect, but even while things were falling apart in the economy, and we soldiered on. We had picked it up that this dossier was being created but I didn’t take it seriously. You would think that in terms of good corporate governance when a board is not happy with their CEO for whatever reason, they would sit down with the CEO and point out the issues and then give the CEO an opportunity to either correct the anomaly or to give a position why things are where they are and then thereafter, the board makes a decision. But that never happened.

Q: During talks with your ex-employer, one of the most important things you were clamouring for was immunity from prosecution if you resigned. Why would you seek immunity if you were not guilty?

A: I never sought immunity; those were the Zimra lawyers (who may have indicated that). You see, most of those reports in the press were all one-sided and I got the sense that it was a public trial where my right of response was taken away. I never sat down with the board to discuss any of these allegations and I ask myself what kind of a board is this. I thought by going away, I would be left alone, because I thought what they wanted was the job. So, I said if the nation doesn’t want my services any more, I will walk away because I only serve at the pleasure of government and the board represented government initially. The allegations against me spoke to three issues. Firstly, that I built a house in Chirundu for $300 000 and they wanted it audited, and that I had done improper procurement for maintenance services for Kurima House and improper procurement of motor vehicles, including the vehicle I was using. For the first allegation, no house had been built in Chirundu but it was either very malicious on the part of the chair and her advisors and the board in that we had put an item in the budget, a proposal to build chalets for staff. There was only an estimate of $300 000 of building chalet houses. For the second allegation, what was strange was that the report was done by Central Intelligence operatives. There was a staged accident (where documents were forged) as if to try and give an impression that I had an improperly registered vehicle. But my question has always been, that was an official vehicle and not my personal car. What benefit would I get from government buying a car through State Procurement Board and all those other processes? What benefit would I get to register a government vehicle as something else other than what it was? It didn’t make sense and when we made a response through my lawyers, that story died.

Q: When you walked away from Zimra, did you get a golden hand shake? 

A: For the 35 years in government service, I walked away with nothing. I am struggling now to get the small terminal benefits due to me and the leave days I had accumulated and that same car they accused me of registering as a (Toyota) Vitz, they took it away. So I walked away without even the vehicle I was supposed to be offered at book value. So I walked away with nothing.

Q: So, are you claiming anything from government?

A: As of now, it’s difficult because I have no one to engage because the board has refused to talk to me. But now that they have taken the matter to court, I will get my lawyers to put a counter claim so that I get what is rightfully mine in terms of my contract of employment. People say I resigned to avoid being fired. Yes, I was going to be fired because it was a Kangaroo court and I refuse to authenticate that process. For instance, my contract was drafted and or reviewed by Kantor & Immerman as our corporate lawyer(s) but during the hearing, you get Kantor & Immerman sitting on the opposite side with the board chair (Willia Bonyongwe) arguing that provisions of my contract are null and void. That’s serious conflict of interest. And then tell me, if it were you, would you proceed with a process that the final verdict is already determined?

Q: So after all this, how are you getting by?

A: I have been receiving a lot of summons, banks and so forth. It’s normal because I had an income which was at a certain level and my expenditure was on a certain level and one of the loans was based on a company-assisted scheme and I would not have taken the loan if I knew things would end this way. My contract was supposed to end in October this year. So, some of the loans had been earmarked to end there. So it’s not easy, so it’s inevitable even to be taken to court. Fortunately, I have a farm and since 2003, I have been developing it so I won’t die of hunger.

Q: Are you frustrated, are you bitter?

A: No. I am more amazed that the nation yakangotarisa as the authority is being destroyed. I know people may think it was me being destroyed but it was the authority. Even with the new CEO (Faith Mazani), how can they conduct their business knowing how I was treated? Do you think their loyalty will be at the same level as our loyalty was as? So re-energising staff will be difficult, and many may say “better tife tine something”, but I am not bitter. Of course, I would have wanted a good send off.

Q: Any thoughts on the new CEO Mazani, coming in after you?

A: She is a capable person and she can deliver. I know her and she came through my hands but I want to urge a bit of caution that for her to succeed, she has to be given a free hand. You want to channel one CEO, once you have two — one CEO and the other in the form of a chair (Willia Bonyongwe), and if she is not given that free reign, I don’t see her lasting. But if she is given the free reign, she will deliver.

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