HomeLocalIn conversation with Trevor - Nyarota: How the Willowgate scandal was exposed

In conversation with Trevor – Nyarota: How the Willowgate scandal was exposed

Veteran journalist Geoff Nyarota has spoken of how he helped uncover one of Zimbabwe’s biggest corruption scandals.

Nyarota, who was editor of the State-owned The Chronicle when the scandal was exposed in the 1980s, told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube on the platform In Conversation with Trevor, that former minister Obert Mpofu triggered the investigation that claimed the scalp of several ministers.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

TN: Geoff Nyarota, welcome to In Conversation With Trevor.

I am so glad that we have finally created the time for us to sit down and chat.

We have been meaning to do this, a lot of things happened in between, but finally thank God we get to talk.

GN: Thank you very much for inviting me Trevor Ncube. It took a long time for us to sit down.

TN: Interesting that you say Trevor Ncube because you and I worked together, and one thing that you taught me, I do not know if you still remember this, that if you are answering the phone you must always say your full name and then “how can I help you”.

I have not stopped doing that! Thank you for that.

GN: You are most welcome.

TN: Geoff you know when an objective history of this country is written, your name as an investigative journalist is going to be up there, and Willowgate, and The Sandura Commission are going to be up there.

We are talking about corruption.

So I want us to start with Willowgate.

The story, the fallout and the lessons from that whole experience and the lessons from an investigative journalist.

Talk to us about the story? What was the story about? What happened?

GN: Thank you. I think that sounds like a penalty kick, hahaha, for me.

Let me start by expressing our very sincere condolences on the passing away of your parents recently.

TN: Thank you Geoff.

GN: Now, Willowgate, the story started in very mysterious circumstances.

The mystery being that a one-time friend of mine, we are still friends in spirit but we hardly ever meet because we now occupy different stations in life.

I am talking here of Honourable Obert Mpofu, who at the material time was the general manager of the Zimbabwe Grain Bag Company, which had just been established by Zanu PF in Bulawayo in anticipation of a massive harvest at the time, that year.

Now, Obert Mpofu received a cheque from Willowvale Motors here in Harare, which he was not expecting.

He had no business receiving a cheque from Willowvale.

So he enquired about this cheque, but was not quite happy with the explanation that he received.

Obert, as I said, was my friend.

He used to work for Zimbabwe Newspapers on the management side at Herald House.

So we maintained a friendship.

He came to see me in my office as editor of The Chronicle and he was holding this mysterious cheque in his hands.

He said he had received the cheque for so much from Willowvale Motors and was failing to understand the circumstances in which the cheque had been issued to him, so naturally I then became very interested.

That is how Willowgate started.

Now, I appropriated the cheque from its owner and proceeded to investigate the circumstances of its being written.

TN: Do you remember how much it was for? This is way back?

GN: It was something like $2,000, which in those days Trevor was a lot of money.

Now the issue was that somebody purchased a vehicle from Willowvale.

They did not have the model of vehicle, I think it was a Mazda B2200.

Willowvale did not have the model available at the time.

So they allocated a Mazda B1800, which was cheaper by the amount reflected on the cheque, so it was a refund for the extra payment, but Obert Mpofu had not acquired the said vehicle which is where the mystery now started to unfold.

There was another Mpofu in Bulawayo, I do not remember his first name now, but he was the one who had purchased the vehicle from Willowvale.

In normal circumstances this other Mpofu would not in any circumstances be in a position to purchase a brand new Mazda B2200 from Willowvale.

That was not his station in life. Now that is where the story begins.

So he had been assigned by other people to purchase and collect this vehicle on their behalf.

These other people were one Mohanal Naran, a top business executive in Bulawayo.

He ran a thriving liquor store.

He was the one who purchased the vehicle, but he was the one who sent Alvord Mpofu to purchase and collect the vehicle.

To facilitate this transaction, Naran gave the required amount to Alvord Mpofu in cash, who took it to the Bank of Credit and Commerce so that they would issue him with a cheque to take to Harare, which Alvord Mpofu did and he paid for the required vehicle but as I explained they did not have the right car.

That is how the Willowgate Scandal started.

I then went to the bank when I started to smell a dead rat and inquired about the circumstances of the purchase of this vehicle.

Now the bank manager, one Mr Acta, of the Bank of Credit and Commerce, which you guys used to call the ‘bank of something and thieves’.

This bank manager was not amused by my line of questioning, but he cleared himself as he said it was not any of my business if a customer of his brings in cash and they issue them with a cheque.

Well, I conceded that this was normally not my business, but in this case I felt this had become my business because no sooner had I left Mr Acta’s office than he put a call to Mr Naran telling him the editor of The Chronicle was there making enquiries about his cheque.

Well, Mr Naran in turn was not amused.

So he called me and he was really upset and he started to threaten me.

I did not mention that Mr Naran was the biggest advertiser in The Chronicle at the material time.

So he said if I insisted on this line of questioning about his affairs he would do the only reasonable thing, which was to cancel his contract with the paper.

This was a big threat because Mr Naran used to sign six month contracts, and that is a lot of money as you know for a newspaper.

Anyway, that is how the story started.

Now, Mr Naran has been assisted by the minister of Commerce and Industry, the late Callistus Dingiswayo Ndlovu.

That ministry was responsible for Willowvale and so Honourable Ndlovu sat in a very cushy and influential position in terms of allocation of vehicles in terms of those who were the favoured ones, government ministers.

Following a decision by Cabinet that ministers would be granted precedence in securing much needed vehicles so that, to quote their words, “They would visit their constituencies”.

This happened to start with, but the ministers instead of visiting their constituencies they pounced on a more profitable alternative, which was to buy these vehicles and sell them on the black market.

At the time a lot of then president (Robert) Mugabe’s honourable ministers had become reputable car dealers.

That was the story which we investigated, and exposed resulting in the then president establishing the Sandura Commission, and witnessing a number of his closest allies being humiliated in front of the public.

This was quite an unprecedented experience.

People could not believe what they saw… seeing the people that went to the High Court, where the Sandura Commission held its hearings, seeing the high and mighty being reduced to ordinary levels.

TN: For cars?

GN: For cars.

Resulting in a number of them, five ministers, including  Callistus Ndlovu, Enos Nkala, Fredrick Shava (current Foreign Affairs minister), Dzingai Mutumbuka (then Education minister) and the now late minister Maurice Nyagumbo.

TN: Who committed suicide, Maurice Nyagumbo?

GN: Yes, who unfortunately proceeded to commit suicide.

A very sad day for me because unknown to you and others, Maurice Nyagumbo was actually my in-law because his brother married my aunt.

So it was a very painful experience for me that this happened.

TN: Wow. Geoff, I remember there were attempts to intimidate you, to humiliate you.

I remember, correct me if I am wrong.

Enos Nkala saying “Little Geoff Nyarota. What can little Geoff Nyarota do to me?”

Also, president Robert Mugabe becoming edgy about your role.

You ended up being demoted to head office.

Talk to me Geoff about that whole experience? When you look back now at what you endured, when you look back now at the fallout and where we are now as a nation, talking about corruption what goes through your mind?

GN: Let me start by saying, I referred to the late Maurice Nyagumbo. I always say that wherever he is, minister Maurice Nyagumbo must look down on us with much regret.

To think that he lost his life, he cut his life short, on account of a Toyota Cressida.

Okay, indeed it was the luxury car at that time, but these days it pales into total insignificance in comparison to what the corrupt guys of the day are up to.

I am not saying that anybody who imports a Rolls-Royce is corrupt, but I am suggesting that among them must be some who cannot really account for the sources of their wealth if they were asked to.

In fact, I am waiting for the day when ZACC (Zimbabwe Anticorruption Commission) will put into action a promise that it has since made, that a day will soon come when they will be called to account.

I am sure there will be gnashing of teeth there if ZACC is really serious.

However, we go back to Enos Nkala and the then president.

You see in the mid-1980’s, you know this yourself Trevor, our ministers had become larger than life.

They were beyond control of anybody, least of all of the president of the country.

They were a power unto themselves.

Enos Nkala for instance, did not believe he was accountable to anybody, let alone a newspaper editor as you have just mentioned.

I had the indignity, the pain of myself being referred to as “little Nyarota”.

You know it has become my life time joke.

When I am introduced to people who remember the incident you refer to, they always look me up and down and say Nkala said you were little, hahahaha.

So I say may be I was little then.

That was one of the humorous aspects of that scandal.

Nkala was really upset.

He could not understand genuinely why a journalist would ask him to explain what he did with his car.

I have a video of him speaking on ZTV on that issue which I watch every two to three months just for entertainment, especially when I have visitors at home and they love it!

The sad thing is that the minister actually believed what he was saying, that myself as a journalist, as a newspaper editor, I was nothing.

One day I had the occasion to bump into minister Nkala at the Trade Fair.

If you remember well there used to be at the Trade Fair the famous Lonrho Pavilion, where the late Herbert Munangatire held sway, and all the ministers relocated to Bulawayo during Trade Fair and they could be easily found at Lonrho.

They had breakfast, lunch, etcetera.

TN: They ate from his hands?

GN: Yes. (Munangatire) became powerful on that account.

I had the temerity to venture there while minister Nkala was holding court, so when he saw me approaching he said “There he is!”

This was before the “little Nyarota” incident.

So he called to me and said I was now of Zapu, and he was shouting for everybody to hear.

Now I did not want to tempt fate by daring to respond from a distance.

So I approached him nicely and sat by him and I told him I was sorry and what was the problem.

He said to me that me and my editorials implied the ministers did not know what they were doing, that I was now a Zapu supporter.

He asked me who I thought I was anyway.

It was then I realised that to rescue myself I had to bite the bullet, which I did.

I then said to him that the problem with powerful ministers such as himself was that they never find time to understand.

To find out about the small people of the world, people like myself.

I asked him if he really knew me?

So I caught him off-guard.

I said to him if he had the time for me to tell him, he would be humbled by who I was.

Not in regards to my profession, but by where I had come from.

That he made assumptions.

Now other ministers were now listening intently and he was just blinking his eyes.

I decided to stop there but I had scored a point.

That was the background to his fury when he a year or two later he made the “little Nyarota” statement.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading