MDC blames expats as money vanishes from overseas offices

Finance Minister suspends British branch as Zimbabweans in exile are accused of 'bleeding movement dry'
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The Independent Online

The overseas offices of Zimbabwe's opposition face a "huge" corruption problem, with £57,000 missing from the British branch of the Movement for Democratic Change alone, according to a senior official of the cash-strapped party.

In February the MDC joined an inclusive government with Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, and is dependent on the activism and support of up to 4 million Zimbabweans who have left the country in the past 10 years.

The MDC's treasurer-general, Roy Bennett, said yesterday that the British branch – second only to the South African office of the party in importance – had been suspended in the wake of what Mr Bennett describes as a problem the party faced "everywhere".

Mr Bennett, 52, said that although a formal instruction had yet to be given, all other overseas branches would be disbanded. He said that MDC branches across the world faced rogue elements. "They are bleeding us," he said. "I would hate to know the amount of money that has been raised by Zimbabweans in exile purporting to represent the MDC. They have used the MDC name and pocketed the money."

The UK and Ireland provincial executive has been suspended pending an investigation into what the MDC Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, described as "shocking" financial irregularities in a November letter announcing the action.

But UK-based MDC officials yesterday played down the claims, insisting that any financial irregularities under its supervision were not the result of corruption. "It's more to do with the way the money was remitted to Harare," said Jeff Sango, chairman of the MDC in the South-east of England. "The people who were supposed to make the investigation should come here and do that investigation. There is no evidence right now. It is only an allegation."

The MDC has about 800 active members in the UK. According to UK-based officials, about 70 per cent of funds raised from members – including via the sale of £70 membership cards – are sent back to Zimbabwe, with the rest used to cover administrative costs. But the MDC in Harare says that the British branch failed to submit adequate financial reports.

Mr Biti also noted "extensive bickering" in the UK and Ireland branches of the party. His younger brother Stanford, a vehement critic of the British party organisation, is alleged to have pelted members of the executive committee with eggs.

The former opposition party is trying to convince highly educated Zimbabweans abroad to return home. According to Zimbabwe's finance ministry, the diaspora sent home £100m in remittances to relatives in 2009 – about the same amount as the European Union gave in aid. But repeated calls by the Prime Minister, the MDC's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, for the return of teachers, nurses, doctors and business people have met with reluctance, amid scepticism over the progress of the inclusive government. Earlier this year, Mr Tsvangirai was booed when he addressed hundreds of Zimbabweans at Southwark Cathedral in London.

The MDC was established 10 years ago. In March 2008, it won a slim majority in the parliamentary election, but Mr Mugabe, who has held power since 1980, disputed the outcome of the presidential poll. Zanu-PF launched a campaign of violence, and Mr Tsvangirai pulled out of the June 2008 presidential run-off. Mr Tsvangirai became Prime Minister under an agreement brokered by South Africa that has yet to be fully implemented.

Nevertheless, the economy has improved and supermarkets this Christmas were well stocked with goods. Soon after the MDC entered government, Tendai Biti halted inflation by abolishing the Zimbabwe dollar, previously printed at will to fuel Mr Mugabe's patronage system. Now the South African rand and US dollar are used.

A new round of negotiations is under way between Mr Tsvangirai's MDC, another faction of the party, and Zanu-PF. Sticking points include key jobs and Mr Mugabe's refusal to swear in Mr Bennett, a white farmer, as deputy agriculture minister. But European diplomats said yesterday that the MDC has begun lobbying them to lift some of the targeted sanctions against companies close to Mr Mugabe's regime.

The MDC's surprise move is likely to be greeted by expatriates with particular scepticism, as the removal of sanctions tops Mr Mugabe's agenda. Some 40 companies and 172 individuals are barred from trading with and travelling in the European Union.

Most European diplomats say their minimum requirements for the lifting of sanctions would be progress on the drafting of a new constitution, ultimately leading to free and fair elections.

Moves to advance the constitutional process top the MDC wishlist and an election campaign will require funding. Mr Bennett said: "Raising that money is going to be a priority. In all my time as treasurer, I have only ever managed to mobilise 12 vehicles for party canvassing work. Zanu-PF has 12 vehicles in every district, at least."

He said accusations that the MDC is funded by the British Government are unfair. "I have never seen a single penny from Britain to fight the democratic struggle. Politics is about money, and we are down to relying on a poverty-stricken people to try to replace a government that has taken full control of everything."

The MDC is tight-lipped about its funding, which is believed to come largely from members of the business community who do not wish to be identified while Mr Mugabe is in power. European embassies admit only to providing the MDC with trainers and bursaries for courses in subjects such as international relations.

£57,000

The sum the MDC alleges has gone missing from its British branch.

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