Mugabe opponents plan corruption commission to target British assets

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The Independent Online

Robert Mugabe's principal challenger yesterday pledged to set up an anti-corruption commission to investigate the assets of the president and his ministers - including properties and bank accounts allegedly held in Britain - if he wins a majority in Zimbabwe's elections.

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said: "I know Mugabe and members of his government have stashed away assets abroad, including the United Kingdom, and the commission will investigate this.''

He said the MDC, which is challenging the ruling Zanu-PF in all of Zimbabwe's 120 constituencies, envisages creating a corruption-busting body along the lines of the South African truth commission. "It would be able to give amnesty to those who came clean voluntarily,'' said Mr Tsvangirai, 48.

But despite numerous press claims of corrupt dealings among senior members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, President Mugabe himself has always escaped allegations of graft. The one exception came last September when the weekly Financial Gazette claimed the Cypriot company awarded the contract for Harare's new £39m airport is also building a mansion for the 76-year-old president.

British intelligence services are understood to be aware of Mr Mugabe's assets in Britain, but sources indicated some may not be registered under the company directorships he is known to hold.

In the run-up to the delayed parliamentary elections, now expected between May and July, senior Zanu-PF figures who are widely seen as scapegoats in a government attempt to appear tough on graft have been brought before the courts. Others, including the directors of Noczim, the state oil company accused of profiting from the resale of fuel, have not.

In the declining years of President Mugabe's 20-year reign, an increasing number of allegations of corruption, cronyism and economic mis-management have emerged. Two years ago his wife, Grace, was accused of using public housing money to build herself a £200,000 mansion, popularly called Graceland.

The president's Praetorian Guard, its liberation war veterans, have also received huge pension hikes, and ministers, loyal traditional chiefs and headmen have seen their allowances surge.

A parliamentary answer recently revealed that 270 farms acquired by the government for resettlement schemes had been given or leased cheaply to ministers and others in the country's élite. Mr Tsvangirai said sorting out Zimbabwe's economy was far more urgent than the expensive but popular land-grab moves espoused by President Mugabe.

"He is fighting for his survival and has only three tactics left - land, attacking Britain and fighting whites," he said. "What actually preoccupies people is poverty and the soaring prices.''

Zimbabwe labours under 70 per cent inflation and rising unemployment. There is a severe fuel shortage. World financial institutions, the United States and several European donor countries have begun withholding some or all of their aid.

They are particularly critical of President Mugabe's expensive and extensive military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, involving some 10,000 Zimbabwean troops.

The MDC has pledged to pull out of the Congo if it is elected - a risky tactic, given that the Zimbabwean military top brass have established lucrative companies there. But Mr Tsvangirai said he was not afraid of a military coup. "Most of the army says 'let's get out of Congo','' he said.

Mr Tsvangirai, a Blairite former leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said that once elected: "We will remove Mugabe by amending the constitution, removing the 30 MPs who are directly appointed by the president and bringing forward the presidential elections'' (due in 2002). He believes the MDC will get the 76 MPs required for a majority in the 150-seat parliament because "the demographics of this country - 60 per cent of people are under the age of 40 - mean people are no longer receptive to Zanu-PF's liberation war slogans''.

He said the squatters and so-called war veterans occupying 700 commercial farms in a government-orchestrated campaign, would soon leave.