© MEMBERS of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on Friday expressed their outrage to the Lands and Agriculture ministry over a staggering US$3 billion that vanished through the system, after the money was allocated to the controversial Command Agriculture programme between 2017 and 2018.
This comes as Zimbabwe is embarking on its largest importation of maize in three years, after most of the funds allocated to Command Agriculture — to boost food security in the country — are said to have been looted by politically connected service providers.
Lands and Agriculture ministry permanent secretary Ringson Chitsiko and Finance director Peter Mudzamiri had appeared before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to present oral evidence in the light of Auditor General’s Mildred Chiri’s 2017 and 2018 reports.
The disgusted committee queried why the ministry had failed to provide supporting documents for the US$3 billion for the programme — including about US$847 million which was disbursed directly to service providers, most of which is feared to have been paid fraudulently.
However, the duo distanced the Agriculture ministry’s involvement in any fraudulent activities, instead fingering Treasury which is said to have forced them to embrace the Treasury Bills which were paid to unknown suppliers.
“This happened during my time, so I fully know the story. Treasury initiates the agreed budgets and it also has the complete profile to upload the figures into the computer system.
“Once the figures are in the computer system and the budget is released, that’s when we are able to spend. So, in this particular case, nothing was released in our system.
“So, the US$847 million did not go through the ministry books. What we received later on, just like the other US$1,5 billion, was a single letter which was saying we need to adopt this figure.
“It’s actually us the ministry which told the Auditor about this figure. We were complaining about the whole system of paying on our behalf, and then asking us to adopt a figure which we might not know, without documentation,” Mudzamiri said.
He reiterated that all this money had not gone through the normal channels, the Public Finance Management System, and the ministry was not given any supporting documents by Treasury after adopting the expenditure.
The Finance ministry was also allegedly paying salaries for the Lands and Agriculture ministry, which would then simply adopt the expenditures.
“They just said they will stop paying on our behalf,” he said adding that the Command Agriculture programme — which is part of the litany of queried activities of the ministry — is controlled and run by the Office of the President and Cabinet as a sub-ministry.
The committee also quizzed the ministry about why it had not recovered more than US$16 million dollars in loans that were given to contractors through the import substitution programme.
At its inception, the Command Agriculture programme was said to be President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s brainchild.
It was largely funded by Sakunda Holdings, which is owned by prominent businessman Kuda Tagwirei — who is also a major player in the country’s fuel industry. The terms under which Sakunda was contracted have never been disclosed.
“Each (farming) season Sakunda and Treasury agree on a term sheet to organise the inputs, distribute them together with the structures … and Agritex to participate in farming,” Chitsiko explained to the committee, which raised lots of concerns over the administration of Command Agriculture.
It was also alleged during discussions that Sakunda Holdings had allegedly supplied the ministry with nine vehicles, whose registration books were missing at the time of Chiri’s audit.
But the ministry officials said the motor vehicles had allegedly been delivered back to Sakunda for formal registration.
In addition, the parliamentary committee also wanted to know why the ministry had not received US$1 million worth of vehicles which were paid for in December 2017, to Solution Motors.
Coupled with this, 36 tractors, a further 30 motor vehicles and 200 motor bikes, which were received by the ministry through a grant from China, were not recorded in the ministry’s Asset Registry.
The committee’s chairperson, Tendai Biti, said it would launch a probe into the matter.
“We are going to call Treasury on all the issues. We are seriously concerned about the breaching of the law, breaching of the budget and good governance.
“How do you pay US$1,3 billion, US$1,4 billion to a ministry that knows nothing about it?” a livid Biti asked.
“Here we have got the two senior persons in the ministry, the permanent secretary and the director, and they don’t know anything … US$3 billion dollars and no documentation … in less than a year and the National Budget was US$4 billion,” he said in utter astonishment.
Sakunda Holdings was appointed by the government in 2016 to be the main driver of Command Agriculture.
Under the programme, the government provides inputs and technical skills for farmers, and recoups its money when the farmers deliver their harvests to the Grain Marketing Board.
The government introduced the controversy-ridden Command Agriculture programme in 2016, as part of its efforts to improve the country’s food security and to achieve economic growth.
This followed the trouble that authorities had encountered in their efforts to raise foreign currency to import grain into the country during former president Robert Mugabe’s ruinous rule.
On average, Mugabe’s government was at the time spending about US$500 million on wheat and maize imports a year.
Last year, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube announced that the government was opening Command Agriculture to allow other private players to fund the programme.
This was after the programme had contributed significantly to the government’s ginormous fiscal deficit and domestic debt.