FINANCE minister Mthuli Ncube recently terminated the tenure of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) board. The Zimbabwe Independent news editor Owen Gagare (OG) spoke to outgoing board chair Willia Bonyongwe (WB) about her tenure at the tax authority and the state of corporate governance at the organisation:
OG: Your board was in office from June 2015 to October 1, 2018. How would you describe the tenure?
WB: The Zimra board was appointed on June 19, 2015, and the tenure expired on June 18, 2018. However, the former minister of finance and economic development (Patrick) Chinamasa extended it by a period of six months in terms of paragraph 2 (2) of the Fifth Schedule to the Revenue Authority Act, which provides that, upon expiry of their term of office, board members shall continue to hold office until either they are re-appointed or a new board is appointed for a period not exceeding six months. The tenure was very hectic because prior to our appointment, Zimra had been without a board for almost two years and a lot of the corporate governance issues emanated from that vacuum. You will recall in May 2016, the then commissioner-general (Gershem Pasi) and about six executive managers were sent on leave, some were subsequently dismissed following disciplinary action. The commission-general and the head of ICT and Infrastructure chose to resign than go through disciplinary proceedings. We had to spend a lot of time on corporate governance issues. We had a board audit in that regard from the Institute of Directors of Zimbabwe and fared very well, the International Monetary Fund Tadat (Tax Administration Diagnostic Assessment Tool) auditors were also quite impressed with governance at Zimra. We also replaced the executives and management and restructured and replaced the ICT personnel. Despite the huge capital expenditure in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Zimra operated a semi-manual system, unlike the banking and insurance sectors, which were fully automated. This led to genuine leakages and presented opportunities for corruption. Plugging the leakages and fighting corruption also took a great deal of our time.
OG: What was the major mandate of your board and how successful were you in implementing your objectives?
WB: As a board we had the general oversight responsibilities, that is, ensuring that the organisation is doing what it is supposed to do in terms of the Revenue Act. We were responsible for setting up a structure and systems of control to manage risk and achieve the goals of the organisation. We were supposed to ensure that the senior management was in place and were adhering to corporate governance best practices. You will recall when we were appointed, Zimra was struggling to meet its revenue targets and civil servants salaries were being staggered at some stage. So the minister said we needed to increase the tax base. We needed to accelerate the roll out of the ICT systems, in particular, complete fiscalisation and we needed to fight corruption because Zimra was not only perceived to be corrupt, but this was substantiated by surveys carried out by independent consultants for Zimra. We introduced a battery of revenue enhancing measures, which resulted in a steady rise in revenues and as we leave we were surpassing revenue targets consistently and in real terms. The measures increased the tax base by netting evaders and those not paying tax in full. However, compliance is still very low and Zimra is looking to upgrade its revenue systems and link it up with the relevant data bases to net in everybody. During our tenure we pioneered many things, including the Independent Hotline, as part of our anti-corruption fight. We introduced the Electronic Cargo Tracking System (ECTS) against serious resistance. We saved government millions of dollars in overpriced systems, among other things.
OG: What challenges did you face during your term of office? Please also comment on allegations that politicians were interfering with your work, as an example, exerting pressure on officials to allow goods to come into the country duty-free. The Zanu PF campaign vehicles and party regalia which were imported ahead of the July 30 elections quickly come to mind.
WB: The challenges were to do with resistance from management to do things differently, previous management withholding vital information from the board, and when we introduced the hotline and the ECTS, people within Zimra and outside Zimra had issues and hence there were allegations. Of course, this was not true because the funds were availed through the AfDB facility through an international tender won by a Tanzanian company. The board was never told of government officials exerting pressure to allow goods duty-free because this was an operational not policy issue and management would deal with it, but also because the policy is very clear. On the Zanu PF party regalia and campaign material, again this would be dealt with by management being an operational issue. However, the issue was raised just before elections at a Zimra workshop with parliamentarians and the Commissioner-General (Faith Mazani) indicated that proper importation procedures were followed.
OG: The Zimra board had asked for an extension but was instead dismissed by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube. Why do you believe an extension was necessary and do you think the government’s decision to fire the board was justified?
WB: I have already indicated that the board’s tenure had expired and it is unfortunate that someone talked about firing and governance problems in relation to the board. You cannot fire one with no tenure, our extension letters were very clear that we were going anytime. Unfortunately when the minister was meeting stakeholders, he did not meet the Zimra board to know who was offering himself or not, we do not know who advised him that we had asked for an extension. People need to generally be sensitive. These are people with professions and reputations built over years. Both the former minister (Chinamasa) and permanent secretary (Willard) Manungo know that this was a very demanding job and not everyone in the board was rooting for re-appointment. This is a storm in a tea cup — really nobody was fired and nobody to my knowledge asked for an extension. As for whether minister Ncube was justified or not to reappoint, big Yes, he is the appointing authority and can choose anyone to the Zimra board. He might retain some members for continuity or have a completely new team that is his prerogative, no question about that.
OG: What is your response to the allegation that during your tenure board members were enriching themselves through high sitting fees and allowances? Last year for example board members pocketed US$292 582 up from US$268 225 in 2016?
WB: I am not aware of anyone who was enriched during our tenure. I have explained before that there are 10 board members. That year was a unique year in that we had two forensic audits and the usual external audit by the Auditor-General and some ad hoc committees to spearhead fiscalisation and the ECTS, which meant the board met more than usual. I can assure you that we never met for sitting fees, infact, we had many more meetings for no fees than with fees. These are professionals who earn five times in an hour what the board gives them in a sitting. As for the level of fees, these were done in comparison with peer organisations and were all approved by the parent ministry. I actually remember reducing them when the then board secretary presented them before they went to the ministry.
OG: How true are the allegations that as chairperson you were domineering figure in the board and that you would make decisions unilaterally?
WB: That is an insult to my colleagues in the board who by the way do not share that view. There are professional people with varied skills and experiences which we used collectively as a board. All our decisions were decided in terms of the majority and there are some issues which I lost, but were carried. I know some people tried to divide the board to make it dysfunctional, but lost dismally. There are some who believe a woman should not be assertive, but I rose through the corporate ladder and learnt that there is no gender in the boardroom and I make no apology.
OG: There are some smuggling syndicates involved high-profile persons, the police, immigration and Zimra officials. How did your board try to stamp them out and with what success?
WB: These are what I called organised syndicates and they cost government billion dollars in forgone revenue. I would say they come from anywhere, not limited to those you put in your question. Automation is the answer, but it is still work in progress. The ECTS got a sizeable number of them although they were working with border officials to avoid sealing. When the electronic sealing was introduced, there was a 60% decline in transit fuel cargo, which gives you the level of transit fraud in that sector.
OG: You spoke several times about fighting corruption and ensuring transparency and yet Zimra is still associated with corruption. What bottlenecks did you face in fighting corruption?
WB: There are measures which were put in place to fight corruption, including strengthening the loss control function. In the previous executive, loss control was the centre of all corruption. Zimra is also reinvigorating its relationships with state agencies mandated to deal with corruption. There is need for the police, public prosecutors and magistrates to be capacitated by training in order to minimise the delays and acquittals that occur in cases referred for prosecution. The authority is also taking a leading role in the implementation of the Asset Forfeiture Act and has so far referred two cases where assets of the concerned employees are supposed to be forfeited to the state. Forfeiting the proceeds of crime is a great deterrent, it was very successful in India they call it disgorgement.
OG: Zimra was accused of delaying clarification of tax issues around a US$100 million commercial loan advanced by the British government, through the state-run Commonwealth Development Fund (CDC), to Zimbabwe’s private sector. What’s your comment on this? Is there a strategy on tax issues around this loan?
WB: That is a technical issue which management, the ministry and the Reserve Bank were looking into. What I can say is Zimra implements government policy; there is no way they can refuse to implement policy as an agent of government working to promote government objectives.
OG: During your term of office Zimra increased its revenue collection. Do you see it continuing in the long term?
WB: Yes there is no reason why they should not, especially given the current low compliance rate, the upside potential is huge. All the systems audits we carried out have diagnosed the problems and what is left is implementation. They need to strengthen the ICT systems. We were also very happy with the calibre of the commissioner-general, Ms (Faith) Mazani. She is a best fit for the post and we would be quite enthused if the revenues increase. Infact, we would be surprised if the revenue falls because we have build a very strong foundation.
OG: Although you command respect and are a professional in your own right — but because of our patriarchal society — some people still attach the marriage tag to professional women. What have been the challenges in your work at Zimra and other bodies in relation to this, since you are married to the country’s former intelligence boss?
WB: In general, professional women don’t get support from their spouses and this is a problem if you are rising on the corporate ladder and you get to come home late, to be away from home on business. So in the past you either chose career or marriage, but that is changing. Women can now have it all. Some male counterparts and bosses do not believe there is equality and there is a glass ceiling. Consequently, women have to work much harder than their male counterparts to be recognised. Fortunately we now have many role models in every field and that helps the young ones who come to us for mentoring. Now to why I said you have become the problem. I met my husband whilst I was at university and he was in the army and we had both just come back from the liberation struggle. He joined from St Augustine and I from Dadaya. He has supported my career steadfastly, and I am very grateful to him, but I have always been employed on merit and not on marriage. And I do not know why this keeps cropping up. Nobody cares about what this or that chairman’s wife does or who she is. This is 2018 and we do not expect it.