The brewing titanic battle between the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) and United Progressive People (UPP) party President Saviour Chishimba is turning out to be a thriller of epic proportions, straight out of a John Grisham novel. We are all eagerly awaiting to see who will blink first between the two. First a quick recap for those of you who have missed the action thus far.
Mr Chishimba recently alleged that there was a corrupt tender awarded by ZRA for an electronic Invoice Management System worth K140 million ($14 million). The reaction from ZRA was swift and emphatic (within 24 hours!). They denied any wrongdoing and suggested Mr Chishimba was bringing their good name into disrepute. They then decided to sue him for the grand sum of ten billion US Dollars! One wonders which dreamer in ZRA came up with this insane figure that is twice the Government budget and equal to the entire foreign debt of Zambia. Is the reputation of ZRA worth that much?
It is worth noting that Mr Chishimba was the one who exposed the Maizegate Scandal involving a corrupt deal in which 100,000 Metric Tons of maize worth $34 million were to be supplied to Malawi. Mr Chishimba presented evidence to the Malawian Parliament, resulting in the investigation and subsequent dismissal of the Agriculture Minister Mr George Chaponda after he was found with more than $200,000 cash at his home during a search by investigators. ZRA would do well to tread carefully.
The “Invoicegate Scandal” took a new twist with an injunction being obtained by ZRA restraining Mr Chishimba or his agents from publishing “malicious falsehood” or anything “bordering on malicious falsehood and damaging to the plaintiff”. As much as I am a layman (albeit with a strong interest in legal matters), I am surprised that a judge could accept to hand out such an injunction.
The first obvious question that comes to mind is this: what mechanism exists to determine whether whatever Mr Chishimba says henceforth against ZRA qualifies to be “malicious falsehood”? Suppose a whistle-blower inside ZRA has given him evidence of wrongdoing and he decides to share it with the press, can this information be considered as a “malicious falsehood”? If he keeps publishing things that are demonstrably true, doesn’t that make the whole injunction basically pointless and redundant, since it does not prohibit him from commenting about ZRA unless what he says is a “malicious falsehood”? Since what is in contention is the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of the accusations by Mr Chishimba, can the law place a gagging order of this kind without running into absurdities?
The injunction prohibits “utterances bordering on malicious falsehood and damaging to the plaintiff”. What does this mean in practice? Suppose Mr Chishimba makes a new statement (unrelated to the Invoicegate scandal) that turns out to be “damaging” to ZRA. Will the law punish him purely because it is “damaging” to ZRA even though it is true? Moreover, it is not a trivial matter to establish what constitutes malice on the part of Mr Chishimba. Can he be rationally accused of malice if he exposes corruption in ZRA?
As Zambians, we cannot help but see the actions of ZRA as very suspicious and a knee jerk reaction that strongly suggests that there is something very fishy going on in the revenue authority that a lot of people within do not want exposed. The swift and extreme reaction by ZRA to sue for a senseless amount equal to twice the entire annual Zambian government budget raises a lot of question marks and lends credence to the theory that it is an effort to silence him by intimidation so that he backs down due to the threat of huge legal fees he will incur defending himself.
Regardless of how this shakes out, I think Mr Chishimba is to be commended for his efforts to bring transparency and accountability to government. For too long, corrupt people have gotten away with shady deals under the table. Corruption has become a normal accepted way of life in Zambia as whistle-blowers like Mr Chishimba are victimized and harassed.
It is hoped that ZRA have got their house in order because they are going down a very slippery slope from which they cannot recover if they are found wanting. Mr Chishimba’s lawyers will obviously subpoena crucial documents and ZRA employees in order to mount a good defence.
Is ZRA really prepared for the strong light of the law to shine upon them? Are they prepared to have their employees take the witness stand? Are they prepared to deal with Mr Chishimba’s claim that he has audio and video evidence showing corrupt deals within ZRA?
ZRA would do well to remember the lessons from the case where former president Frederick Chiluba sued The Post Newspapers for calling him a thief. When the Zamtrop bank statements were subpoenaed in court, they clearly proved the allegations that Mr Chiluba was a thief. He probably thought he could intimidate them but got the shock of his life. He probably afterwards wished he had just let sleeping dogs lie.
In the current situation, ZRA is in a lose-lose situation. If they don’t sue Mr Chishimba, it will be taken by Zambians as an admission of guilt. If they sue and lose the case, there will be plenty of mud on their faces and people will lose jobs and be prosecuted by the Anti-Corruption Commission. I daresay that Mr Chishimba has cleverly manoeuvred them into a corner where he is plotting a check-mate. Given his history thus far, it seems unlikely that he is bluffing.
For now, let us sit back, relax and open a large sack of popcorns as the story in this latest John Grisham novel unfolds.