In early 2014, after being tipped off by staff, I broke the story that Grace Mugabe, then first lady, had just enrolled for a doctoral degree in the Sociology department at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). The local and international media picked up the story and, by September in the same year, Grace was being capped by her own husband, Robert Mugabe, who was the chancellor.
By TAWANDA MAJONI
The story that I broke raised several questions around Grace’s enrolment. Firstly, it waved the red flag over Grace’s suitability to study for the doctoral research degree. It pointed out that, despite spending seven years trying to earn a Bachelor’s degree in English with a British university, she had failed to complete her studies. How then could a person who had flunked a relatively easy first degree manage a taxing PhD?
Again on her suitability, the story queried the relevance the only degree that she subsequently managed to obtain from a Chinese university had for her doctoral studies. Grace had, still under suspicious circumstances, qualified with a degree in Mandarin, the Chinese national language. It would, therefore, always be a long haul for her to use that degree to apply for a higher research degree in a largely unrelated discipline.
While linguistics or humanities and sociology interface, it is weird to study orphans after gaining basic knowledge of an Oriental language. The match just isn’t there. It would have made greater sense if Grace had applied for an International Relations or Development Studies research degree, exploring the impact of Mandarin on globalisation, for instance.
Secondly, the story asked questions around procedure. My sources indicated that the Sociology department had just woken up to the news that Claude Mararike was already supervising Grace. They had not deliberated on the pre-registration application, nor had the relevant university bodies assessed the application. The conclusion was that Grace had arm-twisted university authorities, particularly Levi Nyagura and Mararike, to get her studying for the dubious PhD.
The media, general public and international community have been making lots of noise around Grace’s purported PhD, which took four years to be placed in UZ’s repository and, even then, was discovered to have cited works that were published after she was capped. And when the military installed Emmerson Mnangagwa in Mugabe’s stead last November, the new administration started investigating the controversial doctoral qualification.
Ironically, though, investigations and prosecution have steered clear of Grace. Instead, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) that instigated the prosecution has decided to make Nyagura and Mararike their core accused persons. According to Goodson Nguni, who chairs the Zacc investigations committee, Grace will not be investigated.
The reasons for excluding Mugabe’s wife, the beneficiary of what is clearly a fraudulent degree, are bizarre. Nguni proffered four basic premises to justify that weird exclusion. One, he said, there is no evidence to probe Grace. Two, Grace is not a UZ official. Thirdly, Grace did not know the rules and regulations on how people are granted PhDs. Because of that, she was innocent as she was an ignorant beneficiary of fraudulent acts. Fourthly and proceeding from the third premise, Zacc was limiting its probe to officials of the university because they were the ones who knew the procedures of obtaining a PhD and fraudulently offered Grace the degree.
For a measure, Nguni made a largely useless and hypothetical reference. If an individual obtains a degree from an unregistered or unrecognised university, he said, that person can’t be prosecuted as we have seen with so many people buying degrees from shady institutions like Pacific University but moving around happily. Since that is the case, he went on, you can’t start prosecuting Grace because people who have bought degrees from unrecognised universities have not been shoved into the dock before.
Let’s take a closer look at Nguni’s — and therefore Zacc’s — brazenly awkward attempt to free Grace from the scrutiny of justice. Nguni says there is no evidence to probe Grace. This demonstrates his and Zacc’s ignorance of the law and legal processes. Alternatively, it betrays a dishonest pretence of ignorance just so that the commission doesn’t get burdened with prosecuting Grace for reasons that I will state below. You don’t need evidence in order to probe someone. All you need are reasonable grounds to investigate that person. It’s the courts that must bother themselves with the burden of evidence.
In the case of Grace’s controversial degree, Zacc was, therefore, not supposed to bother itself with the load of gathering evidence to prove that the former first lady is guilty. That is better left to the National Prosecuting Authority and the relevant courts. Circumstantially, there is a good case against Grace, considering her possible participation in this crime. For instance, how come the content of her purported research includes citations from works made after the publication of her thesis?
The thesis does not include a tacit and direct confirmation that she is the author of the study as is normally the case, of course, but that doesn’t matter. That confirmation is contained in the title page that bears her full names, and the acknowledgements that follow. That means she is the owner of the thesis and since that is the case, she is accountable for the illegalities or irregularities arising from or are contained in it. That makes her a good candidate to be probed, for one.
Then Nguni claims, as part of his futile argument, that Grace is not a UZ official. For him, it is only UZ officials who know the rules and regulations of how a doctoral degree must be obtained or offered that should be prosecuted in this case. Grace, therefore, is innocent because she didn’t know how the degree was supposed to be obtained or offered.
You don’t have to be a first-class logician to notice the fallacies and untruths in Nguni’s claims. Of course, we all know that Grace was never a UZ official. But there is a problem here, because Nguni is trying to make us believe that, where a degree is fraudulently obtained or given, it is only the university staff that are culpable or liable. I don’t think Nguni has ever heard of the doctrine of common purpose or knows about the various degrees of participation in a crime. If you intentionally collude with another person in the commission of a crime, you are equally guilty, even if your act may not directly cause the commission of the crime. University officials can still collude with people who may not to know the institutional regulations and rules.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Grace had sent one of her aides to give Nyagura money and a farm to “motivate” him to bypass the regulations, would we absolve that aide from the crime if she or he knew the purpose of the gift or gifts he or she was facilitating? The aide may not have known the rules and regulations pertaining to doctoral studies, but, still he or she knew that he or she was being used to relay a bribe.
And there is a high possibility that Grace acted in common purpose with Nyagura, Mararike and others so that she obtained the degree for future purposes. In Zimbabwe, a PhD is widely considered a symbol of good status. No doubt, Grace was seeking personal glory. As events subsequently showed, she had the ambition to succeed her own husband. In order to do that, she needed, among other things, the respect that a PhD is supposed to bestow on one.
Even as Zimbabwe is no longer using Roman-Dutch Law outside judicial precedents, the principle of “ignorance is no defence” still applies. That means that a person accused of a crime can’t successfully argue in court that he or she was not aware that they were committing a crime or acted in a way that raised the chance of them committing a crime and must therefore not be considered guilty.
The same applies in Grace’s case. She may not have known that, by proceeding with her studies despite being illegally allowed to do so, she was participating in the commission of a crime. But that ignorance can’t be used to absolve her. In effect, it means that she must have her day in the dock. In any case, chances are wafer-slim that she didn’t know the rules and regulations guiding applying for and pursuing a doctoral degree. An ordinary person seeking to study at that level must know what the university requirements are.
I know for a fact that university vice-chancellors regularly meet for briefings with the chancellor. There is no way in which Nyagura would have met Mugabe over all these years and never got to discuss the ex-president’s wife’s doctoral studies. Honestly, during that time, the two must have discussed issues relating to Grace’s admission and subsequent studies. Mugabe would have, in turn, advised his wife on their discussions and the issue of the irregularities must have emerged at one time or another.
Nguni is confusing registered universities with unrecognised universities. The UZ is a registered and recognised university. It’s, therefore, a legal person, so to speak. It is bound by Zimbabwean laws which, if broken, require that the perpetrators are brought before the courts. The fact that buyers of degrees from unrecognised universities have not been prosecuted before doesn’t apply at all here.
The question, then, is: Why is Zacc apparently shielding Grace from prosecution? This scandalous decision looks to have a political context. The Mnangagwa administration has since the November coup been cautious with how it relates with Mugabe. It was too anxious not be seen to be antagonising or victimising the former president.
Prosecuting Grace would, by implication, be seen as victimisation of Mugabe, so the best thing was to remove the ex-first lady from prosecution completely.
Of course, the conversation is shifting. Mugabe has decided to enter active politics against the new administration and there is no more love lost. That may then increase chances of Grace being hauled over the coal for being a fraudulent PhD.
l Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org