When Nomatter Tagarira, a spirit medium, claimed that she could conjure refined diesel out of a rock by striking it with her staff, ministers in Robert Mugabe’s Government believed that they might have found the solution to Zimbabwe’s perennial fuel shortage.
After witnessing her apparently miraculous gift they gave her five billion Zimbabwean dollars in cash (worth £1.7 million at the start of the year but now worth one seven-hundredth of that) in return for the fuel. Ms Tagarira was also given a farm, said to have been seized from its white owner during Mr Mugabe’s lawless land grab, as well as food and services that included a round-the-clock armed guard on the rock in the district of Chinhoyi 60 miles (100km) from Harare, the capital.
More than a year later officials realised they had been duped. Ms Tagarira is now in custody, awaiting trial on charges of fraud or, alternatively, of being “a criminal nuisance”. Details from court papers published this week said that over 15 months, until July this year, Ms Tagarira convinced Cabinet ministers, ruling party heavy-weights and top army and police officers that by striking the rock with her staff she could produce enough fuel to supply the country for 100 years.
The legal firm representing her told The Times that she had been refused bail and no trial date had been set yet.
“It’s an outlandish story but the people in government who believed this are the same ones who believe that Mugabe’s official policy of printing money will end inflation,” said an economist, who requested anonymity.
After 27 years of economic misrule, what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries is in a nightmare of hyperinflation, famine and infra-structural collapse.
According to the police docket at the court, Ms Tagarira, 35, discovered a large bowser of diesel last year, suspected to have been abandoned in the hills of Chinhoyi during the country’s civil war in the 1970s.
She laid pipes from the bowser to a point at the bottom of the hill. Whenever she assembled an audience, she would strike a rock and an assistant at the top of the hill would open the tap and lo, fuel would pour out. The bowser eventually ran dry but that didn’t stop Ms Tagarira. “They would buy diesel from lorry drivers and keep it in the pipe on the pretext it was coming from a rock,” the docket said.
By June the Government had decided the claims were plausible enough to warrant an official investigation. However, where a single geologist would have sufficed, they dispatched a large “task force” of politicians and members of the security forces, led by the deputy commissioner of police.
The task force duly reported to Mr Mugabe’s politburo, the most powerful body in the country, that the liquid appearing at the rock had been siphoned into lorries and that they had driven off without problem.
However, it was when a second “task force” of ministers was sent by the politburo a month later that Ms Tagarira’s ruse ended. She “failed to prove the existence of the fuel”, it said. She disappeared and was arrested this month. “It is not the woman who ought to be arrested, it is the idiots who authorised this criminal waste of public money,” said a lawyer, asking not to be named.