Opinion Zimbabwe

Kompromat: Why the Mohadi case must worry both allies and opponents

By Alex T. Magaisa

A montage of former vice-president Kembo Mohadi and his married lovers Abbigail Muleya (bottom) and Chervaughn Cheoni (top).

Back in 1999, Russia’s prosecutor general was a man called Yuri Skuratov. He was launching an investigation into government corruption when things literally fell apart. His world came crashing down one night when a video of a man having a sexual encounter with two younger women was broadcast on state television.

The head of the Russian intelligence service (FSB) at the time confirmed that the man in the scandalous video was Skuratov. The head of the FSB was Vladimir Putin. He was soon elevated to the office of Prime Minister during the last days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. A short while later Putin became the President, an office he still occupies.

Skuratov was a victim of what Russians call kompromat. In her book How Russia Really Works, leading Russian scholar Elena Ledeneva says the nearest English equivalent for the term is “compromising material” which refers to “discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, or business.”

As a strategy, it involves hoovering dirt concerning a person of interest in the hope that it might be useful at some point. If it is not useful to the collector, it might be handy to another person who is willing to pay for it. In short, it is the weaponization of toxic information concerning an individual or entity to achieve a political or business objective.

An old strategy

According to Russian experts, kompromat is an old strategy dating back to the years of the Soviet Union which continues to be used in various sectors including politics, business, and even international diplomacy. In 2009, a British diplomat was recalled from Russia after a scandalous video of him with two sex workers was published on the internet. In business, it is used as leverage in deal negotiations. But it is in politics where its use has been most prominent, as in the case of Skuratov whose career and reputation were left in tatters. The corruption investigation suffered premature death.

Types of kompromat

In her book, Ledeneva explains the different types of kompromat:

· First, it may be information concerning an individual’s political activities. This includes instances where a political office holder has abused his or her office, broken legal rules, and has been disloyal to the leadership.

· The second type is information regarding an individual’s economic activities of the illicit type, such as business dealings, tax evasion, corruption, money laundering, bribery, etc.

· The third type is information on an individual’s criminal activities. They may have been accused of sexual abuse, rape, or even murder but cases were not prosecuted.

· The fourth type is information concerning an individual’s private life and this includes their sexual behaviour. Collectors of kompromat collect information that an individual would want to keep secret, such as an individual’s sexual orientation.

Therefore, in one sense, kompromat is a commodity that is used for bargaining in business and political deals. It can be sold to those who want to use it. It is used as an instrument of “informal persuasion”. In another sense, it is a weapon that is deployed to silence critics and opponents. More generally, it qualifies as an instrument of informal governance, where it is used to control and direct the conduct of public officers, business leaders, and opposition activists.

The case of Yuri Skuratov is a good example where Kompromat was used to shut down an anti-corruption investigation. The use of so-called “honey-traps” where a target is lured into a sexual relationship is an old strategy. In 2010, several Russian opposition activists were secretly recorded after being lured in honey-traps.

Power of the unpublished

Although the effects of kompromat are more visible when it is published, experts argue that it is more effective in unpublished form, when it is a threat. As Ledeneva points out in her book, “Kompromat displays some of its discrediting potential when published, but it is its power in unpublished form that is used for bargaining and is most difficult to scrutinise”. It is powerful in undisclosed form because it is the threat of disclosure that drives the target to comply. At that point, the target feels they have something to lose in the event of a disclosure. This gives them the incentive to comply to avoid disclosure.

Once it has been disclosed, however, its potency expires. While it might achieve its immediate purpose, the advantage of an undisclosed Kompromat is that it can be used again and therefore remains potent. The logic can be summed up as follows: You can achieve big things when kompromat is disclosed, but you can achieve bigger things when it remains a threat. The problem of course is that as Ledeneva points out, it is harder to analyze the use and effects of unpublished kompromat because while it might be suspected, there is no firm evidence. Therefore, it is possible to suspect from the behaviour of a politician that may he or she is a victim of kompromat, but you can never be certain until there is disclosure.

The target of an unpublished kompromat finds himself in a dilemma. Although blackmail is illegal and he might, in theory, report it to law enforcement authorities, two factors stand in the way. First, reporting the matter would simply lead to the disclosure of something that he would prefer to remain secret. He would rather comply with the demands of the kompromat holder than risk disclosure through reporting. Second, reporting the case might be pointless where the holder of the kompromat controls the law enforcement. This is usually the case where the most powerful are the ones who collect kompromat on others.

One might imagine that the kompromat is kept on and for use against the usual enemies. But kompromat is also kept on friends. This is neatly summed up in a quote attributed to Russian journalist Yulina Latynina who is quoted as having said, “To keep Kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep Kompromat on friends is a must”. It’s more important to keep kompromat on friends. One is never sure when it might be handy. Unsurprisingly, a leader will keep kompromat on his subordinates to ensure loyalty and obedience and to discard them when they are no longer useful.

Kompromat on Mohadi

While its contribution to political vocabulary is undoubtedly significant, Kompromat is by no means a uniquely Russian phenomenon. It is a useful concept to examine the application of informal mechanisms of governance that exist parallel to the formal systems. Where a regime relies on Kompromat to dispose of unwanted members, instead of formal methods, it becomes a practice of governance.

The Mohadi case is a classic case of the use of Kompromat in Zimbabwean politics. It is not the first time that Kompromat has been publicly used, but so far it has been deployed against regime enemies and critics. Its deployment against a “friend” and a key member of the establishment represents an ominous sign which does not bode well for the future.

In February 2021, audio telephone recordings of Mohadi speaking to his lovers and arranging to have sexual encounters were published by online news site ZimLive.com. The women that he was allegedly having sexual affairs with were married. They were also his subordinates. Mohadi’s language was raw, aggressive, and embarrassing. In one call, he tells his lover that he has taken two cups of aphrodisiacs to enhance sexual performance. In another, he makes a direct demand for sexual services and because they have no suitable venue, he settles for his office.

Abuse of Power

Apart from the moral questions over his conduct, the awkward conversations suggested abuse of power by a superior over his younger female subordinates. In one call, he refers to one of the married women as his “wife”. She responds to his fervent declarations of “love” with a mere “thank you” or nervous giggles, hardly expressions of harmony and reciprocity. It’s a language of domination, consistent with sexual violence although packaged as a consensual relationship.

If it were a country that takes sexual harassment and abuse more seriously, there would have been a high-level investigation into Mohadi’s conduct. In a situation where one party to a sexual relationship is a powerful principal and the other is a subordinate, consent is hardly a straightforward matter. There is a vast array of literature that explains why victims of sexual abuse in the workplace are driven into silence. However, a cursory review of comments on social media about women suggests much needs to be done to improve public awareness in this area.

One of the big challenges is the prevalence of rape myths in society. Rape myths are defined by scholars Lonsway and Fitzgerald as “attitudes and generally false beliefs about rape that are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women. Rape myths are attitudes and generally false beliefs about rape that are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” Such attitudes make light of sexual abuse and even lead to blame being apportioned to victims of sexual abuse. Society needs to confront this beast of rape myths because they perpetuate a culture of abuse.

That there is no interest in investigating this potential abuse is therefore not surprising. Since this was Kompromat, the fate of the women is of secondary interest to those who were deploying it. In the circumstances, if they were victims of abuse by a powerful man, the women suffered triple-jeopardy, as they were not only shamed but were also instrumentalized as part of Kompromat in an aggressive battle of masculinities. If those who deliberately exposed Mohadi’s foul behaviour were interested in justice, they would have been investigating him and asking broader questions whether this is isolated or a reflection of systematic abuse of subordinates by principals in the government. They have no interest in investigating themselves.

Foul deed exposed by foul means

In any event, Mohadi found himself in a scandalous situation. How did this happen? This is a troubling, but important question. Evidently, someone tracked his communications and secretly recorded them. The fact that there are different recordings suggests that this was a systematic operation of a nature that can only be handled by state organs. This was an inside job. That person or group had deliberately channeled the Kompromat to the media via a leak to Zimlive.com. Whoever recorded and leaked the telephone conversations must have been sure that there was no legal risk and that he had the protection of the state.

Naturally, when the recordings landed at Zimlive.com, the editorial team concluded that it was too good a story to be ignored. It is unlikely that any serious journalist would have ignored them. This was a senior public official involved in a serious sex scandal and quite literally, abuse of office given that Zimbabwe’s second in command was using his office for sexual trysts. Those who delivered the Kompromat knew it would be published. That the state which is usually aggressive over publications that embarrass the leadership was mute strengthened the case that this Kompromat had been collected and deployed with superior approval.

The problem for Mohadi was not only that this Kompromat was published but how much more was still unpublished. Zimlive.com did not publish all the scandalous affairs at once. It seems they were being drip-fed by those who held the Kompromat. They probably had more coming. The uncertainty must have caused him great anxiety and anguish. Each day, something new was arriving. The message was clear and unmistakable: resign or we will continue leaking more Kompromat. Fearful that worse was to come, Mohadi threw in the towel. It is notable that when he did, the Kompromat tap stopped running. The problem for Mohadi is that even though he is out of office, he probably fears that his tormentors still have Kompromat on him.

Article continues on The Big Saturday Read.

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