Zimbabwe Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono admitted Monday that he took hard currency from the bank accounts of private businesses and foreign aid groups without permission, saying he was trying to keep his country's cash-strapped ministries running.
In a statement that would be unthinkable coming from most central banks, Gono appeared to be issuing a plea to keep his job in the face of growing criticism.
He said it was time "to let bygones be bygones" now that Zimbabwe has a new coalition government dedicated to reversing its economic decline.
Gono said he gave the money he took from the hard-currency accounts as loans to various ministries, and those private accounts would be reimbursed when the ministries repaid the loans. He said the bank's efforts "sustained the country" in its hour of need.
Gono's statement showed the practice was widespread. It was first hinted at last year, when the international aid agency Global Fund threatened to cut off funds to Zimbabwe for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria unless money taken from its account was returned. The central bank returned $7.3 million to Global Fund.
The raiding of foreign-currency accounts is just one of the highly questionable actions for which Gono has been sharply criticized.
In the past two years, he slashed 25 zeros from the local currency, printed more local money without backup reserves or assets and distributed agricultural equipment to many in President Robert Mugabe's party who were given farms seized from whites.
Gono declared Monday that the criticism of his office had reached "ridiculous dimensions... in the name of trying to show how evil, unworthy and incompetent the governor is."
"All this is being done to in an effort to show the central bank governor killed the economy single-handedly," his statement said. "It is even being argued in some circles [that] donors must not put money into the Reserve Bank until the governor is relieved of his duties."
Last year, before a unity government deal was signed in September, Mugabe reappointed Gono to a second five-year term. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party, the former opposition, objected, saying the power-sharing deal gave it a say in the appointment of key state posts.
Attacks on Gono have stepped up in recent days after he offered about 50 used cars to new lawmakers from both Mugabe's party and its longtime rival, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change. Controversy over the cars has led to calls for an investigation into the central bank's operations, ranging from the purchase of its cutlery to businesses that Gono runs on the side.
In his statement Monday, Gono called on lawmakers to return the cars but said the offer was well-meant.
Gono said lawmakers asked for the cars so they could travel across the country to "preach" the message of economic reform and national reconciliation under the coalition formed February 16.
The coalition partners have pledged to work together to confront Zimbabwe's crippling poverty, collapsed utilities and chronic shortages of food and basic goods. An estimated two-thirds of Zimbabweans are in need of food aid, and a cholera epidemic has sickened more than 80,000 people and killed more than 4,000 since August.
Zimbabwe's economic crisis has been blamed on a land-redistribution campaign that Mugabe began in 2000. The number of white farmers has dropped from about 4,000 to 400, and farms have ended up in the hands of Mugabe cronies.