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Dualise Beitbridge-Masvingo-Chirundu road immediately: President Mugabe instructs President Robert Mugabe has ordered the immediate upgrading of the killer Beitbridge-Masvingo-Chirundu road, while a legal dispute between government and a local construction consortium is being looked into, Transport and Infrastructure Development minister Obert Mpofu has said.

The upgrading of the road should cost about $1 billion, the minister said in an interview on Sunday.

Mpofu's comments came in the wake of a public outcry over the continued loss of lives along the road, in particular during public holidays and also on the backcloth of the massive development of the Plumtree-Bulawayo-Harare-Mutare road.

"Of course, government is worried about the continued loss of lives and this is unnecessarily so. That is why President Mugabe has given us a mandate to begin work on the rehabilitation of the road to correct the situation," Mpofu said.

Asked whether the president was aware of the legal wrangle between the government and Zim-Highways, the local construction consortium that was reportedly initially awarded the tender to rehabilitate the road, Mpofu said the case could not stop government from embarking on the project.

"We have received advice from our legal team, but in the meanwhile government is already working on modalities of mobilising resources to begin the rehabilitation of the highway," the minister said.

"We will need plus or minus $1bn, and we have received interest from private players who would want to partner government in the project. I am working with Finance and Economic Development minister Patrick Chinamasa on the mobilsation of resources, including engineers and the equipment that is needed to begin work.

Most of the money will come from tollgates and such other collections, but it would be good if we got someone or a group that would want to enter into an agreement with us of which, as I have said, we have interested people we are talking to."

Masvingo province currently tops the list on road fatalities this festive season, with more than 20 people having already perished along the highway.

Farai Mutamangira, government's legal counsel on the matter, confirmed yesterday that government did not have a contract with Zim-Highways.

"We were instructed by the Attorney-General's office to look into the matter and our view, which we have shared with government, is that the pending legal issues do not stop the progress of the project by government through engaging other parties that maybe identified," he said.

Mutamangira said the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between government and Zim-Highways had already expired and there was a remote possibility of government losing the case.

"There is no interdict or court order barring government from engaging other partners and in the event that Zim-Highways wins its case, which is highly unlikely, then they can always be engaged. There is no contract between government and Zim-Highways, but only an MoU, which has since expired," the lawyer said.

"Government is not bound by anything to undertake any activities with Zim-Highways, but there was a procurement process which had identified the company as a preferred supplier of certain materials and nothing beyond that."

The dualisation of the road stalled after Zim-Highways, fronted by construction giant Costain Africa and which also included Murray & Roberts, Tarcon Civil Construction and Mining Group, BancABC and Joina Development, went to court following a decision by government to cancel the MoU that had given the consortium right to embark on the project over a decade ago.

Zim-Highways reportedly struggled to get funding for the multi-million dollar project, apparently because government declined at the time to sign a guarantee that had been demanded by the Development Bank of South Africa.

Early this year, Mpofu announced that government had flighted tenders for the rehabilitation of the country's major trunk roads before an inter-ministerial task force was set up to look at the tenders that had been submitted.

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