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Smuggling Syndicates Are Plundering Resource-Rich Zimbabwe

Illegal artisanal gold miners work at an open mine after occupying parts of Smithfield farm, owned by the former President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe, in Mazowe, Zimbabwe, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) renew their distress calls as Zimbabwe’s political and military elites gang up with international smuggling syndicates to plunder the southern African state’s vast resources

On May 08, a Zimbabwean national was arrested in South Africa after being intercepted at OR Tambo International Airport with 23 gold bars worth $783 000. He had curiously passed through security checkpoints at Harare’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe (RGM) International Airport undetected. It turned out that the man was until recently a driver at the Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation (ZMF), whose controversial president Henrietta Rushwaya was in October last year caught at the same Harare airport trying to board a plane to Dubai with six kilogrammes of gold in her hand luggage. 

While Rushwaya’s case is still pending before the courts, most Zimbabweans who know that she is related to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, do not expect anything to happen to her, especially given that upon her arrest there were claims that the gold belonged to the first lady Auxillia Mnangagwa and her son. Rushwaya’s resumption of duties at the ZMF despite having a pending criminal case has not helped kill speculation that she is just a front for very powerful elites in the country.

Billions Are Lost Every Year

These are just the latest cases that have infuriated ordinary Zimbabweans. The general lawlessness and the politicization of the extractive sectors have facilitated the plunder and smuggling of the country’s resources with impunity. 

“We are losing close to US$100 million worth of gold every month which is being smuggled out of the country through our borders,” Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe revealed last year. 

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In 2019, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube was quoted as saying more than 30 tonnes of gold was smuggled out to South African and Dubai that year in illicit financial flows that have, over the years, bled the country dry.

Organised Criminal Syndicates

It is jaw-dropping statistics like these – at a time when the country is struggling to provide basic social services such as education and health to its citizens – that civil society activists say highlight the wanton plunder that is taking place. 

“Zimbabwe continues to lose BILLIONS OF DOLLARS annually to organised criminal syndicates which have spread their wings from diamonds, chrome, gold, semi-precious gemstones, coal to copper, among other minerals,” noted the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a local non-governmental organization (NGO) involved in monitoring the activities of the country’s extractives industries. 

A lorry carries gold ore from the pit at Gaika Mine in the central town of Kwekwe to a mill for processing

“The syndicates abuse their proximity to power and defraud Zimbabweans and the central government of funds that should be expanding the country’s revenue base and improving the socio-economic lives of Zimbabweans. Today taxpayers bear a heavy burden of funding government expenditure when mineral resources are being plundered by a few.”

The Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA), another NGO that plays a watchdog role in the extractives sector said it is not a coincidence that most cases of gold smuggling in Zimbabwe often implicate politically exposed persons (PEPs), as this shows the manner in which politics and power dynamics are embroiled in the country’s gold mining sector. 

“Corruption and gold smuggling, among other issues, have crippled the country’s efforts to leverage its vast mineral resources and deliver basic services such as education, health and water,” ZELA said in the aftermath of Rushwaya’s arrest.

“Gold is being used as a conduit for money laundering and Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs) jeopardising the country’s domestic resource mobilization efforts to deliver quality basic services to the ordinary citizens.”

The Centre for Research and Development in Zimbabwe noted that Zimbabwe has a porous and corrupt aviation security system that is facilitating smuggling at private airstrips, national and international airports.

Collusion Goes Right To The Top

What is most worrisome is that while this trend is not new, there has rarely been any convictions in the very rare cases where arrests have been made.

In 2016 former president Robert Mugabe alleged that the country had lost about $15 billion worth of diamonds through smuggling from the Marange alluvial diamond fields in the eight years that seven firms – mostly Chinese and most of them in partnership with military elites – had extracted the gems. Attempts to investigate these allegations failed as senior government officials refused to co-operate with the Parliamentary probe team.

President Mnangagwa and his wife Auxilia

Whilst Mugabe had fumed about the smuggling of diamonds, shortly after he was toppled from power, his wife Grace was accused of heading a syndicate that was smuggling huge quantities of ivory, gold and diamonds from Zimbabwe to Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This was after security officials had confiscated about 200 kg of ivory at the airport in December 2018. 

Read More: ‘New Zimbabwe’ Remains Elusive Three Years Later

President Mnangagwa himself has form in this area. A 2002 United Nations report listed him as one of the people that plundered the mineral resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo when the vast central African nation was embroiled in a civil war that ended up sucking in several other regional forces.

Rampant Smuggling For Years

Gold smuggling has been going on for many years. In 2008 the London Bullion Market Association suspended Zimbabwe after its deliveries had dropped from the peak of 24 tonnes to just three tonnes, way below the minimum threshold of ten tonnes. This fall in deliveries happened even though gold mining operations in the country had not slowed down and showed that producers preferred smuggling most of their gold out of the country than to sell it through the central bank-owned Fidelity Printers and Refinery that was paying them in a worthless local currency. 

In 2015, the government of Zimbabwe decided to decriminalize artisanal gold mining. The move, which had severe effects on the environment, was defended as necessary to help the country earn more from gold exports. This saw gold output increase exponentially to over 30 tonnes annually, causing the government to set an ambitious gold output target of 100 tonnes by 2023. However, this increase in the national gold output resulted in a nationwide spike in cases of machete attacks as gangs belonging to different factions engaged in bloody turf wars.

The Politicisation of Minerals Sector

CNRG director, Farai Maguwu said with President Mnangagwa using his discretionary powers to issue mining licences to Chinese and other players, even Parliament is unable to play its oversight role in the governance of the mining sector.

A miner carries a sack of gold ore from a pit at Gaika Mine for panning at a water point

“We have seen the politicization of the minerals sector with Provincial Mining Directors coming under a lot of pressure from the ruling ZANU-PF to allocate mining claims to ruling party officials and supporters and foreign criminal syndicates, especially from China,” Maguwu told Humanosity in an interview. 

“The claims are going to undeserving people, with neither the capital nor experience to go into mining. ZIMRA (Zimbabwe Revenue Authority) is getting little out of these politicized companies, the environment is being mutilated with impunity, workers are not being paid… it’s modern-day slavery.” 

Apart from gold mining, the Chinese are also involved in other sub-sectors of the mining industry, mostly in chrome and coal mining activities where they are known to be law-unto-themselves because they enjoy the protection of the political and military elites.

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