Zimbabwe cabal seizes diamond riches to buy power
The Sunday Times, 29 November 2009
A fabulously valuable diamond field in Zimbabwe has fallen under the control of a select few at the top of the country’s security forces. It is feared they intend to use the wealth to enrich themselves and entrench their power as the battle for succession to President Robert Mugabe, 85, heats up.
Sources close to the government said the military chiefs had positioned themselves to profit from millions of pounds’ worth of diamonds flowing out of the Marange diamond field in the east of the country.
Heavy mining machinery has arrived, capable of extracting thousands of carats of diamonds an hour. Valuations vary wildly but one source said: “It will be much more money than they have ever had. We could be talking about between $25m [£15m] and $100m a month. It is extraordinary what they can do with that. They will just close ranks and do what they want.”
Marange diamonds were previously gathered by local prospectors to sell on the black market. But last year, as its riches became apparent, the military moved in and massacred 200 people to clear the site. Human Rights Watch said the soldiers had turned a peaceful area into a “nightmare of lawlessness and horrific violence”.
Rights groups lobbied the Kimberley Process — the international body that regulates the world trade in rough diamonds to ensure they do not fund conflict — in the hope of halting exports from Zimbabwe. They said the gems were blood diamonds extracted through the persecution of those living in the area.
But earlier this month, the diamond monitoring body shrank from suspending Zimbabwe. In return, Zimbabwe promised to end the military occupation of Marange and announced it had contracted foreign firms to mine the diamonds in partnership with a subsidiary of the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation.
Ostensibly the unity government in which Morgan Tsvangirai, the prime minister, shares power with Mugabe gave its approval. It has since emerged, however, that the firms were selected without Tsvangirai’s knowledge. The contracts were also awarded in defiance of a Harare High Court order that said the fields belonged to a British-registered mining company, African Consolidated Resources (ACR). The court confirmed that ACR was the rightful owner, barred mining by anyone else and ordered all security forces to leave the area so that development could take place.
Significantly, neither of the contracts was with an established professional mining company. One is with a South African scrap metal and iron dealer, New Reclamation. The other is with Canadile, a group that allegedly includes smugglers.
The companies were selected by Obert Mpofu, the mines minister. Other members of the government are alarmed that Zimbabwe’s most valuable mineral resource will go “out the back door” rather than benefiting the country.
Mpofu is on an EU and American sanctions list of undesirable Zimbabwean figures. In his dealings with the foreign investors, he admitted being in business with General Constantine Chiwenga, the defence forces chief, and protected by him.
The key characters involved in the joint ventures he selected are connected with powerful people and have questionable pasts. Lovemore Kurotwi, the registered director of Canadile, exploiting the southern part of ACR’s claim, took part in the Matabeleland massacres that tarnished Mugabe’s reputation soon after independence. He commanded a battalion that massacred civilians at Entumbane near Bulawayo.
Kurotwi is the nephew of the late General Vitalis Zvinavashe, a member of the Zanu-PF politburo who was named in a United Nations report as one of the main figures to profit from the plunder of the Congo’s diamond riches. His foreign partner is an Israeli diamond dealer who has been in jail in Angola for smuggling.
Kurotwi told his foreign backers that he represented Mugabe and his family, but an inside source said he was primarily “working for a military syndicate that goes all the way to Chiwenga”.
The key Zimbabwean figure in the syndicate exploiting the northern part of ACR’s claim is Robert Mhlanga, a former air vice-marshal whose relationship with the Mugabes is much closer. It goes back to when he was the country’s first black helicopter pilot, trained in Ghana. He acted as a courier for Sally Mugabe, the president’s Ghanaian first wife. When she died, Mugabe married Grace, his former secretary.
“Chiwenga is involved directly through Kurotwi. They are tribally linked. Grace is definitely involved, too, through Mhlanga operating the other syndicate,” said a source.
Mhlanga has made a fortune in Africa and was in the diamond trade in the Congo when Zimbabwean troops under Zvinavashe fought the war there. He was also a key witness in a 2003 attempt to frame Tsvangirai, who was then the opposition leader, for treason. Mhlanga testified that he had contact with a former Israeli spy who claimed Tsvangirai hired him to kill Mugabe.
Operating from expensive offices in Johannesburg, his links to Mugabe are so strong that he flies his helicopter in and out of Zimbabwe without passing the usual customs controls. Mhlanga is involved in a plan to convert the old Harare domestic air terminal into a diamond-cutting centre, a way of getting round any future diamond export ban. The Kimberley Process applies only to exports of rough diamonds; once they have been cut, it has no power to stop their export.
The plans, seen by The Sunday Times, provide for storage bunkers capable of withstanding a rocket attack.
The exploitation of the diamond fields comes as Zanu-PF finds itself desperately short of money during preparations for a party congress next month. Mugabe’s party has been on the back foot since it was forced into a power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
As the congress approaches, talk is once again growing about the succession to Mugabe. The small group of security chiefs headed by Chiwenga are thought to have the power to hold everyone else to ransom and with their involvement in Marange, they will have the money, too.