Thursday, August 05, 2021
Home > News > In Marange, illegal diamond trade thrives – for the politically-connected

In Marange, illegal diamond trade thrives – for the politically-connected

“I’ve been told by a friend that this Nigerian guy resides somewhere on this street.”

While strolling through Yeovil – a quiet suburb in the eastern border city of Mutare – a young man approaches me inquiring about a Nigerian diamond buyer he believes lives in the area.

The young man acts as if he is in a market place, looking for someone to buy his tomatoes.

According to Zimbabwe’s Precious Stones Trade Act, unlawful dealing in or possession of precious stones attracts a jail sentence of at least five years. In addition, you may be liable to a fine of up to ZW$1.6 million (US$19,000).

There is little law enforcement in the city of Mutare, dubbed the diamond city. Foreign nationals here form a syndicates with locals and corrupt members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police: a criminal, politically-connected enterprise operating almost publicly. Ironically, this is the end result after a host of local and international measures promised to achieve an honest use of the rich resource.

Diamonds to the people, the slogan used to go, once upon a time. But it was never the case.

The Marange story started when alluvial diamonds were discovered here, about 90km southwest of Mutare, the provincial capital of Manicaland province. They had been suspected present in Marange as early as the 1990s, reportedly discovered by South African diamond company De Beers. However, the company abandoned the area after the lapse of its prospecting order in 2006. A British registered company, African Consolidated Resources (ACR), then took over exploration rights but in late 2006 the government appropriated the rights for the state through its Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC).

The diamond fields, touted as the richest discovery of the century worldwide, attracted a diamond rush in that year, with senior officials from the ruling Zanu PF party actively encouraging whoever wanted to come and mine diamonds in Marange to do just that. They even coined a slogan: “Diamonds to the people!”

It lasted all of two years before the ruling party changed its mind. Between November 2008 and January 2009, thousands of suddenly “illegal” miners were violently removed by Zimbabwe’s security forces under operation Hakudzokwi (you will not return). It was a bloody affair, resulting, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch, in the deaths of more than two hundred people. The over one thousand families who had been mining and living in Marange were forcibly relocated to ARDA (Agricultural and Rural Development Authority) Transau, a desolate government farm a few kilometres west of Mutare, where they were to slide deeper and deeper into poverty.

Though the diamond mining companies had promised the relocated people “income generating projects,” they never fulfilled their promises except for some poorly built houses.

After the deadly operation, the government partnered with private investors to mine the diamonds. Predominant among the eight chosen private partners was Anjin Investments, a joint venture between Chinese Anhui Foreign Economic Construction and a company called Matt Bronze Enterprises. Officially, Anjin and the other companies were to conduct a legal diamond exploitation project on behalf of Zimbabwe and its citizens. The ownership structure of the companies was opaque, however: many suspected that individuals in the ruling party and military officials who had cleared the fields were involved, particularly in Anjin.

The suspicions were substantiated in 2012, when the NGO Global Witness revealed that the majority shareholder of Anjin was a senior law officer in the Ministry of Defence and that then Minister of Defence Emmerson Mnangagwa (now Zimbabwe’s president) had likely been instrumental in granting Anjin’s mining licence. In a new report later that year, the NGO expressed fears that Anjin and other ruling party-linked companies were using their access to Zimbabwe’s diamonds to fund Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation, particularly its operations against the political opposition.

In 2011, the diamond companies had tried to assuage increasing protests against the lack of clarity in the use of the Marange diamonds by launching a community share ownership trust for the locals. In a public show, representatives of the companies had handed a dummy cheque of US$1,5 million to government, promising that the fund would be given US$50 million. However, ever since, interviewed villagers have consistently complained that they “have yet to receive benefit of it”. Press reports in 2020 said that only US$ 400,000 had ever been paid into the trust by the mining companies. It is unclear what happened to that.

In 2003, a UN Resolution established the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme to prevent the flow of so-called ‘conflict diamonds’, the illicit trade of which was said to finance violent rebellions against governments, particularly on the African continent. The ‘Kimberley Process’ or KP for short, was housed in Namibia, consisted of monitors, conducted site visits and wrote reports.

In July 2009, the structure started to engage with Zimbabwe. Its sole objective being the elimination of criminal and rebel non-state “blood diamonds”, it was hardly equipped to stop diamond income reaching Zimbabwe’s ruling party via state channels and associated private companies like Anjin. But it tried, as was its mandate, to prevent direct diamond smuggling and sales by individuals in the supply chain. It also tried to make the Zimbabwean military behave, ending its human rights abuses on the diamond fields.

Zimbabwe did not appreciate the effort. A KP review mission deployed to Marange in July 2009, which concluded that there were ‘credible indications of significant non-compliance’ and recommended Zimbabwe’s temporary suspension, was met with much sabre-rattling by the Zimbabwe government. President Mugabe threatened that Zimbabwe would take its business elsewhere if the KP did not tone down its criticism. The KP, not a strong structure with any enforceable powers to begin with, cowed. The end result was a reconciliatory KP mission led by South African monitor Abbey Chikane, which concluded – to the great dismay of human rights NGOs – that Zimbabwe could resume diamond sales if it met certain ‘minimum requirements’. A Joint Working Plan, in which the KP and Zimbabwe agreed to address the country’s ‘non-compliance issues’ was agreed upon.

When, three months later, Zimbabwe resumed the sale of diamonds, diamond dealers from all over the world flew in, establishing their often shady networks. The decision contributed to the human rights group Global Witness withdrawing from the Kimberley Process in disgust.

In the same year, diamond researcher and founding Director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Zimbabwe, Farai Maguwu, was detained for forty days by the police for allegedly “providing false information” to a KP monitor about killings and torture of individual miners in Marange. Maguwu was released in early July 2010 and was later cleared of the charges by the courts. Three years later, in 2013, a former Zimbabwean legislator, Edward Chindori-Chininga, died in a mysterious traffic accident after blowing the whistle on continuing massive illegal diamond dealings in Marange.

In 2012, then Finance Minister Tendai Biti – this was in the last year of a four-year- coalition government between Zanu PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with Biti being part of the MDC – had already revealed that the government was getting little or no tax revenue from the diamonds. Three years later, with the coalition government long finished, Biti would add that he had informed President Robert Mugabe at the time that the Marange diamonds were being looted by officials at the top of government, the ruling party and the military. Mugabe had refused to take action, he said.

Which is perhaps not surprising, since his ruling party urgently needed funding for its 2013 election campaign; it wanted to take sole control of the country again, says MDC. A leak of intelligence papers to The Times in the UK suggested that US$ 800 million in proceeds from diamonds had gone straight into Mugabe’s “war chest”. The Africa Confidential newsletter at the time raised similar allegations, saying that “a spending splash by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front is attracting increasing suspicion that the funds come from illegally diverted diamond sales.”

The ruling party’s election campaign spending spree, in which each of its parliamentary candidates was given a top-of-the-range vehicle to use, also attracted the attention of the reputable Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, that pointed out that “diamonds kept Zanu PF going during the years of the coalition government.” It reiterated that Tendai Biti, the soon-to-be ex Finance Minister himself, had complained that so little of the diamond proceeds went into tax coffers.

Then suddenly in 2016, after three years in sole control of the Zimbabwean government, President Mugabe halted operations of all mining activities in Marange. He professed to be shocked at all the pilfering, echoing what Tendai Biti had said years before: the companies his government had partnered with had “looted” the diamond revenue. Only about US$2 billion had been remitted to treasury, “yet we think more than $15 billion has been earned,” he said. Anjin Investments, together with other private partners Kusena, Mbada Diamonds, Diamond Mining Company, Rera, Gye-Nyame, and Marange Resources were ordered to stop operations. The government took over through its Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Mining Company.

Sadly, this led to little to no improvement, since only the private and foreign elements were removed from the diamond exploitation. The state, ruling party and military officials continued to do what they had been doing, now under the cover of the ZCMC. Still in September 2017, the Financial Times would write that a secret mine was ‘enriching Mugabe allies’.

Nevertheless, a parliamentary probe into Marange was on the cards. Mugabe was to testify with regard to the looting comments he had made. But then, in November 2017, there was a coup in Zimbabwe against the now very old and ailing leader. It was led by vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa who declared himself president on the 24th of that month.

It was widely suspected that at least some of the motivation for the coup had been provided by diamond interests and China, whose mining venture with the Zimbabwe Defense Force, the ZDF, had been so unceremoniously ended by President Mugabe just a year before. Mnangagwa, nicknamed The Crocodile, was one of the top members of the military elite, and close to Anjin and China. According to former ZANU PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa, Mnangagwa had been directly dealing Marange diamonds through his involvement with Anjin and the army.

The erstwhile vice president might therefore not have been looking forward to the announced parliamentary probe into the Marange looting, scheduled to take place in 2018. In December, weeks after assuming power, the Zimbabwe government led by Mnangagwa, started talk of the state’s private partnerships being reinstated.

From the start of his presidency, Mnangagwa has talked a strong talk about the scourge of corruption. During his first State of the Nation address in 2017 he called it ‘the major source of the problems the country was facing’, adding that “its retarding impact on national development could not be overemphasized” and that his government (would) have “zero tolerance towards corruption and this has already begun.”

Nevertheless, from 2017, reports on human rights violations by security forces and company guards on the Marange fields continued. Diamond researcher Farai Maguwu says that law enforcement officers in the country have become part of a large network of organised crime. “Police in Mutare are aware of places where foreign diamond dealers live and deal in illegal diamonds. They frequently raid them but do not carry out any arrests. Instead, the officers extort money from the dealers,” says Maguwu. He adds that illegal foreign diamond buyers also pay protection fees to corrupt senior police officers in Mutare to hold on to their diamonds until they find a buyer to take the gems across the border. In the end, Maguwu estimates, ‘Zimbabwe could be losing in excess of US$ 1 billion annually’.

“I know their secrets because I used to link the diamond buyers and the sellers.” Jacob (name changed), once a middleman in Mutare’s diamond underworld, explains the chain of illegal activities, all the way from the diamond fields in Marange to those upmarket Mutare homes where the diamond buyers live. The chain starts in the fields at Marange, where corrupt security officers and company guards are working with individual illegal miners and company employees to harvest diamonds outside official channels. They find ways of evading the numerous checkpoints in a cat and mouse game between the dealers and officers from the law enforcement agencies. Rogue policemen wave you through without checking what you carry in your pockets. They also help you to transport your loot. ‘Some of these police officers are living very large’, Jacob says. ‘Their lifestyles are not commensurate with their poor salaries’. He also says he knows ‘very senior politicians’ who network with these officers.

The taxi driver gets pizzas and sex workers.

A taxi driver I meet confides in me that he has befriended “quite a number of the Nigerian diamond buyers,” too. “I used to run errands for them; including buying some groceries, grabbing a few beers or pizzas or even getting some local sex workers for them. These Nigerians spend most of their daytime indoors but at times they guardedly venture out into the city. They then trusted me to take them around.” He concludes by narrating how he observed illegal diamond buyers meeting and exchanging money with some well-known police officers in the city. ‘Ask yourself why we hardly hear any stories of foreigners being arrested in the city for illegal diamond buying’.

Illegal diamond buyers don’t only come from Nigeria. From as far afield as Lebanon, China, India, Israel and neighbouring Mozambique, too, they set up camp in Mutare, renting houses in upmarket suburbs like Murambi, Morningside, Greenside, Florida, Fairbridge Park, Borderville and Yeovil, from where they network with their runners and contacts. The houses, luxury villas of the old colonial variety, have been dubbed ‘safe houses’ or ‘trade centres’. I try to visit a few, but only find locked gates and no visible activity during daytime. One of the well-known houses in the city’s upscale Morningside suburb is surrounded by a high white perimeter wall with a large black gate; it seems deserted.

“Be careful: he is able to hire thugs to rough you up.”

It is however not difficult to run into people who know the most notorious among these buyers: a flamboyant figure only identified as Moore, believed to be a Lebanese national. Moore is married to a local woman, I hear, and a known party animal with strong connections in the Zimbabwe Republic Police. “This guy (Moore) is buying diamonds like he is buying vegetables,” says a source in the network. “Diamond sellers are flocking to his house in the dead of the night to sell their loot. He has been living in the city for a while now; I think for more than three years.”

The source adds that Moore is “protected by a very powerful senior police officer (name supplied) in Mutare,” saying that he knows “a lot about all his dealings because I once visited his house and he told me a lot. I got angry with him when I realised that he is also doing cocaine and other drugs at some of his wild parties and is introducing young local girls and boys to these serious substances. Be careful with him; he is able to hire a few thugs from the city to rough you up.”

In one foggy photo availed to me by the source, Moore is seen in a house surrounded by a partying crowd. In the photo, the group appears to be enjoying Moore’s hospitality, with drinks on a small glass table and one person holding what appears to be a marijuana joint. In another photo, Moore is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “BO$$ MOORE”.

Efforts to get a comment from Moore draw blanks. Instead of responding to the questions sent to his WhatsApp number, he sends a Zimdancehall song, a music genre popular with youths in Zimbabwe. The tune has nothing to do with the questions I have asked of him but it contains words that idolise Moore. There is a bit where the words “more/Moore fire” are put on repeat.

Interestingly, according to former middleman Jacob, the chain has been subjected to a few shocks in recent times. “After what happened to (senior policeman) Chrispen Charumbira, some police officers involved in these activities have gone underground. It’s very hot out there at the moment,” he says. Charumbira the former director of the Criminal Investigation Department in the Zimbabwe Republic Police was arrested in October 2020 by the Special Anti-Corruption Unit that is housed in President  Mnangagwa’s office. Charumbira stood accused of protecting illegal gold dealers in Mutare.

Two other senior police officers attached to the Minerals, Fauna and Flora Unit at Mutare Central Police Station were also arrested for alleged diamond smuggling.

Echoing the president’s anti-corruption talk, after the arrests in Mutare the head of police in Manicaland province, Wiklef Makamache, told journalists that the ZRP had “zero tolerance” for corruption and would not protect police officers caught on the wrong side of the law. “Corruption is a cancerous syndrome that keeps on tarnishing the image of the Zimbabwe Republic Police,” Makamache was quoted as saying.

Home Affairs Minister Kazembe Kazembe, whose ministry is in charge of the ZRP, did not respond to questions sent to his WhatsApp number requesting comment on the corruption arrests. Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) spokesman John Makamure says that his organisation has not yet received reports of police officers involved in illicit diamond dealings in the city of Mutare. “(We) will act on them (the reports of corruption) once received,” Makamure said.

In January this year, the most lucrative diamond block on the Marange fields was handed back by Mnangagwa’s government to Anjin, the Chinese company with the longstanding partnership with the Zimbabwe Defence Force.

Communities around the diamond fields continue to live in abject poverty, surviving mostly on subsistence farming and a little fishing in the nearby Odzi River.

Nowadays, severe recurring droughts in the area are making even rain-fed farming unsustainable.

This story was originally published by ZAM Magazine

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons