We are just yawning out of the frenzy of the Gold Mafia documentary that was produced by Al Jazeera undercover investigatives and made dramatic revelations of some people who are running the gold smuggling and laundering syndicates in Zimbabwe.
The major difference between what we already knew about gold and money laundering and the Al Jazeera documentary is that the latter concretely put high profile faces to the racketeering.
Prior to that, it was speculation, mostly.
Now, lithium is the new gold in Zimbabwe.
Everyone is talking about it and, it seems, just about everyone wants a bite off this special mineral that is hugely abundant in this country and, because of the high end prices it’s fetching, holds the capacity to turn our economy into a world class economy if properly handled.
As with other precious minerals like gold and diamonds, lithium is bringing with it a multi-layered curse.
Lots of it is being smuggled out of the country despite a ban of the exportation of raw lithium.
That says bleeding of the economy.
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And the rush for the mineral is causing untold environmental and social suffering in host communities.
Needless to say, locals are being marginalised from benefiting from this strategic mineral.
The mega million-dollar question is: Who is behind the smuggling of the lithium out of Zimbabwe to mainly South Africa and Mozambique, en route to prized destinations like China?
Well, this question is a combination of two questions, actually.
Who is facilitating the smuggling? Then, who are the real lithium mafia?
In late December 2023, three trucks containing raw lithium were intercepted at the Beitbridge transit port.
They contained some 250 tonnes of unprocessed lithium.
We are told that the transporter had tried to lie that the ore was that of manganese.
It was suspected that the ore had originated in the Midlands fields of Mberengwa.
What’s particularly interesting about this case is that, unlike most of the ones that have been busted, there was a clear name to it.
Bernard Tafadzwa Mnangagwa. His real identity is not yet known to most of us.
He is simply described as a Harare businessman.
It is still to be established if he is related to President Emmerson Mnangagwa or he is just taking advantage of the name to aid his alleged shenanigans.
Then, in January this year, his name resurfaced in another lithium-smuggling case.
Five Bulawayo cops were nabbed for allegedly abusing their office by releasing impounded raw lithium that was also meant for smuggling.
The ore, reportedly, also belonged to Bernard Tafadzwa Mnangagwa.
Just recently, 17 suspects were arrested in Masvingo when 3.7 thousand tonnes of the mineral was intercepted on several trucks.
There have been other reports of Chinese nationals and some locals also trying to smuggle raw lithium into either Mozambique or South Africa, despite the ban of raw exports through statutory instrument 213 of 2023.
It’s easy to see that the SI has created pressure on miners of lithium.
A lot of them have been producing lithium ore, with many of them having already secured markets and entered into sale agreements.
So, all of a sudden, they can’t cleanly export the mineral, yet they have to.
This puts these producers of the lithium among the top suspects. Already, we know that such multi-million companies like Bikita Minerals and the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) are among the major producers.
ZDI, a military outfit, has been granted an unusual waiver on the ban.
A small disclaimer here.
This is not to say ZDI is illegally exporting lithium.
It’s just that, as one of the companies given the go-ahead to mine and export raw, there remains the possibility that it is one of the entities using proxies to get rid of the lithium stockpiles.
As for Bikita Minerals, it still makes sense to also suspect it, in one way or another.
Did you notice that when the police arrested the 17 in Masvingo, there was this big speculation that the ore was coming from Bikita Minerals.
Some say it was stolen from there.
Whichever way, the difference is the same.
If it’s true that the ore was stolen from Bikita Minerals, then you want to look at it from two different angles.
One, these were genuine thieves.
But then, such a big company surely has a solid loss control system in place.
How could it fail to detect loads of lithium ore being taken from its fields by the so-called thieves?
The rumour mill is smoking with the news that the government has just halted operations at Bikita Minerals.
We hear that one of the reasons for the suspension has got something to do with lithium smuggling.
Well, if you know Bikita Minerals well by now, it’s infested with controversy relating to other issues such as the maltreatment of workers.
Two. This was an inside job. The fact that very visible objects like trucks would come and get out of the Bikita Minerals claims and carry equally very visible loads like thousands of tonnes of lithium waves a red flag.
In this case, it makes sense to guess that the mine management let the “thieves” do as they pleased.
In English, this is what they call turning a blind eye.
The assumption, then, is that, even if Bikita Minerals might have been granted a licence to export raw lithium, it is also opting to use the underworld to get the ore stockpiles out of Zimbabwe.
The underworld pays better, you see.
Thing, however, is that there is no way in which we are going to have such a frenzy of exports without the collusion of law enforcement agents, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, Customs and the security sector.
Do you know the distance between Masvingo and Beitbridge, and how many roadblocks are there on the highway?
Granted, we now have way far less roadblocks these days than during the Mugabe-Chihuri era, but we still have roadblocks.
I will bet my last US dollar that these trucks are stopped—or must be stopped—at the blocks.
The fact that they get all the way to the bridge without being detected means that either the police, and army in some cases, are turning the proverbial blind eye or are just too inefficient.
But history tells useful stories. Over the decades, our law enforcement and security agencies have increasingly turned into money mongers. We know of all sorts of things being smuggled out of Zimbabwe under the nose of these agencies.
Let’s go to customs. Yes, we have heard that some of the transporters lie about their consignments.
Like, in the case of the Beitbridge interception, they said it was manganese.
Who will listen to such a tall yarn? Are customs officials so dumb that they won’t be able to tell manganese from lithium? If they can’t, why are they still keeping their jobs?
Besides, the border posts are manned by combined deployments from customs, but the police—to also include the minerals section—central intelligence, immigration and the army.
Such big and conspicuous consignments cannot escape the combined eye of these units, so something fishy is happening here.
It’s also informative that, despite the sensitivity around lithium and the glaring smuggling, the minerals, flaura and fauna section of the police—or the police and military in general—is taking sweet time to launch a campaign against the illegal exportations. That implies that the smugglers are being protected.
While the records are always opaque, it’s not a problem to guess that only a few lithium producers have been licenced to export raw.
This must make it easy for the law enforcers and other relevant departments to trace down the sources of the raw lithium.
Strangely, up to now, it’s almost zilch. Besides odd names like Bernard Mnangagwa, we don’t know who the key faces behind the lithium heists are.
There is something political about this mystery. Take the case of the December 2023 interception.
The police in Beitbridge and Mat South were too queasy to talk about, referring questions to PGHQ.
Why? When a whole dispol and a whole propol cannot talk, it means the issue is too hot for them.
That gives space for the guess that the real people behind the smuggling are untouchable.
This is systematic and systemic corruption.
It is being aided by public systems or, rather, high level individuals who can manipulate those systems.
It’s not right to be splitting hairs.
But did you notice the energy with which a consortium of artisanal miners under the Zimbabwe Miners Federation has been opposing the raw lithium ban?
It’s head, Henrietta Rushwaya who is not new to gold smuggling scandals, wrote to President Mnangagwa urging him to lift the ban.
That betrays one possibility.
The artisanal miners have a vested interest in the raw lithium and its exportation, possibly to defray stockpiles.
And there is a high possibility that some of the artisanal miners have built stockpiles, possibly for speculative reasons.
If they have actually built up the lithium piles that they can’t dispose of because of the ban, then they become easy suspects as well.
They don’t have any legal way of taking the raw lithium out and, in the process, make good dollars.
The only option for them, therefore, would be to smuggle it out.
But then, who doesn’t know that these so-called artisanal miners are, to a large extent, proxies of the big guys in business, politics and government?
So, when all is done and dusted, you have a whole matrix of culprits involved in the illegal exportation of raw lithium: politicians—some of them politically exposed—businesspeople, artisanal miners, the police, army, central intelligence, customs and foreigners, the Chinese in particular.
Never mind the agencies and individuals in South and Mozambique. Our lithium wouldn’t reach those destinations if our own were not smuggling.
- Tawanda Majoni writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on [email protected]