Illegal diamond mining in Zimbabwe

Despite spirited efforts by the government to convince the international community that illegal mining and diamond underhand dealings in Marange (Chiadzwa) were under control, events on the ground suggest otherwise.

Illegal diamond mining in the rich diamond area of Marange in Zimbabwe is more widespread than has been previously reported, my two-month long investigation has revealed. Despite spirited efforts by the government to convince the international community that illegal mining and diamond underhand dealings in Marange (Chiadzwa) were under control, events on the ground suggest otherwise.

Thousands of illegal miners have in the past two years established permanent bases in mountains, hills and bushes dotted around the diamond fields from which they sneak into the rich alluvial diamond fields at night, aided by members of the police force and army.

The illegal miners have their bases in areas like Chishingwi, Tonhorai and close to the Save (Sabi) River. The illegal diamond panners are coming from far flung areas like Bulawayo, Harare, Mutare, Chipinge, Gweru, Shurugwi and even Mozambique, turning the Marange area into a melting pot for the illegal diamond trade.

The return of the illegal miners is quite surprising as they were brutally removed from the diamond rich area in November 2008 by heavily armed soldiers and police officers during Operation Hakudzokwi. Many illegal miners and buyers were killed during the brutal operation which was widely condemned by the international community.

After that operation, formal mining started. The government, through the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) partnered with private investors to mine the diamonds. But the Minister of Mines and Mining Development Obert Mpofu (Zanu PF) has been fingered in corrupt activities in awarding mining licences to private companies engaged in illegal diamond dealings. Millions of dollars from diamond sales have not yet been accounted for or remitted to the treasury.

These allegations prompted Finance Minister, Tendai Biti (MDC-T) to say “Zimbabwe diamonds continue to be afflicted by problems associated with the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme as well as internal issues of transparency and accountability”.

Mpofu has however denied the accusations, arguing that besides being a government minister he was also a businessman of repute with various business ventures in the country. Mpofu recently told a business meeting in Mutare that “the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development is a very sensitive ministry and one has to be made of sterner stuff than this.” 

“When the issue of diamonds in Marange was first brought before the Cabinet back in 2005 we thought this was not a serious issue, or even one worth debating. But we then realized that actually there were diamonds in Marange and some people were mining tons and tons of diamonds and taking them out of the country right under our noses. From then it has been tough and one has to be tough dealing with these issues otherwise one can be compromised. Now it has been done, it is being done and it will be done. Now I am being attacked left right and centre. Some are even attacking my person, asking how I acquired my properties. I am a businessman since 1980. You all know the attack has been frenzied,” Mpofu said.

However, diamonds are still being smuggled right under Mpofu’s nose as it emerged that there was massive corruption by the police and army personnel manning the diamond fields, adding credibility to allegations that Jonathan Moyo and other Zanu PF party leaders are involved in the diamond smuggling.

The Marange area has become a melting pot for illegal diamond dealers from as far afield as Pakistan, Israel, India and Nigeria, who have also established bases in neighbouring Mozambique and some are staying with local villagers in Marange for easy access to the diamonds. In the nearby city of Mutare, illegal diamond buyers are acquiring properties in the leafy suburbs like Murambi, Greenside, Morningside, and pushing up the prices of residential properties.

Even with the presence of the heavily armed soldiers and police in the Marange diamond fields, illegal mining continues unabated.The recent arrest of two men in India with diamonds originating from Marange worth millions of dollars piled pressure on the government to act; but it seems the battle is far from over as poorly paid and corrupt police officers are assigned to guard the rich diamond resources worth billions of dollars.

Some of the illegal miners talked freely to me about their exploits in the diamond fields adding that, “they will not stop any time soon”. They said they were working with some unscrupulous members of the police, army and security guards to gain access into the fields, while other boasted that they disarmed security guards before going into the diamond fields.

Illegal diamond mining activities are centred mostly in four areas -namely Jesi, Tonhorai, Chirasika and Nengomasha.  Bemba Banda and friend Artman Mabuto who were in the illegal business well before Operation Hakudzokwi, confirmed that illegal miners were working in ‘syndicates’ with members of the police force and army working in the area. As Banda revealed:

I have been in this business since the discovery of diamonds in 2005, well before the operation (Hakudzokwi). But now with the presence of heavily armed soldiers and police we are working as syndicates with the law enforcement agents who allow us to go into the fields and mine for a specific time at night. Normally a police or army officer forms a syndicate with say four or five illegal miners. After getting diamonds they sell it to illegal diamond buyers who are available in the area and split the proceeds among members. The law enforcement agents get the lion’s share. The police or soldier will get half of the proceeds while other members of the syndicate will get the other half and split it among themselves.

Banda also said some of the illegal miners were getting as much as $50, 000 for good clear diamond pieces:

Buyers are paying us about $300 per carat for a bad piece but for a clear good quality gem they pay as much as $5000 per carat. There are local buyers who are working with foreign buyers. One of our reliable buyers is a lady from Mozambique whom the panners here affectionately call Mai MaUSA (Mrs USA Dollars). She pays well.

Mabuto chipped in:

At times when working as a syndicate I steal the stones from other members of the syndicate and I smuggle the diamonds into Mozambique where I sell them. The eastern border is so porous and it’s easy to smuggle a diamond stone. At first, I travelled by foot through the Himalaya Mountains and then took a car ride from the Goridhe area in Mozambique to Manica town were there are so many buyers mostly from Nigeria and India. Some illegal panners even travel through Forbes Border Post. But with all these police check points in the highway, it is still difficult to detect the diamonds as we hide the stones in our mouths when we travel. It was easy.  

And when I visited Manica, a town in Mozambique close to the border with Zimbabwe, it emerged that illegal diamond buyers have field players in the country who move around the small town looking for illegal diamond sellers. I was accosted by some of the runners when they realized that I was from Zimbabwe and had a keen interest in the diamond dealings in the country. But since I did not have any diamonds with me they could not take me to any of the buyers.

“We have serious buyers waiting, do you have the stuff (diamonds),” one of the runners said in hushed tones.

He also revealed that illegal diamond mining in Marange had become dangerous as some police officers and soldiers outside the syndicates make spontaneous raids on the diamond fields:

At times these soldiers and police do what they call ‘reaction raids’. They cross diamond fields on horseback with vicious dogs and some panners are arrested in the process. Some are mauled to death by the dogs. Recently I was unfortunate and was nabbed and taken to the police base. We were thoroughly beaten and then released without being taken to court.

But the panners will not go home after being released, “We will find a way of returning to the fields. We are panners by profession and we don’t have any other job to do, we will remain panners. However long this place is guarded by police, we will still find a way of getting in,” he revealed.

One panner savagely beaten up by law enforcement agents in Marange after a raid in September revealed how they were tortured by the police and soldiers:

As you can see I’m limping. I was severely beaten by the police and soldiers at the Marange diamond area. We were more than sixty when we were caught and it was hell on earth” said the panner, who was from Harare. The soles of his feet were badly swollen. A well-wisher had given him a ride from Marange to Mutare. “Now I don’t have any money to take me to Harare.

Another panner, Edward Chitsiku said that when the ministerial taskforces of President Robert Mugabe are visiting the area it is rare to find illegal miners as they are advised in advance by the police and army not to come anywhere near the diamond fields.

We are warned of the impending visits and we don’t approach the fields during those visits. When KP officials came to the fields they did not see any panner and they concluded that everything was OK in Marange. Ambassadors from EU countries who are rumoured to be planning a visit to Marange will not see any illegal miner or any illegal activity. They will not visit the bases high up the mountains. That is why Minister Mpofu gave them the green light to visit Marange.

Government newspapers might report that police have launched a hunt for illegal foreign diamond dealers who are smuggling diamonds into Mozambique. But the success of such an operation is doubtful as police officers are deeply involved in the illegal diamond dealings. The new chairman of the Kimberley Process - Matheiu Yamba - has cleared Marange diamonds for export, despite strong protests from the USA and the EU. In June this year, Yamba, a national from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) asserted that consensus had in fact not been achieved on this issue and added that diamond exports from Marange would continue until a consensus on the matter was reached.

About the author

Andrew Mambondiyani is a journalist based in Zimbabwe. He recently served as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT (USA) and a Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellow (USA). He has covered illegal mining in Zimbabwe for over five years.