Is the Mugabe regime smuggling diamonds via diplomatic bags?
By Clifford Chitupa Mashiri
With the Mugabe regime owing its diplomats at 47 missions nearly US$7million in salary arrears as at 31st December 2014, could it be smuggling diamonds via diplomatic bags to get them going?
According to the U.S. Department of State, a diplomatic bag or pouch is any properly identified and sealed package, pouch, envelope, bag or other container that is used to transport official correspondence, documents, and other articles intended for official use.
As long as it is externally marked to show its status, the bag has diplomatic immunity from search or seizure, as codified in article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Reports seem to indicate that Zimbabwe’s diplomats may have been last paid in May or July 2013 when the government also struggled to fund the disputed elections and is yet to pay the ZEC’s election staff.
This finding is based on the following reports: “Diplomats go for two months without pay”, Daily News, 11 March 2015; “Zim diplomats unpaid for 20 months,” NewZimbabwe, 17 December 2014; and “Govt in $40m diplomatic missions’ debt, [staff not paid the equivalent of eight months],” The Herald, 11 March 2015.
The amounts owed appear to be severely underreported for purposes of spin with The Herald on 11 March 2015 saying that Government owes at least US$40 million in operational costs, salaries and school fees arrears to its 47 diplomatic missions and consulates in various countries.
Quoting Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Joey Bimha, The Herald said the salary arrears stood at US$6, 669,900 as at Dec 31, 2014, while staff had not been paid the equivalent of eight months’ salaries.
What compounds the misery of Zimbabwe’s diplomatic service is that in January 2014, ZimFA PermSec Joey Bimha disclosed that the diplomats had gone for 10 years without an increase in salary due to budgetary constraints
“Over the last 10 years we have never increased salaries of our diplomats because of the problems we are facing. We have never paid them any bonuses because the situation we are in does not warrant that,” he said (see The Herald, “10 years no pay increase for Zim diplomats,” 18 January, 2014).
So the question most people are asking is “How are Zimbabwe’s diplomats managing without pay in foreign countries, while their spouses are not allowed by the Public Service to work abroad?”
There are unconfirmed reports that the Mugabe regime is sustaining its diplomats abroad by allegedly smuggling diamonds via diplomatic bags.
In 2007 The Zimbabwean reported that senior diplomats working for the Zimbabwean embassy to South Africa were under investigation for diamond trafficking (The Zimbabwean, “Diamonds in diplomatic bag?” 5 July 2007).
The moves followed a tip-off to the South African Police Service (SAPS) about the smuggling of diamonds from Zimbabwe through the use of diplomatic bags, a practice which is obviously in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Two months earlier, a receptionist at the Zimbabwe Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, referred to only as Chiwoniso, was allegedly shot following ‘the flop of a diamond deal.’
According to the report, this was rumoured to be the deal the Zimbabwean government allegedly struck with its employees in South Africa as part of payment for their salaries.
At the time, the Zimbabwean government had failed to pay its employees for four months and this had allegedly forced government officials to be involved in diamond scams that almost claimed one life.
In July 2008, ABC Television in Australia alleged that Mugabe used Air Zimbabwe Boeing 767-200 flights to transport illicit goods, including ivory, gold and diamonds.
The reports quoted Australian opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, who claimed that “over the past year” the flights entered Australian airspace northwest of Christmas Island and were guided by local air traffic controllers.
According to RTT News, a “recent” flight carried 15 tons of unidentified “palace cargo” to Beijing “to be exchanged for weapons and luxury items” (see IDEX Online, “Mugabe Smuggling Diamonds Out of Zimbabwe, Reports,” 22 July 2008).
The Zimbabwe Mail [online diaspora news outlet] revealed in November 2010 that efforts to recall former Ambassador Zwambila from Australia were planned by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) with some alleged named accomplices after she became a barrier to a large scale diamond smuggling operation through Australia en-route to India and China using the Diplomatic bag.
According to information from highly placed sources, the Zimbabwe government officials, military generals and senior Zanu-PF officials were smuggling Zimbabwe’s blood diamonds through the Zimbabwe embassy in Australia via the Diplomatic bag (see The Zimbabwe Mail, “Efforts to recall Ambassador to Australia linked to diamonds smuggling syndicate,” 23 November 2010).
Sources at the embassy said hell broke loose when Ms Zwambila insisted that, only she should open the diplomatic bag which did not go down well with the authorities in Harare.
There are concerns that the smuggled Zimbabwean diamonds are illegally sold to foreign buyers and potentially terrorist organisations who are attracted to gems because they are compact and do not set off metal detectors (Eva Blum-Dumontet@arcadian_O, “Cablegate in Africa – First part Zimbabwe,” 1 Dec. 2011).
It is not clear what Zimbabwe derives from its 47 diplomatic missions given a collapsed economy and 90% unemployment while its non-resident leader globetrots with passion which has seen Mugabe visit five countries in one month [March 2015].
Few people would disagree with Bimha’s assertion that the ministry of foreign affairs is the face of Zimbabwe and it is, therefore, paramount that it portrays a good image to the international community.
However, the ministry is held accountable for posting people to go and survive on moonlighting and possible criminal activities in foreign countries just to satisfy Mugabe’s bloated ego.
Given that Zimbabwe’s diplomats are the only civil servants who have never been heard to threaten let alone go on strike for unpaid salaries stretching for 20 months there is a big suspicion that they are being bankrolled by the rogue state through smuggled gems via diplomatic pouches and money laundering activities.
So, is there a ninety-nine percent probability of the majority of Zimbabwe’s approximately 40 diplomatic bags in transit this week to be containing diamonds and/or gold smuggled by the regime to its embassies for the up-keep of its diplomats?
Even if the diplomatic bags contain smuggled diamonds and /or gold what can foreign governments do about it?
In a rare move, in 2000, Zimbabwe opened a six-tonne diplomatic freight delivery intended for the British mission in Harare sparking a diplomatic row with London (see BBC, Diplomatic bag: The inside story, 10 March 2000).
On a positive note, Zimbabwe has been praised by the Global Fund for its proper use of the HIV Aids grant.
Clifford is a former diplomat and a UK-based political analyst. email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org