Blood and Diamonds
Zimbabwe's kleptocrats are at war with their own people.


It seems incredible, given the disaster befalling Zimbabwe, that for the ten thousand or so who hold positions of power and influence in Zimbabwe, rich pickings are still on offer.

I had hoped to look into these odious actors from inside the country last week. But I suddenly found that I finally had something in common with Jimmy Carter — both of us of have been refused entry into Zimbabwe.

It is not exactly a badge of honor, since the incompetence of the Zimbabwean regime means many are randomly refused entry. However, it may indicate that — much as I had hoped that Zimbabwe’s crisis was coming to a close — those in power intend to hang on, and will do so until forced to quit. In the meantime, they will do everything they can to stifle reporting from Zimbabwe and to prevent discovery of the money they’re making while their country collapses.

African leaders have finally started to voice concerns, however haltingly, about the regime. Britain and America have been more forthright. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Bush have consistently demanded that Robert Mugabe honor the results of Zimbabawes last election and quit power.

Meanwhile, President-Elect Barack Obama and his expert foreign-policy team — notably Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice — have said nothing about Zimbabwe in over five months. Perhaps Obama has no idea how to bring change to Zimbabwe. There is little hope that change will arrive on its own.

Robert Mugabe — the octogenarian despot who liberated Rhodesia from white rule to form the new country of Zimbabwe — appears to believe that, since he created the country, he can and will destroy it.

He has good reason to think the way he does. Jacob Zuma — the new head of South Africa’s largest party, the African National Congress — made noises last week about an end to the Mugabe regime, but he is now backtracking, telling reporters yesterday that quiet negotiation is still the way forward. That opinion is echoed by the African Union. The only real vocal African opposition to Mugabe is now coming from Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister. Even President Kharma of Botswana has gone silent, despite the fact that a quarter of his country’s population are now Zimbabwean refugees who are bringing cholera into Botswana.

Zimbabwe itself is dying. Prices double every day; disease is killing off many who go without the means to buy food or treatment; death and emigration have halved Zimbabwe’s population of four years ago; and those that remain have the lowest life expectancy in the world — roughly 34 for men and 35 for women.

The politically favored elite in Zimbabwe have sucked the lifeblood from many formerly productive areas of the economy. Until recently — when they completely destroyed tobacco and other productive farming sectors by mismanagement — they had made vast amounts from land redistribution.

With the aid of German printing presses, the Treasury inflated the money supply to buy off workers, prevented ordinary people from exchanging money at real rates, and pocketed all hard currency from their scam of fixing unrealistic currency prices. Eventually the German printer was embarrassed into stopping the presses this summer.

Mugabe’s thugs allowed South African private industry to maintain mines — until the thugs became even greedier. Many mining firms were ejected a couple of years ago. Today, all the mining areas are massively underperforming — but they are still doing well enough for the few at the top.

One area which is still profitable for the elites is the lawless and murderous diamond-mining region in the extreme east of the country. The 170-acre Chiadzwa diamond field on the border with Mozambique should provide over $1 billion per month in revenue, says Gideon Gono, the chairman of the Zimbabwean central bank. Outside experts don’t disagree with that rough estimate. Yet somehow the Zimbabwean government officially gets nothing from this entire field. The mines were nationalized in 2006, after the former owner — the British company, African Consolidate Resources (ACR) — was banished. The place has been commandeered by some of the army elite, who pay paltry sums to their “staff” — many of whom die due to violence and poor conditions. Favored officers pocket a few millions in diamonds every month — no one knows exactly how much.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Kimberley Process, established five years ago to prevent trade in conflict diamonds — but what is happening in Chiadzwa, and the social disaster the Mugabe regime is inflicting on Zimbabwe, is as bad as anything the “blood diamond”-funded conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo ever wrought. Still, no one expects any action against Zimbabwe about breaches of the Kimberley Process.

Rumors abound as to what Mugabe plans for the Chiadzwa diamond field. Since the army is incapable of managing the site — and ACR is too ethical to be allowed back — sources tell me that the regime has turned to the Russian Alrosa mining group. While Alrosa’s representatives came to Zimbabwe last month, even they are likely to balk at working with Mugabe. It is not that their human-rights record is great, but the time and investment to make the field profitable are significant — and would involve considerable financial risk in light of the political instability there. Meanwhile, the misery the Zimbabwean elite are enforcing on the population of Zimbabwe continues.

As the West gets more agitated about African inaction on Zimbabwe (the EU brought new sanctions on ten middle-ranking Zimbabwean officials on Tuesday, bringing the total sanctioned to 178) and the U.N. complains, neighboring countries still watch and wait. The only way to pressure change now is to make the region feel pain for its inertia. Yet there are too many vested interests in western nations to prevent the cutting off of all aid to the region — though that is probably what it would take for external pressure to have any effect. Assuming aid is not withdrawn to the region, any hope for Zimbabwe’s rescue remains with Africa’s leaders. Don’t hold your breath.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.