THE recent saga involving the botched smuggling of AK-47 assault rifles and scores of ammunition magazines is deepening as it takes a new political twist amid fresh details. Those close to President Emmerson Mnangagwa are demanding a thorough investigation into the importation of a wrong consignment and a subsequent attempted cover-up, military sources say.
As first reported by The NewsHawks, the guns were ordered from the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) for the Presidential Guard, an elite unit responsible for protecting the President. The brigade is organised into two units located in Harare: 1 Presidential Guard Battalion based at State House and 2 Presidential Guard Battalion at Dzivaresekwa Barracks.
Its headquarters is in Dzivaresekwa and it is led by Brigadier-General Fidelis Mhonda. New details show that the order came from the Zimbabwe National Army — through the G-Branch — and was first given to Ukubambana Commodities (Pvt) Ltd managing director Gladman Chipidza who then contracted former army doctor and now arms dealer Gugulethu Mabhena.
Mabhena then went to Spartan Arms International, which sells arms in Edenvale, Johannesburg, South Africa, to buy the guns, sources add. However, sources say Mabhena bought a wrong consignment which was later rejected.
He bought T-56 assault rifles — a Chinese 7.62×39mm rifle — instead of the original Soviet-designed AK-47. Mabhena smuggled the guns into Zimbabwe through Beitbridge, but instead of taking back the wrong consignment he sought to construct an elaborate cover-up for the costly mistake.
Confronted by police over his contraband, he said the guns were going to the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI)’s Alphida Production in Domboshava.
When police insisted on seeing the documents, particularly the purchase order to establish who was actually importing the weapons, Mabhena was found wanting. He then roped in ZDI general manager Hope Goliath Mutize to rescue the situation by claiming that the guns were ordered by his organisation.
Mutize, who is out on bail, then ordered Group Captain Leonard Matambo, an Air Force of Zimbabwe senior commissioned officer who works for the ZDI, to intervene and write a letter claiming the consignment. Matambo was, however, arrested on 29 August for allegedly trying to facilitate the smuggling into the country of the weapons by Mabhena. The two were arrested and charged with conspiring to smuggle 31 AK-47 rifles and 62 magazines.
In military terms, the guns are enough to arm a platoon. Military sources insist the weapons were brought for the Presidential Guard, but Mabhena botched the deal.
“The order for the gun consignment was generated from the General Staff (GS) Branch of the ZNA for the Presidential Guard to bolster President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s security, especially going to the potentially explosive elections next year. It was given to a middleman who then looked for an arms dealer, in this case Mabhena, in Johannesburg. Mabhena is originally from Bulawayo, but was in the ZNA as a medical doctor before he resigned and left the country,” a source said.
“While in Johannesburg, Mabhena went into private medical practice. At the same time he became an arms dealer supplying the Zimbabwean military. So it’s not the first time he was smuggling guns into the country. He hustles as a gun-runner.”
Mabhena had to arrange to buy the guns from Spartan Arms, a top firearms and accessories supplier in South Africa that deals with the public as well as wholesale bulk buyers, as Chipidza had already used some of the money from the army which was forward payment.
“So Mabhena then bought the guns and decided to smuggle them through Beitbridge to hide their point of origin and destination. However, his operation was clumsy from day one even though he has experience in arms dealing.
“Firstly, they bought a wrong model of guns. So the ZNA refused to accept them as that would raise security, financial and accountability issues. No one wanted to touch the guns.
“Secondly, he didn’t even have an export permit from South Africa or an import permit for this.
“Third, when those who placed the order at the army complained the guns were the wrong ones, Mabhena couldn’t take them back as that would be risky to smuggle them back; so he decided to take them to ZDI as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) and later police closed in on him. Intelligence services were also involved in nailing Mabhena. This was partly because of inter-security agency rivalries and grudges.
“Some police officers were previously exposed by the army for allegedly smuggling guns for poaching activities and dealt with harshly by the Joint Operations Command, which brings together police, army and intelligence service chiefs. So some in the police force feel that army officers also smuggling guns must be exposed since they like exposing others. The situation is exacerbated by latent tensions and rivalries between the army, police and intelligence security services.”
Mutize then instructed Matambo to write a letter to Zimra to allow Mabhena to leave with the smuggled guns, but the police and other security agencies refused. This led to a face-off, their eventual arrest and the ongoing court case.
The letter from ZDI to Zimra has now become a major subject of court inquiry. Mutize, while working with the then ZDI boss retired Colonel Tshinga Dube, was involved in the controversial sale of arms to South African mercenaries led by Simon Mann, a British Sandhurst-trained former Special Air Services (SAS) officer, jailed for plotting Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang’s overthrow in a coup in 2004.
The late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, working with South African authorities, thwarted the coup, leading to the arrest of Mann and his co-conspirators in Harare and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital. Acting on a tip-off, security agencies on 29 August found Mabhena in possession of 31 AK-47 rifles and 62 AK-47 magazines in a white Toyota King Cab (4JK36RL GP) at Manica Transit Shed in Beitbridge.
Police say Mabhena had imported the consignment without a firearms dealer’s permit. In terms of Zimbabwean law, there are many requirements for the registration and licencing of firearms, as well as getting permits.
After moving to South Africa, Mabhena had ventured into the business of supplying arms mainly to the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, which largely uses underground networks to buy weapons as a sanctions-busting measure since it is under European Union, British and United States arms embargoes.
There are other Western nations which do not sell arms to Zimbabwe, for instance Canada and Australia.
The targeted sanctions were imposed on Mugabe’s regime at the height of his authoritarian repression, electoral theft and human rights abuses, including violent attacks, killings and terror. In January, Mhonda told troops to desist from criminal activities, including smuggling.
“It is a concern for commanders when soldiers deviate from their day-to-day duties and partake in criminal acts such as abuse of Army equipment for personal gain, smuggling activities and joining criminal gangs to rob civilians instead of protecting them,” Mhonda said.