Beitbridge arms smuggling saga: Fears President was main target
FEARS are mounting within President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inner security circle that the arms which were smuggled into the country through Beitbridge by a seasoned gun-runner without a consignee were meant to attack the President ahead of the Zanu PF congress next week, military sources say.
Zanu PF holds its elective congress from 26-29 October at Robert Mugabe Square, also known to the opposition as Freedom Square, in Harare. The event comes against a backdrop of infighting and internal strife, pitting Mnangagwa against his deputy Constantino Chiwenga, as well as their factions.
Top military sources say Mnangagwa firmly believes there was a plot to attack him for political reasons, just like what happened at White City Stadium in Bulawayo in June just before the 2018 general elections.
The military sources say Mnangagwa thinks the guns initially ordered for the Presidential Guard were not meant to protect him as expected, but to kill him or oust him from power. “It has now become a big and sensitive political issue,” a military source said.
“The President and his security team think that there was a sinister agenda behind the guns smuggling saga. There are too many things raising the eyebrows. To begin with, there was no proper documentation for those guns, including the purchase order, import permit and consignee,” a military source said.
“Even the way the weapons had been transported from Johannesburg (South Africa) to Beitbridge (Zimbabwe) was suspicious. There were no security arrangements, including an escort car as should be the case. When the clearing documents were examined, they had no name of the consignee. The clearing agent rejected them. Something unusual and fishy was happening.”
The sources said Mnangagwa and his security are questioning the coincidence between the arms smuggling incident and his presence two days apart in Beitbridge to officially commission the upgraded and modernised border post on 31 August. Mnangagwa arrived in Beitbridge two days after the guns had been smuggled into the country.
Indeed, two days after the arms dealer was arrested in a case which now involves Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) general manager Hope Goliath Mutize and its project officer, Group Captain Leonard Matambo, an Air Force of Zimbabwe senior commissioned officer.
Some of the documents required for clearing purposes include a bill of entry, one of the major papers for import customs clearance; an invoice, the prime document in any business transaction; import licence; insurance certificate for import customs clearance procedures and purchase order which reflects almost all terms and conditions of sale contract and enables customs officers to confirm on value assessment.
As a result, military sources say Mnangagwa recently ordered a thorough investigation into the recent smuggling of arms into Zimbabwe from South Africa through Beitbridge, suspecting the weapons were targeted at overthrowing or harming him.
This comes as Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga are locked in a fierce power struggle over an unresolved leadership issue following the ouster of the then president Robert Mugabe in November 2017. Internal Zanu PF contradictions and infighting have been worsening behind the scenes.
Mnangagwa and Chiwenga have been fighting for the heart and soul of Zanu PF since 2017 after they toppled Mugabe in a coup. The situation was exacerbated by the July 2018 grenade attack at White City Stadium, which Mnangagwa and his allies believe was intended to assassinate him.
It hurt and killed some of those present. After the grenade attack incident, Mnangagwa embarked on a political purge of his rivals, removing and redeploying some, while others were sidelined or eliminated from the political terrain.
As a result of the Beitbridge arms smuggling saga and the other previous events, Mnangagwa ordered an investigation to find out the story behind the guns and the arrests drama, sources say. They say a team of senior military commanders led by Brigadier-General Steven Gwekwerere first went to Beitbridge to investigate the issue.
This was after the matter had been discussed at the top echelons of the executive and military circles. Following the initial probe, which did not shed enough light to the dark corners of the guns scandal, Mnangagwa ordered another investigation led by Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Phillip Valerio Sibanda.
The issue involves the botched smuggling of AK-47 assault rifles and scores of ammunition magazines. The investigations are focusing on importation of a wrong consignment and a subsequent attempted cover-up, amid fears he was the target instead of the beneficiary of the weapons smuggling.
The guns were ordered from the 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. The Presidential Guard headquarters is in Dzivaresekwa and is under the command of 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, 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 AK47. Mabhena — a gun-runner with years of experience in the murky trade — 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.
It is said the guns were actually seized when his car was clamped while he was bathing. The car was taken to Manica Zimbabwe Ltd clearing agency’s shed.
After bathing, Mabhena went to demand the release of his car. A confrontation developed with the police as the smuggler began name-dropping at the highest levels of the military to scare off the law enforcement agents.
Confronted by police over his contraband, Mabhena said the guns were going to the 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 Mutize, the ZDI boss, to rescue the situation by claiming that the guns were ordered by his organisation. Mutize, who is out on bail, then ordered Matambo, an Air Force of Zimbabwe senior commissioned officer who works for the ZDI, to intervene and write a letter claiming the consignment was theirs.
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 AK47 rifles and 62 magazines.
The state is determined to nail them. In military terms, the guns are enough to serve an army platoon. The order for the gun consignment was generated from the General Staff (GS) Branch of the ZNA for the Presidential Guard, purportedly to bolster 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.
While in Johannesburg, Mabhena went into private medical practice. At the same time he became an arms dealer supplying the Zimbabwean military. So it was 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 gun model, so the ZNA refused to accept the consignment as that would raise security, financial and accountability issues. No one wanted to touch the guns. Secondly, he did not 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 could not 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 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.
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 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 the 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 tipoff, 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 ZDI, 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.