ZIMBABWE’S state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), has raised serious national security fears over an illicit gold mining operation run by an army-owned company, Rusununguko/Nkululeko Holdings (Pvt) Ltd, in the Eastern Highlands, saying it poses a threat to the nation from across neighbouring Mozambique.
The CIO fears that the military’s illegal alluvial gold mining activities on the porous border with Mozambique in the eastern region have rendered the country vulnerable to environmental degradation, smuggling and infiltration by terrorists through that fault line.
Zimbabwe and Mozambique share a 1 423 kilometre-long north-south eastern boundary drawn during colonial times by Portugal and the United Kingdom.
A recent investigation by the Qatar-based international broadcaster Al Jazeera on gold smuggling, money laundering and corruption said Zimbabwe is losing US$1.5 billion annually through illicit trade and trafficking in metals and minerals, in this case gold in particular.
The army’s gold mining operation in Mutasa district, Manicaland province, on the eastern border between the two countries, has created an illegal crossing point and route through which gold is smuggled across the porous border below the radar.
Illegal mining activities and clashes over natural resources have led to violent local conflicts across many different African countries.
In neighbouring Mozambique, Islamist jihadists have been fighting the government in the northern gas-rich Cabo Delgado region.
Strong research-based evidence links mining of minerals in many African countries to local conflicts.
This is because minerals are prized by activists, insurgents and even rebels as a source of financing.
Examples include the “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone and Liberia in previous conflicts, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s endless wars over natural resources.
Even in Zimbabwe, there have been violent conflicts over alluvial gold and diamond mining in recent years, especially in the gold fields involving “mashurugwi” and at the Chiadzwa diamond concessions.
The country has previously seen a surge of attacks by gangs associated with the burgeoning artisanal mining sector, taking hundreds of miners’ lives.
The murky Manicaland project is being done by the military in conjunction with a firm owned by a Lebanese national. The CIO views the army’s gold mining operation as a product of a criminal network using the military cover to enrich individuals.
The operation is the brainchild of the late Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo, who was a retired Lieutenant-General. Moyo was instrumental in the November 2017 coup which brought President Emmerson Mnangagwa to power.
The army has vast investments in various sectors of the economy, including the media after securing a television licence to operate its NRTV station.
An intelligence memorandum dated 11 September 2023 says the army mining operations, which are also irregular as they are alluvial or on the riverbed, pose security problems because of an undesignated route that has been opened from across the border to the project site.
Riverbed mining has been banned in Zimbabwe, although some mining syndicates are defying it.
The Mutasa project has created a corridor for smuggling, which invites illegal miners and illicit trade that, in turn, attracts all sorts of players, including contrabandists, money launderers and possibly insurgents.
The road from Mozambique to the mining area was opened by Rusununguko/Nkululeko Holdings for the purposes of transporting its mining equipment from across the border to the site where it partners a company called Mutare Project Cooperation.
Mutare Project Cooperation is not registered in Zimbabwe, but in Mozambique, according to the CIO memo. It is fronted by a Lebanese national, El Fakih Hussein, (passport number AB1084246) and a Chinese national, Ren Wei, (passport number EJ7488485).
Part of the communication reads: “This submission serves to inform C.I. HQ on the activities of Rusununguko Nkululeko Holdings, an investment entity linked to the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF).
“According to contacts, said the project at Nyamukwarara commenced on 02 September 2023, with Rusununguko Nkululeko Holdings initially claiming to be rehabilitating Nyamukwarara River yet they are actually mining gold.
“Checks with sister Branch 1 Mutasa Station and B1 Provincial Operations indicate that a Provincial Ferret team visited the area in question on 05 September 2023, which visit established a number of anomalies.”
Nyamukwarara is in Mutasa, Manicaland region. It is a resource-rich area with gold and timber situated in the far end side of the border with Mozambique.
The army has joined Chinese companies mining alluvial gold and processing timber amid serious environmental degradation and destruction. The community there feels under siege and neglected by the extractive mining companies.
Most villagers were relocated without compensation. The rivers are polluted and the ecosystem has been disrupted, while there is no basic infrastructure such as bridges and roads to an extent that if it rains some children do not attend school.
This is what partly led to the Cabo Delgado conflict.
The intelligence communication says the CIO is concerned that the mining operations pose a serious national security risk and a threat to peace and stability.
“Of critical importance to this office is that the graded road from Mozambique has become an express way for smuggling and considering recent insurgencies in Mozambique this is a serious cause for concern,” it says.
“Quite recently, Rusunguko are reported to have brought in three (3) earthmoving machines from Mozambique through said undesignated roads. Checks with Zimra and Ministry of Transport revealed that no customs or other official authority was granted for the equipment and for the grading of the road.”
The Cabo Delgado conflict has its roots in the pre-existing socio-economic marginalisation of northern Mozambique, political and extremist religious ideology, and inequalities worsened by the discovery of minerals and natural gas deposits in the region, which threatened the livelihoods of the local population.
Since 2017, Cabo Delgado has been the scene of a deadly insurrection, prompting intervention by the Southern African Development Community and Rwanda, among other foreign actors.
While foreigners have joined in the name of jihad, most of the Mozambican rank and file militants are motivated by perceived socio-economic exclusion amid major mineral and hydrocarbon discoveries in the region.
The conflict threatens national stability, just as Mozambique is fulfilling a peace deal with its main opposition party in the central region, while it risks becoming a new frontier for global jihadists to exploit.
More than 800 000 people have been displaced by the conflict since 2017, while around 3 700 have been killed due to the conflict.
The CIO memo also says the mining site visited by Manicaland Provincial Ferret team on 5 September 2023 established the presence of foreigners who included Mozambican nationals operating there, and five Chinese.
The foreign nationals were reportedly contracted by Hussein on behalf of Mutare Project Cooperation.
The site manager was identified as Anuel Sebastio Petrosse, a Mozambican who is being assisted by Weng Dilngjiang, a Chinese.
“Checks with the Immigration Department Eastern Region revealed that no work permit applications have been lodged in respect of said foreign employees,” the intelligence memo reads.
The communication also says current engagements with contacts in the area by the CIO showed youths aligned to Zanu PF are angry over the presence of foreigners and impunity in mining by the army and its partners.
“This comes against the backdrop of youths previously having been stopped from conducting alluvial mining in the area over pollution concerns. Furthermore, locals in the area are querying as to why a mining venture in Zimbabwe would employ Mozambicans and not Zimbabweans,” reads the memo.
“Of note, the activity by Rusununguko/Nkululeko Holdings regards alluvial mining along rivers is not the first in the province as the entity previously did a similar venture between 2019 and 2020 in Ward 22 Chimanimani East along the confluence of Rusitu and Haroni Rivers before being stopped.”
The document says the CIO is increasingly concerned over the grading of the illegal road and employment of foreign nationals without following due processes and proper documentation.
“The road has created an easy illegal entry point that may facilitate smuggling out of gold and other precious minerals, more so against the backdrop of Mozambique having recently built Minerals Trading Hubs for buying and selling minerals, including a hub in Manica Province in the neighbouring country,” the memo says.
“Further to that, the illegal point will embolden already existing smuggling syndicates through giving them an alternative route relatedly, given the ongoing Islamic insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province of Mozambique, there is risk of security suspects entering the country through the undesignated road and establishing terrorist cells in Manicaland and the country as a whole.”
The CIO again flagged the army company for not conducting security checks on the people working for it.
“Rusununguko/Nkululeko Holdings has also seemingly not vetted the foreign nationals working at their alluvial mining activity, hence they may be inadvertently harbouring persons of security concern. The station is pursuing the matter with a view to establish finer details on the matter,” reads the memo.
Farai Maguwu, Centre for Natural Resources Governance director, condemned Rusununguko/Nkululeko’s dodgy mining activities. He said government must intervene and take corrective measures.
“This is a product of militarisation, securitisation and politicisation of minerals and confirms our long-held view that mining is now a big threat to national security and human security. The state is becoming weaker and weaker, while organised crime is on the rise,” Maguwu said.
“The government must tighten mining regulations and enforce them. No organisation or entity must be allowed to operate outside the law as doing so leads to anarchy, with far-reaching consequences on peace, safety and security of citizens.”
Zimbabwe National Army public relations director Colonel Alphios Makotore, in written response to questions from The NewsHawks, said: “Please be informed that we have forwarded your questionnaire to our higher headquarters. You make follow-ups with Wing Commander Mademe at Defence Forces Headquarters.”
When contacted for comment, Mademe said Makotore had erred in referring the reporter to him even though he had been briefed on the questions.
“I am not the director of public relations at the ZDF headquarters. The director is Colonel Charles Mutizhe. I am just in-between the protocol. His (Makotore) counterpart is Colonel Mutizhe. He is the one who must comment,” he said.
Mutizhe promised to provide written responses to the questions on Thursday morning. In a follow-up in the afternoon, he said: “I will revert back to you.”
However, he did not come back to The NewsHawks.
In August last year, Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri was cornered by the then independent Norton MP Temba Mliswa over the opaque investments and business dealings of Rusununguko/Nkululeko.
Mliswa took on Muchinguri-Kashiri over the business entity which symbolises the opaque commercialisation of the military without transparency and accountability.
He said the shadowy firm is not benefitting junior soldiers, but a small clique of the military top brass.
This led to his dramatic ejection from Parliament by the then deputy speaker, Nomalanga Mzilikazi Khumalo.
To put the issue in context, Mliswa said although he had no problem with the army investing through Rusununguko/Nkululeko, the company must be audited and held to account to avoid corruption, looting and impunity.