Al Jazeera Gold Mafia exposé ‘tip of the iceberg’ for Zim corruption but accountability remains elusive
The documentary series produced by the news channel's Investigative Unit reveals a money laundering network in which gold smuggling gangs in southern Africa share links with top officials in Zimbabwe’s government. However, as the country’s general election looms, the question of accountability remains largely unanswered.
A four-part “Gold Mafia” investigation by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has sparked widespread outrage after exposing a number of gold smuggling gangs in southern Africa that facilitate the laundering of hundreds of millions of dollars by criminals.
The fourth episode of the investigative documentary series, released on 13 April, revealed how the political connections of these gangs went right to the top of state leadership in Zimbabwe. However, the investigation is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to corruption in that country, according to Alexander James, a producer of the series.
“Among the documents that we saw, there was plenty of other information, other stories there, certain money trails… In some of the undercover discussions, too, the people that we meet talk about their involvement in other scams, other money laundering deals, and reveal other things about what happens in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“This is, from our perspective, the beginning of a whole raft of further investigations.”
James was speaking at a dialogue hosted by the Southern Africa Political Economy Series (Sapes) Trust on 13 April. The speakers explored the extent of the corruption revealed by the Al Jazeera investigation, and how it should be addressed.
“I’ve seen figures cited that the illicit gold trade… in Zimbabwe amounts to $1.5-billion lost a year. I’ve heard people say it’s much more,” said James. He explained that gold was an ideal mechanism for money laundering as it maintained its value but could be easily melted down and reformed, thus erasing its history.
The Gold Mafia investigation looked at the patronage enjoyed by the cartels controlling the gold trade, as well as money laundering operations, in Zimbabwe and South Africa. In the fourth episode, undercover journalists conducted meetings with top Zimbabwean ambassador, Uebert Angel, and his associate, Rikki Doolan, to negotiate the laundering of more than $1-billion.
Angel offered to use his diplomatic status to smuggle the dirty money into the country. Both he and Doolan claimed that Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa was aware of their money laundering operations and offered to set up a meeting with the leader for $200,000. This money was described as “appreciation” for Mnangagwa.
During one discussion on how to smuggle dirty money into Zimbabwe, Angel phoned Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Auxillia Mnangagwa, in front of the undercover journalists to ask about using the president’s plane to move the cash.
Other gold smugglers identified in the Al Jazeera series also alluded to Mnangagwa’s awareness of their operations, with one describing the president as his partner, and another saying the president had “to be informed” of what went on.
“What we will show in this fourth instalment is that the gold mafia exists by the patronage of the very top — of the number one, as they refer to him — the president himself,” said James.
“When you have a level of individual control in a state, when a state is captured… you have to question the ability of institutions to be independent and be able to effectively investigate that kind of corruption.”
The release of episode four of the Gold Mafia series came just days before the celebration of Independence Day in Zimbabwe on 18 April.
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Oversight and accountability
Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, tweeted on 11 April that the Zimbabwe Republic Police were investigating allegations raised in “an Al Jazeera documentary that alleges several prominent Zimbabweans are engaged in money laundering and gold smuggling”.
According to eNCA, Zimbabwe’s central bank has frozen the assets of several individuals who were identified as being involved in gold smuggling in the documentary series.
ZRP SEIZED WITH ‘GOLD MAFIA’ INVESTIGATIONS
The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) confirmed that they are investigating allegations raised by an Aljazeera documentary that alleges several prominent Zimbabweans are engaged in money laundering and gold smuggling. pic.twitter.com/2pbc553P99
— ZANU PF (@ZANUPF_Official) April 11, 2023
However, Allan Norman “Rusty” Markham, an MP in Zimbabwe’s Citizens Coalition for Change party, expressed doubt that the freezing of bank accounts would hinder the alleged gold smugglers.
“These guys deal in cash — the bank accounts are petty cash, that’s the legitimate side of the business. That’s nothing to them,” he said. Markham further questioned the ability of parliament to exercise oversight and ensure accountability when it came to the outcomes of the Gold Mafia investigation.
“Parliament now operates off a Zoom-based programme, so all the time now, we have very few parliamentarians attending parliament. This is not conducive to question-and-answer and debates,” he said.
Few ministers attended sessions for answering parliamentarians’ questions, continued Markham, saying “the accountability, the oversight role is diminished quite a lot… To think that we’re going to have any oversight of the gold mafia, it’s a dream”.
Zimbabwe is expected to hold general elections later this year. Given the revelations in the Al Jazeera exposé, Markham would like to see a review of those people nominated to run for Zanu–PF.
“The next thing I believe should have happened, or should happen, is an independent commission being set up to audit these people — internationally recognised. But the problem is this… when the report comes out, it’s put under curtains and cloaks and no one can access it,” he said.
“I don’t believe anything substantial will happen [in response to the Gold Mafia series] because we’re just before elections. People are going to wait for it to float away.”
Ibbo Mandaza, director of the Sapes Trust, described the scenes in the Gold Mafia series as “damning”, and called on the media to put pressure on relevant institutions to take action.
Markham echoed this call, saying, “I encourage Al Jazeera to advertise their contacts for whistle-blowers. This is the tip of the iceberg. We want the rest.” DM/MC