Can Zimbabwe’s tainted elite be trusted with windfall from ivory trade?

Oct 18, 2019 | News

By Cyril Zenda, TRT World

President Emmerson Mnangagwa reacted with fury to the recent decision by the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) forum to refuse the country permission to trade in elephant ivory.

During a CITES meeting, which ran from 17-28 August, it was decided to maintain a long existing ban on international trade in elephant ivory. Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia had proposed that ivory from elephants in their region be traded.

“Europeans have consumed all their animals, but they want to set rules for us who have managed to conserve theirs!” fumed the Zimbabwean leader. “Our wild animals are being discussed in Geneva, an irrelevant place to the animals…they bar us from killing our animals for selling ivory, but they want us to protect them from being poached. We are sitting on ivory stockpiles worth $600 million. It’s a lot of money we can use for big (wildlife conservation) projects,” said Mnangagwa, who went on to hint that Zimbabwe could pull out of CITES altogether over this emotive issue.

He indicated that the country – which is already controversially exporting live elephants – could unilaterally sell its ivory to China and Japan.

In late June, Zimbabwe hosted a wildlife summit where the issue of trade in elephant products dominated. Zimbabwe, with its 84,000 elephants, has the world’s second largest herd, which is way above the country’s carrying capacity of about 50, 000. Botswana has more than 130,000 elephants.

Earlier in March, the leaders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia met in Botswana for the Kasane Elephant Summit where they discussed their common problem of the growing burden of elephant overpopulation.

The general sentiment in these countries – which have the largest herds of elephants and other wild animals in the world – is that by being denied the right to trade in the products of some of these animals under CITES, they are in effect being punished for the success of their conservation efforts.

The Southern African countries have always argued that animal rights groups are notorious for exercising authority without responsibility within the 183-nation CITES framework by insisting on imposing a blanket ban on ivory trade as the solution to elephant poaching without basing the decision on scientific and other fact-based considerations. 

Wildlife management projects that the Zimbabwean government says it will invest the proceeds of the ivory vary from training rangers to erecting buffer zones for wildlife, to drilling boreholes to supply water to the sanctuaries, among others.

“In areas like Hwange (National Park), where the largest population of elephants is found, there is no water and that area depends on 100 percent borehole water,” explained Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo.

On paper, the president has a valid case, but Zimbabweans however suspect that this could be a trick by his cash-strapped government to turn the country’s huge wildlife resource base into another revenue stream. Given the government’s track-record of corruption and poor resource management, there are real fears that even if the country were to be allowed to monetise it wildlife resources, very little, if anything, would benefit citizens, let alone go towards the advertised wildlife conservation goals.

“This government cannot be trusted with money, any money,” said Miriam Maunganidze, a 34-year old cross border trader who – for the past two years – has been stranded, together with 340,000 other citizens that cannot get their passports even after paying for them in full. 

Instead of the money going towards the production of the passports, the government, which survives on a hand-to-mouth basis, diverted to its other commitments.

The country is in the throes of extended periods of power cuts, where citizens endure up to 18 hours of no electricity per day, because unpaid neighbours, South African and Mozambique, are cutting power supplies to the country. A majority of the customers of the country’s mismanaged power utility are pre-paid, but the money they pay upfront for their power is arbitrarily diverted to other uses.

The same is the case with the country’s road network that continue to get dilapidated despite the national road agency collecting about $300 million annually in road maintenance fees for the past decade.

Even a multi-billion dollar State-run pension fund has been looted dry leaving intended beneficiaries to die in abject poverty.

Farai Maguwu, the director of the Natural Resource Governance, a civil society organisation that monitors how the country’s natural resources are exploited and used says even if CITES were to allow Zimbabwe to trade, the political elite cannot be trusted with a financial windfall from ivory sales.

“Trade in ivory is part of transnational organised crime benefitting the ruling elites. Thus even if they are allowed to cull the elephants, the criminal behaviour of Zimbabwe’s ruling elites, which is so blatant in the minerals sector, will continue to fuel opaqueness,” Maguwu told TRT World in an interview.

He said even the poaching that the government says would be reduced if open trade is allowed has for long been fuelled by the same political elites. “Poaching and illicit trade in animal products, including ivory, has been championed by the ruling elites. Ivory is bulky and the markets are thousands of miles away, meaning these have to be smuggled through airports and our borders with the help of powerful government officials.”

Syndicates made up of powerful members of the ruling party, the military and government officials, control most wildlife safari operations in Zimbabwe. Some of these bigwigs are linked to the rampant poaching that has been taking place in the country’s wildlife sanctuaries.

Even the existing huge elephant and rhino horn stockpile (mainly recovered from poachers and from animals that die naturally) is not safe, as some of the stock has mysteriously gone missing from the National Parks’ vaults.

Dr Tapiwa Mashakada, a member of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, who is a former minister of Economic Planning and Investment Promotion, is also supportive of the national call for the lifting of the CITES ban, although he is sceptical about the possibility of generality of citizenry benefiting from it.

“I do not think Zimbabweans will benefit from ivory trade if Marange diamonds experience is anything to go by,” Mashakada told TRT World. “However Parks and Wildlife are competent enough to manage those resources and put them to good use if the State does not interfere. The ban should be lifted so that Zimbabwe can implement a sustainable conservation strategy which benefits the communities around national parks.”

The sad Marange diamonds experience that Mashakada referred to is now a local by-word for greed and corruption after the political and military elites grabbed control of some diamond fields discovered on the eastern parts of the country in 2006 and violently looted it dry. The late former president Robert Mugabe later revealed that from the estimated $15 billion worth of diamonds extracted from these alluvial fields, only a measly $2 billion reached the State’s coffers, the rest going into the back-pockets of these political and military elites. These elites worked in cahoots with the Chinese and other international criminal syndicates.

Another analyst, University of Kent law professor, Alex Magaisa, says while it would be great for the country to trade in its wildlife resources for the benefit of local communities, there is no guarantee that this would happen given the predatory behaviour of the country’s political elites.

“While there are legitimate reasons to allow some trade in available resources, there is no guarantee that the proceeds will be put to good use,” Magaisa said in an interview with TRT World. “All too often we have seen public funds being abused by political elites. It would be great if there were mechanisms to ensure that such proceeds are ploughed into communities so that they benefit.”

Currently Zimbabweans are saddled with local and foreign debts running into tens of billions of dollars, debts the bulk of which not even Parliament has managed to get explanation of how it was acquired or used.  This is because of the opaque nature of the way the Zimbabwe government has been run from the days of Mugabe on the pretext of busting the targeted sanctions that America, the European Union and some Western countries have imposed on some of the country’s leaders and business entities. This practice has continued under Mnangagwa’s so-called new dispensation.

The leadership’s lavish lifestyle in the middle of deep-seated poverty has not helped to engender trust between the ruling elites and the people that cheered them to the top when they toppled Mugabe from power in November 2017.