Under the cover of the protest mayhem two weeks ago, a group of armed men broke into the country’s Chiadzwa diamond fields.
The Government insists that the unidentified group only got away with tailings, the sand from mine dumps, but rights groups in the area, and sources in the industry, say ore – the rock material mined for processing – may have been stolen from the state-run Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC).
Mines Minister Winston Chitando confirms there was a breach, but claims that the men failed to gain access to ore or to ZCDC’s gem vaults.
“On January 19, there was an intrusion of unidentified people who entered into Portal A mining area of Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company. They took with them some tailings from the dumps. For the record, tailings are the residue of ore which would have been processed to extract diamonds and for which there is no value attached,” he said.
“This was an isolated incident which is being investigated by the police and which should not be viewed as a threat to diamond operations in Chiadzwa. Until investigations by the police are concluded, there is no basis to speculate on the identity of the intruders and any speculation on such identity is premature.”
But the Centre for Research and Development (CRD), a group that monitors diamond operations in Chiadzwa, has a different story. According to the group, at least a dozen armed men, some of them in military uniforms and accompanied by illegal diamond dealers, raided the ZCDC facility on January 15 and got away with ore. The men however failed to access the vault on a second attempt.
“The reaction security team called upon to contain the situation stood aloof until the looting exercise was over. The same group made an attempt on the diamond vault at the main plant the following night of 16 January 2019 around 1am. Eyewitness accounts reported that only eight men were in military uniform and the rest were in civilian clothes but armed with AK rifles. After failing to break into the sorting room, the syndicate numbering up to 50 went for the stockpiled diamond ore. These rogue elements were caught on CCTV (closed-circuit television) camera, according to security sources at ZCDC,” CRD said in a statement.
The breach is a serious knock on confidence in the Government’s capacity to secure the country’s diamond assets, the source of much controversy over many years. In December, the Government announced a new diamond policy, under which only the ZCDC and three other companies are allowed to mine for diamonds.
Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond company, agreed a deal in Moscow with President Emmerson Mnangagwa in January to start developing a diamond operation in Zimbabwe. Beyond Alrosa and ZCDC, Chinese company Anjin is the only other firm allowed to operate in the area.
There is uncertainty over the future of Vast Resources, a UK-listed company that had secured a concession in Chiadzwa, which it hoped to develop with a local community empowerment group.
Chitando insists that diamonds remained secure despite the disturbing breach.
“The security of our diamond fields is of the highest standards, which fully meet Kimberly Process Certification Systems requirements and which we continue to review regularly to prevent any breaches. It is precisely because of this that the intruders could not get to the area which contains valuable ores and processed material. The surveillance measures alerted the presence of intruders which enabled security to react accordingly,” he said.
However, the sacking of at least 80 ZCDC staff members, including some managers, in the days around the security breach has raised eyebrows across the industry. Chitando says the dismissals are “completely unrelated to this incident”, but industry officials say the dismissals point to the possible collusion of management in the raid.
The Chiadzwa fields became a lawless wasteland after alluvial diamonds were discovered there in the early 2000s, drawing large numbers of illegal miners who were later evicted by security forces.
Government then partnered Chinese firms to exploit the diamonds formally, resulting in output peaking at 12 million carats in 2012.
However, production fell sharply after Government in 2016 controversially nationalised the fields, taking over all production. In 2018, diamond output was 2.8 million carats
In 2010, after a long process of securing the fields, Zimbabwe won certification from the Kimberly Process, allowing it to legally sell diamonds on the world market. The breach may gravely damage Zimbabwe’s position on the world market.