: 2010

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Robert Mugabe’s dirty diamonds

Every day millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds leave Zimbabwe from the world’s richest diamond field. But none of that money reaches the country's desperate poor. Who are the men plundering a nation’s future?

One night in February, eight men armed with AK-47 assault rifles raided the Zimbabwe headquarters of a British-based diamond company. Overpowering its four guards, they stole computers, files and a pick-up truck that they dumped in a nearby hotel car park, its keys still in the ignition. Then they vanished into the night as swiftly as they had come. It was a raid carried out by hard men who knew their business and wanted this to look like an ordinary robbery. They were not regular thieves, however, but agents of the shadowy Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and this was the latest development in a David-and-Goliath struggle that pits one man against a cabal of corrupt figures at the summit of the Zimbabwean state. The outcome of the battle has international ramifications. At stake is the unimaginable wealth to be had from the world’s oldest and, it is said, richest diamond field, with the potential to bring in a billion dollars a year. “Whoever owns the diamond field controls Zimbabwe and could buy any country in Africa,” one western diplomat says. Andrew Cranswick is the “David” whose offices — a modern two-storey building enclosed by a high wall in an avenue close to the central police headquarters and State House in Harare — were raided. The operation was staged by the CIO to intimidate and discourage him from continuing his fight to operate the diamond field. In 2006 Cranswick’s company, African Consolidated Resources (ACR), set up by both white and black Zimbabweans, was looking for new mining opportunities in Zimbabwe. It pegged a claim to an abandoned, unexploited field, bought for a nominal sum on the chance of finding diamonds there. Problems arose when diamonds were found. The field is in southern Marange, a dry, barren, sparsely populated district in the hills southeast of Harare, close to the Mozambique border. To his surprise and delight, Cranswick discovered that the diamonds making up the bulk of the find were not, as might have been expected, low-grade industrial diamonds. Among them was a large proportion of valuable gem diamonds. But his euphoria was short-lived. Zimbabwe’s Mines and Minerals Act demands that those discovering valuable gem diamonds must declare the fact and give the GPS position to the government. Within hours, CIO agents seized the diamonds, worth US$6m, and Cranswick has not seen them since. A white African adventurer — bronzed, rugged, totally at ease in the bush — Cranswick, 47, does not scare easily. He was born in Zimbabwe and grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere during the Rhodesian war, which saw the end of white minority rule and led to President Robert Mugabe’s rise to power in 1980. As a teenager he slept with a Sten gun under his bed.

Although the Zimbabwe High Court ruled in September that ACR clearly owns the Marange field, Cranswick, the CEO, has a colossal fight on his hands to get it back from the government. In February the Supreme Court ordered all mining to cease pending a final ruling on ownership. Its judgment has been ignored. Meanwhile, millions of dollars from the diamonds are being siphoned off by President Mugabe, his diamond-loving wife, Grace, and their greedy inner circle to enrich and entrench themselves in power a few years longer. Mugabe’s circle has failed to give any of the profits from Cranswick’s diamond field to their own impoverished state. Since early 2009, Zimbabwe has had a unity government. But real power lies with Mugabe and the security chiefs in control of the armed forces, police and intelligence services. The government is powerless to stop this inner circle. A parliamentary committee looking into operations in Marange was snubbed for months. “The government has not received a cent from the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in the history of mankind,” Tendai Biti, the finance minister, has complained.Cranswick’s battle for justice is risky. In March, the CIO raided his house and offices. He has received death threats. Last year, a gang of Israeli diamond smugglers put out a contract on him to make sure he did not get in the way of their supply of diamonds smuggled out of Marange. Now, impeccable sources told me that beside his name in secret government files is written the word “Bull-Bar” — CIO code for a person designated to meet with a “road accident”. Cranswick has made light of it, but this is no joke. A surprising number of Mugabe’s opponents have died in strange road crashes in the past 30 years. Cranswick is on guard not to become another victim. But he also says he is not going to lose sleep over it. Risk is part and parcel of living and working in Zimbabwe. It goes with a certain freedom he likes, which he knows he could not have elsewhere.

What extra precautions will he take? “Check my car regularly and drive faster,” he said. His colleagues raised their eyes to the ceiling. He already has a legendary appetite for speed. “Andrew is the classic entrepreneur personality,” said one. “He’s very bright. His brain is very agile and he’s also a bullish, couldn’t-give-a-shit, don’t-stand-in-my-way type of person. Andrew is liked in the City [of London] because he’s an Indiana Jones character. He knows how to drive through obstacles that crop up in Africa, increasing shareholder value, and they admire him.” After training in geology, Cranswick worked for Anglo American in South Africa, then settled in Mugabe’s independent Zimbabwe, got married and had two daughters. Exploiting Zimbabwe’s emerging-market status and the tech boom, he founded a group of IT companies, including the country’s first commercial internet service provider, which he sold for a couple of million dollars in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom. He took his family to Perth and bought and ran the biggest cattle ranch in Australia. But the lure of Zimbabwe was too strong. Soon he was back home, involving himself in ACR, the mineral exploration company he founded in 2003. He has based it in Britain and listed it on the London Stock Exchange to attract foreign investment. Mutual friends in Zimbabwe had told me Cranswick had a fascinating story to tell, and they were right. It was in a King’s Road coffee shop at the end of 2009 that I first heard his unlikely tale of coming upon the world’s richest diamond field in an empty corner of Africa. Telling me how he had discovered the diamonds and how destabilising for Zimbabwe the discovery could be, he invited me to come and see for myself. In the event, it was not possible to get into Marange, as security forces blocked our way. But I soon saw how easy it was to buy diamonds smuggled out of the mine.

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