Diamonds are an Autocrat’s Best Friend: Corruption in Zimbabwe’s Mining Industry

Earlier this month, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly 30 years, announced his intention to nationalize diamond mining. He explained the decision by blaming corruption in the industry for “robbing [the Zimbabwean people] of our wealth,” estimating the government’s loss in the past seven years as upwards of $13 billion. For a country with an annual budget of $4 billion, 30% of which comes from the money that does make its way from the diamond mines to the government’s coffers through taxes and other fees, this move has enormous economic significance. Factor in Zimbabwe’s recent attempts to convince international donors and investors that its basket case economic days are behind it, and the ripple effects of Mugabe’s decision are likely to be even more important.

Undoubtedly, Mugabe is right about one thing: there’s been plenty of corruption surrounding the diamonds of Marange, a district in eastern Zimbabwe, since the 2006 realization that the pebble-like objects “so common that children were using them in their catapults to shoot birds” actually represented “the richest diamond field ever seen by several orders of magnitude.” The trouble is that Mugabe is the one mostly responsible for that corruption. In fact, this nationalization plan is best understood as the next step in Mugabe’s utilization of corruption at the mines for his own benefit.

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What Does China’s Anticorruption Campaign Mean for Africa?

In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at a China-Africa summit in Johannesburg last December, a flurry of news articles in African outlets—especially in Zimbabwe—optimistically highlighted the role China could play in helping African countries curb corruption. As previously discussed on the blog, in the first three years of his tenure, President Xi has made a crusade against corruption an important rhetorical part of his presidency, and backed up those words with actions (though some have questioned his techniques). It’s equally well-established that China has become very involved with Africa.  China increasingly depends on Africa’s mineral resources to feed China’s growing industries, and Chinese businesses see Africa as a potentially lucrative export market. Many African countries seeks partners, like China, that are willing to invest in infrastructure and business development. Though there has been recent pushback to China’s actions, and even a decline in Chinese investment in Africa, President Xi’s $60 billion pledge at the summit indicates China will continue to be an important player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Many commentators hope that the combination of these two factors—China’s anticorruption campaign and its substantial economic engagement with Africa—will give a boost to anticorruption efforts in Africa. Alas, those hopes are overstated.

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