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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 13:50 GMT
Zimbabwe leaders face financial probe
Petrol queues in Harare
Fuel shortages have been blamed on the war in the Congo
With less than seven weeks to go until elections in Zimbabwe, investigators in the UK, southern Africa and the US are working to track assets held by its leaders.

Under discussion are plans to introduce "smart sanctions", targeting property held overseas by President Robert Mugabe and his closest allies, rather than hitting the Zimbabwean population as a whole.


[Zanu-PF leaders] will be able to muddle through for six months or so without suffering [from sanctions]... If you're looking for measures that will simply close them down, that won't do the job

John Robertson, Zimbabwean economist
European Union foreign ministers are meeting on 28 January to discuss what can be done.

And the US House of Representatives has already passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, empowering the application of sanctions against Zimbabwe's leaders.

Opening up the cracks

The principle, according to independent Harare-based economist John Robertson, is to split open Mr Mugabe's heavily factionalised Zanu-PF party.

Smart sanctions, he says "would speak to people not yet fully entrapped by the government's rewards system".

Those already well entrenched, however, could see a different outcome.

"They will be able to muddle through for six months or so without suffering except for their ability to move around the world... If you're looking for measures that will simply close them down, that won't do the job," he says.

Even so, many human rights activists believe smart sanctions could have a rapid effect.

"Sanctions are essential before the election," one activist said.

"It would unbalance them... they're terrified, and they're gambling that no-one will actually do anything."

Finding the trail

As yet, no-one can quantify the scale of the assets in question, and some may be a great deal more difficult to locate than others.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe: Head of a factionalised party

Real estate is probably the easiest asset to trace.

Financial investigators think it likely that members of Zanu-PF, Mr Mugabe's party, have used proceeds from 20 years' access to the national treasury to buy houses and other real estate in the UK, the US and elsewhere.

Proof of ownership is likely to be hidden several layers deep beneath "shell corporations" - companies which exist only on paper - and intermediaries.

But it is believed the expertise and records exist to make tracking possible.

Congo connection

Zimbabwe's economy is in such a parlous state that the spoils are not as readily available as once they were.

Foreign currency is especially hard to come by, despite government rules which cap official exchange rates at less than one fifth of that available on the street, and which cream off 40% of all official foreign currency transactions.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Zimbabwean troops have been sent on a government support campaign, has for the past few years supplied an alternative source of funds.

In June 2000, at the behest of the United Nations Security Council, a committee of impartial experts started investigating allegations that parties to the war in the DRC were exploiting its resources.

Their report - published on 13 November 2001 - made it clear that Zimbabwe's armed forces have realised huge sums from exploiting timber, copper, diamond and other DRC resources.

Through a company called Cosleg, the UN said, senior army officials - most of whom are close Mugabe allies, having served with him in the war of liberation in the 1970s - have made fortunes in the DR Congo.

Others are believed to have profited from pay-offs resulting from official tenders for government supply.

Tied in at the top

The Congo operations link directly into the highest levels of Zanu-PF through Speaker of Parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa, the UN said.

Mr Mnangagwa was "the architect of the commercial activities of Zanu-PF", the UN report said.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, speaker of Zimbabwe's parliament
Emmerson Mnangagwa: Named in UN report

The presence of Zimbabwean forces in the Congo has provided a conduit for getting money safely secreted away, via a maze of middlemen, offshore companies and independent contractors.

And resources redirected from the DRC are helping fuel a land-grab within Zimbabwe separate from the ongoing clearances of white farmers and their black workers.

Mr Robertson told BBC News Online that members of the armed forces are touring Harare buying houses and commercial property with bundles of cash - consisting both of Zimbabwe dollars and foreign currencies - amassed in the DRC.

Hiding the proceeds

Tracing money, however, presents a far bigger challenge.

Traditional havens, such as Switzerland and Luxembourg, for illicitly acquired funds have become more co-operative with authorities, but typically require hard evidence before getting involved in investigations.

Ironically, London may prove a more problematic destination to investigate, as last year's revelations about assets squirreled away by late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha showed.

Of the $1.6bn or so traced by international investigators, much of it passed through London financial institutions as well as Swiss ones.

Sources close to UK financial policing say staffing levels are inadequate to deal with both the Zimbabwe investigation and the high-profile, urgent attempts to uncover sources of terrorist funding.

City institutions are being asked to focus on possible Zimbabwean connections in the course of their normal duty to look out for shady transactions.

And other private sector groups, such as forensic accountants, are being asked for assistance.

Stuck

Another avenue which proponents of smart sanctions want to explore is that of travel.

An array of senior figures in Zanu-PF and their families - led by Mr Mugabe's wife, Grace - shuttle back and forth to London and New York on shopping expeditions.

For this reason, in some circles Air Zimbabwe's six planes are known as the "Zanu-PF taxi service", with planes commandeered for semi-official business at a few hours' notice.

Clamping down on that could hit senior figures where it hurts: The comfort zone.

It also penalises those members of the hierarchy whose children are educated abroad.

Both Mr Mnangagwa and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, to name but two, have children in college or school in the US.

See also:

22 Jan 02 | Business
Grain shortages bite in Zimbabwe
21 Jan 02 | Africa
Africa turns on Mugabe
14 Jan 02 | Business
Neighbours fear Zimbabwe contagion
23 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tories want tough action on Zimbabwe
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