From a three-day state visit by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to Zimbabwe in January 2023 to a “reciprocal” one in April by the African nation’s first lady, during which she discussed government business, there has been a flurry of visits between Harare and Minsk lately.
Reports from both countries show precious little has come from the shuttle diplomacy and trade missions, at least not to the benefit of legitimate business.
The governments signed eight agreements on farm and mining equipment and cooperation in education during Lukashenko’s visit, the first in history to sub-Saharan Africa by a Belarusian leader. Five more were signed during the Zimbabwe-Belarus Business Forum, which ran concurrently with his visit.
In March, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, Frederick Shava, was also in Belarus as a follow-up on Lukashenko’s visit.
Auxillia Mnangagwa, the first lady, chartered a plane to Minsk a month later accompanied by her twin sons. Uncharacteristically, she left her dedicated media team behind. She courted controversy back home not just by chartering the reported $10,900 per hour Gulfstream G550 for the 10-hour ride and bringing her children, but by also using the private trip to discuss government business with Lukashenko.
Zimbabwean law does not accord an official government role to a first lady.
The third notable person who appeared in photographs shared by Zimbabwe’s information ministry was Alexander Zingman, a highly connected Belarusian with business interests in up to 16 African nations. He is also an arms dealer under US sanctions.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
In June, Zimbabwe’s then minister of local government, July Moyo, was in Belarus to inspect a fleet of firefighting machinery purportedly for use by Zimbabwean local authorites. He had placed an order for the equipment about a year earlier — without consulting them.
Zimbabwe deployed its first ambassador to Minsk in early August 2023 in what both sides claimed highlighted growth in economic and political co-operation between them. On August 18, President Emmerson Mnangagwa commissioned 23 of the 133 fire tenders his government ordered from Belarus.
Belarusian army general Victor Sheiman was in Harare on October 30. Sheiman, who is on US and European Union sanctions for alleged human rights abuses, paid a courtesy call on Mnangagwa. The Belarus militaryman was exposed in the Pandora Papers of October 2021 for secretly mining gold in Zimbabwe together with his son in a deal publicly held as a government-to-government one.
Shava told local media at the time that Sheiman was in Zimbabwe as a follow-up on the deals signed in January, especially those related to agriculture.
There, indeed, has been much activity between the southern African and eastern European nations in recent months.
Paper tigers, a stuffed lion
However, Global Voices, citing a report by an independent Belarusian media house, UDF, wrote on November 6 that nothing much has changed since January 2023 with regard to economic relations between the countries. Perhaps, the publication argued, the only notable thing that Belarus has benefited from its relationship with Zimbabwe was a stuffed lion that Mnangagwa gifted Lukashenko in January.
The only available information, said UDF as quoted by Global Voices, is a report by Belarusian state news agency BelTA that said 3,575 tractors were slated for delivery to Zimbabwe between 2023–2024, and their shipment has already commenced. It added that since the start of 2023, there has been “little progress” on the matter.
“Lukashenka’s attempts to establish cooperation with Zimbabwe can be explained by two possible reasons,” UDF wrote, “either moves to subvert Western sanctions or an attempt to build a corruption scheme under the guise of interstate cooperation.”
Transparency International ranked Zimbabwe 157th most corrupt nation in 2022 out of 180 that were surveyed. It ranked Belarus at number 39. In April 2023, Al Jazeera published an investigative documentary that detailed gold smuggling and money laundering in Zimbabwe. Almost all of those who were secretly filmed for involvement in the murky transactions claimed or have a demonstrated link to Mnangagwa.
Zimbabwe’s government says its relationship with Belarus started in the 1960s when the then Soviet Union, of which Belarus was member until it collapsed in 1991, trained personnel who were later involved in the African nation’s 16-year liberation war against British colonialism.
Bonding through sanctions
The two Russian allies however have become ever closer since 2000 when the West imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for alleged violation of human and property rights. The ties have risen to a new level since Mnangagwa assumed power in 2017.
“Sanctions on Belarus and Zimbabwe were not just a curse but also a blessing, because if not for the sanctions, maybe Zimbabwe would continue trading with the West, selling its natural resources,” AFP cited Lukashenko as saying during his January visit.
“But now, because of sanctions, Zimbabwe is trading with Belarus, and we are happy to trade with Zimbabwe.”
Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare and the second-largest city, Bulawayo, rejected the fire tenders, saying they were not only overpriced but also ordered without consultations, which triggered corruption allegations.
NewsDay, a Zimbabwean independent publication wrote on April 15, 2023, that the Zimbabwe government was forging ahead with its plans to import the fire tenders at $464,296 each yet similar vehicles cost less than $30,000 in countries such as China.
“A 4,000-litre medium six-wheel fire truck costs around $26,000 in Malaysia, while a foam fire-fighting truck costs between $26,000 and $28,000 in China,” it said at the time.
Responding in June 2023, state-controlled Zimbabean newspaper The Herald quoted a government official arguing that the vehicles were actually “cheap compared to regional prices” of $500,000 and above each. The Belarusian fleet, the official added, was tailor-made for Zimbabwe’s terrain.
“Most alarming is the fact that the majority of local authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the threat of fire,” Mnangagwa said while commissioning the vehicles on August 18.
“In Harare metropolitan province, only four fire tenders are functional to serve a total of 46 wards, including industrial sites, neighbouring towns and local authorities. This trend is unacceptable.”
In July 2023, an African representative of the Belarus African Foreign Trade Association, former South African President, Jacob Zuma said 2mn Russian carbon offsets were to list on a Zimbabwean carbon registry and exchange.
Bloomberg reported at the time that Zimbabwe had “derailed” its exchange due to its plan to include the Russian offsets.
Days later, Kwanele Hlabangana, chairman of the African Voluntary Carbon Credits Market said the exchange will “only trade on its platform carbon credits coming from countries in the African continent and not any other jurisdiction,” the news agency reported on July 18.
He did not refer Zuma’s announcement other than to say foreign media had “sought to draw our organisation into geopolitical issues.”
Before Sheiman’s October visit, he had been in the southern African nation in 2018 when he, Global Voices noted, brokered business agreements representing the Belarusian government, including plans to mine minerals such as gold, platinum, and rare earths through a collaborative mining project.
However, the Pandora Papers discovered that instead, the mining gold company was owned by Sheiman’s son Sergei and the ubiquitous Zingman.
“Sheiman has been a steadfast supporter of Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka for many years. He is sanctioned by both the EU and the US regarding human rights violations and the disappearance of Lukashenka’s critics before and during his position as Belarus’ prosecutor-general in 2004,” Global Voices cited UDF as saying.