By Alex T. Magaisa
On Monday 26th October 2020, a well-heeled lady walked into Robert Mugabe International Airport and went through the motions as dictated by rules of air travel. But she was no ordinary passenger. The lady was carrying precious cargo. It should have been so easy, and up to a point it was. Then something went wrong. It was the precious cargo that became the proverbial stone in the lady’s shoe.
The result was that instead of spending her night in a plush hotel in the rarefied environs of Dubai, the lady was, by the end of the day, an unusual guest of the Zimbabwean state. The conditions of the accommodation offered by the Zimbabwean state are the opposite of what the Sheikhs offer in the palatial hotels of the Emirates.
The lady’s name is Henrietta Ms Rushwaya. It is a familiar name, even to millions who have never seen her. This familiarity owes more to notoriety than popularity. Her recorded age is 53 and, in that time, she has carved a chequered history. Some accounts of her life suggest that she began her career with the humble chalk and blackboard, having trained to impart knowledge as a teacher. But Ms Rushwaya ’s eye was always on a bigger prize. Its vision and ambition could not be contained by the four walls of the classroom.
That eye allowed her the gift of not seeing boundaries. It has taken her to the highest corridors of power, which she has navigated with effortless ease. She charmed her way into the former Vice President Joseph Msika’s office, where she was decorated with the title of Director of Sport in his office. In one recent image, she is seen kneeling ever so closely before the current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa can be seen examining something that she had probably brought to his attention.
It’s fair to say that Ms Rushwaya knows her way around the labyrinth that is Zimbabwean politics. She has managed to build a complex web of relationships that have placed her in good stead. That savviness took her to the helm of the football governing body, the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA). And more recently, until her current predicament, she was President of the Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation, a network of small-scale miners.
But if her rise from the humble beginnings at a teacher’s college to these lofty heights was remarkable, it has also not been short of controversy. But first, a return to the scene of the crime at the international airport in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
What happened at the airport?
The media in Zimbabwe has described the scene as one that could have been scripted for a Hollywood movie. Ms Rushwaya ’s precious cargo were gold bars weighing just over 6 kilograms. Altogether the value of the gold is estimated at over US$330,000. These gold bars were stashed in her hand luggage.
A court heard that upon arrival at the exit point, the closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the international airport were temporarily shut down. It took her just 4 minutes to make her way through the gates. Being an individual of higher stock, she used the VIP fast lane. Ordinary mortals must queue in the normal lines. They have no idea of the pleasures and benefits of VIP life.
But as regular travellers know too well, before you get to the security checkpoint, you must make a declaration at the customs desk. If you have goods that must be declared, it is there that you make disclosures. Most passengers are waved through after informing the dutiful officers that they have nothing that requires their attention. Ms Rushwaya ’s precious cargo is one that should have been declared to the taxman. This, it appears, did not happen on this occasion.
Nevertheless, if Lady Fortuna had been in a generous mood in earlier times, she took leave just when Ms Rushwaya needed it the most. The common account is that military intelligence officers (some say detectives) advised staff at the security checkpoint to carefully check Ms Rushwaya ’s luggage. They would have been acting based on a tip-off. Someone who knew what was going on supplied the inside information to authorities. In any event, it is said that the precious cargo was identified by the scanners at the security checkpoint.
When the bag was opened in the presence of witnesses, the gold bars were discovered. Ms Rushwaya was without a cogent explanation. She did not have the documents to support the possession of gold at the point of exit. Attempts to contact the state security agents who had helped her through the gates were unsuccessful. In desperation, it is alleged that she tried to offer a bribe to a member of the airport staff. The guillotine was coming down and a person will do anything to avoid it, including committing more offenses.
She immediately grassed her accomplices, to use the colloquial language of the criminal trade. One Ali Mohamed was the owner of the gold and he was a licensed gold dealer, she said, according to media reports. Ali Mohamed is a Pakistani chap who runs a company that is curiously called Ali Japan786. Ms Rushwaya was recently pictured at a ceremony with the Minister of Mines, Winston Chitando where the said Ali Mohamed was also a guest and participant. He too is now a guest of the state.
When the news of Ms Rushwaya ’s arrest for smuggling arrived, long term observers of the Zimbabwe political and economic scene were not surprised. It is no longer a secret that well-heeled syndicates are playing a major role in the illicit financial flows involving precious minerals. In September 2020, the man in charge of law enforcement, Minister of Home Affairs Kazembe Kazembe revealed that Zimbabwe was losing at least US$100 million worth of gold each month on account of smuggling. “We are losing close to US$100 million worth of gold every month which is being smuggled out of the country through our borders”, he said. He blamed it on “porous borders”.
It was this porosity that Ms Rushwaya nearly exploited on Monday and she may have exploited similar holes before. What Minister Kazembe does not say is that the porosity of these national borders is man-made. Consider what is alleged to have happened in this attempted heist. Ms Rushwaya was not acting alone. She had help from the very offices that are supposed to safeguard national borders and security. Two of the men who accompanied her through the airport security checkpoints are state security agents.
Another tried to extricate her from her predicament when she was caught by dropping names of the President’s wife, Auxilia, and her son and invoking a familial relationship with the President. Later, it emerged that some senior police officers tried to tamper with the investigations when Ms Rushwaya’s accomplice, Ali Mohamed was picked up.
More significantly, it is said the airport’s CCTV cameras were turned off to cover for the heist. The aim was to conceal evidence of criminal activity, but in doing so they were also compromising national security. It was state employees who created a porous point at the border. Ms Rushwaya has told authorities that someone was waiting for the gold delivery in Dubai and that she was acting on the instructions of Ali Mohamed.
This Ali Mohamed, whom we have already encountered is said to run a car dealership called Ali Japan786. How a car dealership is also a holder of licence to deal in gold should immediately raise concern for any law enforcement agency. This is the modus operandi of money-laundering syndicates. Yet it seems none of the Zimbabwean authorities had picked any whiff of suspicion around this entity. It already signed an agreement with the CMED, a government-owned entity that deals in vehicles.
Furthermore, when Ms Rushwaya was brought to court, she was nearly a beneficiary of a curious and bizarre deal between her lawyers and the state prosecution. Within the space of 24 hours and despite the gravity and complexity of the offence, the prosecution had already consented to bail on suspiciously thin terms. In return for bail, Ms Rushwaya was supposed to pay bail of ZWL$90,000 (less than US$1,000) which is minuscule and insignificant considering the value of gold that is the subject of the offence (more than US$300,000). Her lawyer was also supposed to tender title deeds to his personal property as insurance that Ms Rushwaya would not abscond.
There is nothing in these conditions that puts anything of value to Ms Rushwaya at risk should she try to dodge bail. These conditions are supposed to act as an incentive to the accused to honour bail terms, but if they are weak, the accused has no reason to do so. Why would Ms Rushwaya ’s lawyer pledge title deeds to his property when Ms Rushwaya ’s probably has multiple properties to her name? Here again, it is the state which was creating a porous point for Ms Rushwaya.
The magistrate, Ngoni Nduna was not amused by the state’s readiness to concede to bail without further scrutiny. His refusal to accept the consent temporarily shut the hole that had been created by the prosecution. But the question remains: why had the prosecution been so submissive in the first place? Had the prosecutors made this decision freely using their professional judgment or were they acting on instructions from other sources? This is a line of investigation that needs scrutiny because it has signs of a complex web of concealing or playing down criminal activity.
An Orwellian system
In any event, it also reaffirmed the phenomenon of selective application of the law in Zimbabwe. It has long been public knowledge that there is in Zimbabwe an Animal Farm scenario where some animals are more equal than others. There is one set of rules for members of the opposition and activists and another one for members of ZANU PF and PEPs connected to it. If Ms Rushwaya were a member of the opposition, she would have been paraded openly as an enemy of the state, an economic saboteur deserving the worst punishment ever. She would have been the pre-eminent example of how members of the opposition were undermining the country’s economic recovery efforts. After all, gold is the country’s highest foreign currency earner. The Zimbabwean treasury says it earned the country US$946 million in 2019. But this was down from US$1.3 billion in 2018.
There can be no doubt that if Ms Rushwaya had been connected to the opposition, she would have been put on the stake for public lynching by the state. Instead, she has been getting preferential treatment. She is the proverbial mosquito that lands on the softest parts of the anatomy. It receives gentler treatment on account of its station. The state was only too happy to give her bail to spare her the agony and humiliation of being a guest in its filthy and crowded remand prison cells.
But even after Magistrate Nduna frustrated that plan to make life easy for Ms Rushwaya, the prison authorities made sure she would not be seen or pictured doing the walk of shame from the cells at Harare’s Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court to board the Black Maria, as the prison van is known in colloquial parlance. By contrast, the same authorities always make sure that opposition members and activists in custody experience this moment of shame. But not if you are a high-level, ZANU PF oriented PEP like Ms Rushwaya. The Black Maria is driven into the courtyard of the building, to protect a special guest. It is because of this differential treatment by the state that ordinary Zimbabweans have lost confidence in its law enforcement and justice systems. They are malleable and bend in favour of members of the ruling party and their associates.
The preferential treatment of Ms Rushwaya following her arrest and the way the attempted heist was carried out has all the hallmarks of well-oiled local and international syndicates. These criminal syndicates involve members of state security, PEPs, dodgy foreign characters masquerading as investors, and likely, senior political figures acting as godfathers. Ms Rushwaya ’s role was that of a courier, much like the mules used by international drug trafficking syndicates. This is a classic case of organised crime. The question is whether the net is tight enough to catch all the fish, not just the small ones.
The implications for the country are dire. International organisations like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which police anti-money laundering rules around the world will have taken notice of this case. They will be asking how much more of this has been happening and to what extent Zimbabwe is a haven for money launderers? It is this type of activity that causes countries to be blacklisted. While Ms Rushwaya and some accomplices in the syndicate have been arrested, much will depend on how the investigations and trials proceed and these international standard-setting agencies and enforcers will be watching very carefully. It is this behaviour that leads to sanctions in the financial markets.
If Ms Rushwaya is part of a syndicate, this is not new during her colourful career. Her resume is incomplete without the biggest scandal in Zimbabwean football, which engulfed the nation in shame a decade ago. The scandal is known as Asiagate, a name that derives from match-fixing which involved the Zimbabwe national football team in Asian countries and was masterminded by an international syndicate based in Asia. At its most basic, the scandal involved the Zimbabwe national team playing matches with several Asian teams in circumstances where the result was fixed in advance. Zimbabwe played teams from Oman, Syria, Thailand, and Malaysia. It lost 6-0 to Syria and 3-0 to Thailand.
At one point, a local club Monomotapa was falsely presented as Zimbabwe’s national football team, playing games in that masquerade. Ms Rushwaya allowed these matches with the authority of the ZIFA board or the Sports and Recreation Commission. ZIFA’s legal adviser at the time was quoted as saying that Ms Rushwaya had even given Monomotapa the national team kit. According to The Guardian newspaper, “The tour was under the direction of a Malaysian gambling syndicate whose leader was allowed to sit on the bench during games. The team was paid to lose 6-0 against Syria and did so”.
All these matches were fixed. Footballers and the technical team were paid fees to lose the games or to concede goals at specific moments of the match. Zimbabwean officials got considerably more for facilitating. This worked to the advantage of betting syndicates which make vast amounts of money from match-fixing. At the time, Zimbabwe was going through a severe economic crisis, with record levels of hyperinflation, a situation that made players more vulnerable to manipulation. However, the losses to lowly ranked opponents cost Zimbabwe’s standing in international football. As veteran sports journalist Steve Vickers wrote for New African magazine, “Zimbabwe’s FIFA ranking fell from 72nd, at the start of 2007, to 131st in mid-2009, the direct consequence of bizarre defeats to lower-ranked nations on tours in Asia, such as Malaysia and Oman”.
A judge-led commission that investigated the matter found that the man at the centre of the match-fixing scandal was one Wilson Raj Perumal. On the Zimbabwean end, the person at the centre of it all was Henrietta Ms Rushwaya, who was the Chief Executive Officer of the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA). In the New African magazine article, Steve Vickers described Ms Rushwaya as having been “at the epicentre of the scandal”.
Ms Rushwaya was fired by ZIFA for allegedly misappropriating or failing to account for a US$103,000 loan. The association found that the money was not accounted for. She was also found guilty of arranging the fixed matches against Thailand, Syria, and a Malaysian club and allowing Monomotapa to impersonate the national team. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Education, Sport, Arts, and Culture reported that “The Asian betting syndicate was working in cahoots with locals namely the former CEO Ms. Henrietta Rushwaya, Kudzi Shaba, Jonathan Musavengana and Mr. Tafirenyika Chitsungo”.
This is how the commission led by Justice Ahmed Ebrahim, a former judge of the Supreme Court described Ms Rushwaya ’s part in the match-fixing scandal: “She [Ms Rushwaya ] wielded so much power in the association [ZIFA] to become untouchable and a mini-god and could manipulate players and coaches alike to do her will. Players were afraid of her and (ZIFA) board members also felt intimidated by her.”
Incredibly, despite all the evidence of match-fixing, when the criminal case was brought to the courts, it collapsed. Ms Rushwaya walked away unscathed from the wreckage of Asiagate which left Zimbabwean football in disrepute. She was discharged because, somehow, the prosecution had failed to make its case. The Chitungwiza Magistrates’ Court ruled that the state had not led enough evidence to put Ms Rushwaya to her defence. Once again, the proverbial cat had used another of its nine lives, but it was still walking. There would be more match-fixing allegations against her again in 2016, but this again seemed to reach a dead end.
But all this reveals that when it comes to dealing in syndicates, Ms Rushwaya appears to have form. What is intriguing is that despite this rich history in suspicious conduct, Ms Rushwaya continued to work her way through corridors of power, rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the country, including the President. Were they not aware of these credentials of a criminal character? Was President Mnangagwa not embarrassed to be publicly associated with a person whose image is so soiled by match-fixing scandals?
Chutzpah and Charm
Ms Rushwaya ’s success as an operator in the corridors of power may be explained by the fact that she has chutzpah, that rare quality possessed by only a few. She is the type that goes for it and dazzles most of those she encounters by her confidence, which is why she often gets what she wants. Perhaps she also possesses the gift of charm, also a rare quality, which opens doors even to the most powerful, despite her eventful history which might otherwise prompt caution.
But it is not surprising that people of a criminal disposition find it so easy to make company with President Mnangagwa and his associates. They observe that there is virtually no due diligence that might separate the seed from the chaff. The system cannot detect wolves in sheepskins. This encourages wolves to gain entry so easily and to share the company of the President and his lieutenants. Who can forget that chap who appeared with President Mnangagwa just before the 2018 elections presenting himself as a businessman who would turn coal into liquid fuel? It was so obvious even to the untrained eye, that his outfit, Nkosikhona Holdings was just a briefcase entity. But he was proudly presented alongside the President. Not a word has been heard of or from him since that charade.
But this has given the impression that President Mnangagwa is comfortable with dodgy characters around him. Ironically, the excuse for the coup that toppled President Mugabe in November 2017 was that the authors of the coup were “targeting criminals around President Mugabe”.
For the criminally minded, a picture or video with the most powerful man in the country is a golden asset on their resume. They use these images as evidence of proximity with the politically powerful when they are making their nefarious arrangements with masterminds of international criminal syndicates. If they don’t publish them on their social media handles, they pay journalists to publish them in their newspapers. This is why the likes of Delish Nguwaya can make deals with dodgy characters like the obscure Albanian Ilir Dejda of the Draxgate scandal. That controversial video of President Mnangagwa falsely and misleadingly announcing that Drax had donated US$60 million to Zimbabwe was meant to achieve that end.
Ms Rushwaya would also have used her images with the great and powerful to win a seat on the gold smuggling syndicate. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Ms Rushwaya was with Ali Mohammed meeting the Minister of Mines. That was probably the moment that Ms Rushwaya got her golden ticket into the syndicate if she wasn’t already a member. The practice of PEPs charging rents for access to high political offices is neither new nor unique to Zimbabwe. There was such a scandal a decade ago in the UK, which became known as the “Cash for Access” scandal where senior politicians were allegedly using their positions to facilitate access to government officials and charging hefty fees for it. It wouldn’t be surprising if some PEPs are doing the same in Zimbabwe.
Some within the small-scale mining community are probably looking at Ms Rushwaya ’s predicament and saying she has now got her comeuppance. This is because her rise to the presidency of the Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation was not without controversy. There was a long-running legal battle over the legitimacy of her presidency which only ended in 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled in her favour. A group of small-scale miners had challenged the legality of her election on grounds of procedural irregularities. If the small-scale miners were concerned that an individual of porous credentials was going to be their president, they had a legitimate point. This attempted heist has vindicated them.
Indeed, the gravity of her offence is made worse by the fact that she holds such a lofty position in the mining community. She is supposed to lead by example, not to be smuggling gold out of the country. If the presidency of the miners’ network was supposed to facilitate her access to opportunities, it has also become a rock tied around her neck which makes it harder to avoid drowning.
The Quintessential PEP
Ms Rushwaya is the quintessential PEP. A close relative, Martin Ms Rushwaya is the Deputy Chief Secretary for Administration and Finance in the Office of the President. When Martin Ms Rushwaya ’s mother died in January 2019, she was described as an aunt to Henrietta Ms Rushwaya , who also spoke at the funeral. Indeed, the same funeral was attended by President Mnangagwa who was described by state media as having been related to the Ms Rushwaya family. It is from this that people are drawing the familial connection.
There is also Helliate Rushwaya, another member of the clan, holding a lofty position at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) where she is the Acting Chief Executive Officer. Ms Helliate Rushwaya was already a non-executive director of the state-owned broadcaster when she was appointed to the executive role on an acting basis, a move that raised corporate governance concerns considering that it breaches the distinction between executive and non-executive roles. If Henrietta’s conduct demonstrated chutzpah it is probably encouraged by the fact that she is of strong ZANU PF-oriented political stock.
How has she managed to glide her way in rarefied heights when she has been associated with so much criminality? Is she just an unlucky individual? Six years ago, Ms Rushwaya was arrested on charges that she attempted to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from Walter Magaya, who plies his trade as a prophet at his church. Ms Rushwaya had joined Magaya’s PHD Ministries telling the media “It’s true I joined the ministry and I’m happy about my decision to turn my life to God”. The honeymoon was short-lived as evidenced by the arrest for extortion a few months after the turn. Perhaps that turn to God had taken an unfortunate detour. Nevertheless, as it happens, the snare missed once again and Ms Rushwaya walked away from another wreckage.
Smuggling – a systemic problem
One day, it will be useful to look deeper into why gold smuggling has been so rife in the country. The government blames porous borders, but as already argued, that porosity is a creation of the human hand. The system allows the borders to be porous. There is lots more smuggling going on, often through neighbouring countries where it is said syndicates of foreign dealers are stationed. It is easy to blame human greed, and it is indeed a problem. However, the main problem lies in the system of gold trading in Zimbabwe.
While Fidelity Printers and Refiners has a monopoly over gold exports, some many entities and individuals have licences to buy gold. Formally, these buyers are required to sell their gold to Fidelity, but because of the different payment regimes, there is what economists call arbitrage. Small scale miners can get their payments 100% in forex while large scale miners get 70% in forex and the rest in local currency. This difference creates arbitrage opportunities. Those who buy might sell some of their gold to Fidelity to ensure they retain their licences, but where does the rest go to?
Arguably, it is this gold that finds its way through the holes on our borders. However, it is not the small people who mastermind the illegal trade in gold. Oft-times, it is the political elites and PEPs who run the gold-smuggling syndicates, which is why this case might open a can of worms. The only problem is that those investigating have an interest in the illegalities around gold trading. Do they have the appetite to get to the bottom of the matter? Can the baboons be entrusted to investigate theft from the farmer’s maize field? The conflict of interest is plain.
Nine lives of the cat?
This is why, even though one might imagine that Ms Rushwaya has exhausted the proverbial nine lives, skeptics would be right to imagine that this is a wreckage from which she will walk away again, without much pain or harm. She has walked this path before. In Zimbabwe, if you are of the correct political stock, even if there is evidence that you committed a grievous offence, the state will simply construct a case that is designed to fail.
Delish Nguwaya of the Draxgate is a beneficiary of this circumstance. So is Obadiah Moyo, the former Health Minister who was sacked in the aftermath of the Draxgate scandal. They will wait for the drama to recede. It might drag on for a while until it’s forgotten. And if it is too embarrassing for the state to ignore, she will simply get the soft treatment of that mosquito which dares to land on the nether regions. You cannot hit it too hard, for that will significantly imperil the host.
The problem for Ms Rushwaya is that Mnangagwa might decide that she is one of the expendables. It happened after the Tsholotsho Declaration in 2004. Co-conspirators might have thought that Mnangagwa would stand by them. He told Mugabe that he had nothing to do with it. He threw them to the wolves. He disowned them. Ms Rushwayo might just find that the cat has finally expended the last of its lives.
–Alex Magaisa is a Zimbabwean lecturer at Kent University in UK