The UN and the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe- the untold story

Georges Tadonki was virtually unknown in Zimbabwe when he worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Harare. He came into the country on 24 March 2008, five days before the national elections. By January 2009 he had lost favour with his bosses and was told on 27 January that his contract would not be renewed because of his performance. During that short period he had already clashed with the United Nations country representative Agostinho Zacarias who also headed the United Nations Development Programme.

But Tadonki made international headlines in February 2010 when a United States magazine Foreign Policy quoted him as saying that the United Nations office in Zimbabwe ignored his warnings about a cholera outbreak that ultimately killed more than 4 000 to avoid upsetting President Robert Mugabe.

Like any news about Zimbabwe, the story was picked up by several publications including the Wall Street Journal. While the claim earned Tadonki a lot of media and political mileage, there was one thing that was fundamentally wrong.

Elizabeth Dickinson, the writer of the Foreign Policy story, said her report was based on more than 200 pages of confidential UN documents, including emails and investigations and interviews with nearly a dozen officials and with Tadonki himself.

But she missed one important fact- Agostinho Zacarias, the man Tadonki says was in charge of the UN in Zimbabwe, was virtually incapacitated at the time of the cholera outbreak in August 2008 because he was already under investigation by the UNDP headquarters.

The investigation into the operations of the UNDP office in Harare was never publicised but it was a high-level investigation which began in July 2008. It was carried out by Frank Dutton, a former South African police officer who has handled high profile investigations in South Africa itself and for the United Nations.

Dutton is no small fry. He was responsible for exposing the Trust Feeds massacre in which supporters of the African National Congress were massacred in their township of Trust Feeds in 1988.

In 1992, he was appointed the chief investigator for the Goldstone Commission, a judicial commission looking into political violence. This led to the exposure of the workings of the Third Force, and the imprisonment of security police colonel Eugene de Kock, known as "Prime Evil".

Dutton was appointed head of the Investigation Task Unit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. He investigated and arrested the former Defence Minister Magnus Malan and 10 former military officials in connection with the 1987 KwaMakhutha massacre.

He also exposed the shadowy relationship between the special forces of the South African Defence Force and Renamo rebels in Mozambique who destabilised the country until the peace accord in 1992.

Dutton also worked as a special investigator for the United Nations in Yugoslavia and in Kosovo becoming Commander in Chief of Field Operations in Kosovo in 1999.

He was recalled to South Africa to set up the elite unit, the Scorpions, which has since been disbanded, and gave it its motto: “Loved by the people, feared by criminals, respected by peers.”

In October 2007, Dutton was selected to serve on the panel to review the case against former police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi. Selebi was found guilty of corruption last year and sentenced to 15 years in jail. He has appealed against the ruling.

Dutton’s investigation into the UNDP Office’s operations was over six months to December. Although the UNDP acknowledged the investigation, it has refused to disclose the nature of the investigation but it included allegations that UNDP registered vehicles were used to smuggle diamonds from River Ranch Diamond Mine near Beitbridge to South Africa.

The UNDP has also refused to publish or release the report of Dutton’s investigation which was completed in January 2009.

The Insider was informed about the investigation because it was investigating diamond smuggling from River Ranch. It even tried to talk to Dutton when he visited Harare in October 2008. He was staying at the five star-Meikles Hotel.

Stephane Dujarric, the communications director for the UNDP in New York said the investigations had found no evidence of corruption or mismanagement at the UNDP office in Harare and added that “Dr Zacarias and his staff have the full backing of UNDP”. But Zacarias was transferred to South Africa shortly after the investigation.

A former UNDP consultant said it was difficult to judge whether Zacarias’s move was a promotion or demotion because of the way the UNDP operated.

“It is difficult to say if the transfer is a promotion or demotion,” he said. “Theoretically SA is bigger and is the regional office so it may be a promotion, but internal politics in the UNDP are such that it is difficult to say. Generally in the UN people get promoted out of the way rather than demoted.”

Though Zacarias was known to be sympathetic to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) this was not to Mugabe but to one faction of the party led by former army commander Solomon Mujuru.

In fact, there was wide speculation that the delay in responding to the cholera outbreak was deliberate and was meant to push Mugabe out as it was believed that it would spark an uprising because its epicentre was Budiriro, the Movement for Democratic Change’s stronghold.

A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks which was dispatched in December 2008, at the height of the cholera outbreak showed that United States embassy officials were more worried about political, security and logistical issues than the cholera outbreak.

The cable said though consular staff viewed the breakdown in health infrastructure as a threat to the safety of Americans, “…. their concern focuse (d) on trauma, more than on cholera”.

The Insider could not get comment from Tadonki or his lawyer Robert Amsterdam on these anomalies. It sent several emails to Amsterdam but he did not respond.

The UNDP had a long relationship with River Ranch dating back to 2004 when it started assisting the mine through its South African-based African Management Services Company (AMSCO) which it jointly owns with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

The operations of AMSCO in Zimbabwe have raised eyebrows because all the companies it was assisting had links to the Mujuru faction of ZANU-PF. They also did not fall into the category that AMSCO was supposed to help. And they all had a high potential to earn foreign currency.

This raised speculation that AMSCO was helping these companies to prop up the Mujuru faction in preparation for regime change. This argument was advanced by those who believed that the West, particularly the United States, had ditched the opposition Movement for Democratic Change after it had failed to remove Mugabe in the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential elections.

The argument was that the West had instead decided to remove Mugabe from within by empowering one of the factions. The argument seemed to carry weight because the United States and the European Union refused to answer queries as to why it was supporting companies owned by senior ZANU-PF officials who were on both the EU and US sanctions list.

AMSCO assisted River Ranch, Bindura Nickel Corporation, Shearwater and Innscor Corporation. The company says it is “a pioneer of capacity and skills development in the African SME sector, (with its) primary objective .. to assist African companies to become globally competitive, profitable and sustainable”.

It says it seeks to achieve this mandate by providing qualified, experienced, hands-on, professional management and related services to selected private companies and commercially operated public enterprises, with the aim of strengthening management teams while developing local management capacity.

“Our ultimate goal is to leave in place sustainable locally managed businesses integrated into the international business community,” it says.

River Ranch was not an African-owned company. The majority shareholder was Adel Aujan, a Saudi Arabian billionaire. Aujan’s local partner was Kupukile Resources, which only had a 20 percent stake. Kupukile is owned by former army commander Solomon Mujuru and former legislator Tirivanhu Mudariki. They have since sold their stake to lawyer Addington Chinake.

It is not clear how River Ranch benefitted from AMSCO’s assistance because throughout the period that AMSCO was involved, the mine was not supposed to be selling its diamonds because of an ownership dispute between River Ranch Limited and Bubye Minerals which had the mining rights up to April 2004 when Aujan arbitrarily took over the company. The ownership dispute is still unresolved.

What was interesting about the relationship between AMSCO and River Ranch is that though the company was allegedly not selling its product, AMSCO said it had been paid for its services for the three years to July 2007. River Ranch itself ran full-page adverts about community projects it was undertaking in the Beitbridge area.

The contract between AMSCO and River Ranch was only terminated after repeated media reports that UNDP registered vehicles were being used to smuggle diamonds from the mine to South Africa. Though the smuggling allegations were never confirmed, the UNDP confirmed that UNDP registered vehicles were indeed used by River Ranch officials but it said that the vehicles were “fraudulently registered”.

An evaluation report of AMSCO carried out by a British company, DFC, in 2003, said “AMSCO's client base included too many companies that appeared to have little or no need for its services”.

It said these companies tended to be larger foreign-affiliated companies capable of finding their own managers and likely to provide training on their own.

“Too many exhibited a modest interest, if any, in the substantive services AMSCO provided and an overwhelming interest in the financial benefits AMSCO confers, particularly the tax exemptions. Providing assistance to such companies generates more reliable fees for AMSCO but contributes minimally to economic development,” the report said.

The report also said in too many instances, client companies did not actually use new managers hired for them by AMSCO. Rather, they relabelled or rebadged existing managers as AMSCO seconded managers.

This is exactly what AMSCO did at River Ranch. It had Aujan’s special assistant, George Kantsouris who had no experience at all in diamond mining but in real estate, as the managing director.

“Rebadging contributes nothing to economic development,” the report went on. “It has been condemned by IFC and at least two host country governments. Yet AMSCO has continued the practice in a few companies”.

The report also said the evaluation found that AMSCO was insufficiently alert to viability issues among potential client companies.

“For a closer look, the core evaluation team visited 27 companies in Ghana, Kenya and Mali. It found that in 20 companies, performance was significantly better than it would have been without the assistance of AMSCO. Yet of the 27, only 10 appeared likely to meet the AMSCO objective of remaining viable after the departure of the AMSCO manager. Since AMSCO's mandate is to help companies become self-sustaining, this high level of instability is troubling,” the report said.

River Ranch had a capacity to produce up to 500 000 carats a year when it was commissioned in 1996. Kantsouris said the company was producing an average of 20 000 carats a month in 2007. But Finance Minister Tendai Biti said the company only produced 75 000 carats in 2008.

Bindura and Innscor are both listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange and hardly needed any assistance from AMSCO.

Bindura is owned by Mwana Africa which is listed on the London Alternative Investment Market. Mwana bought the controlling interest of Bindura from Anglo American Corporation in 2003.

What was interesting about AMSCO’s involvement with Bindura is that it came in after Bindura chief executive Leonard Chimimba had been gunned down outside his home in Harare in what is believed to have been a hit.

Chimimba was killed in May 2004 shortly after a series of disappearance of precious minerals including platinum and nickel. Two trucks carrying 40 tonnes of nickel believed to have been worth $2.5 million had disappeared in March.

Innscor, the fast food giant with operations in Southern, Eastern and West Africa, was this month ranked second among the top five holdings on the Zimbabwe Stock exchange. SAB-Miller owned Delta Corporation was at the top. Innscor operations include Chicken Inn and Bakers Inn, the Niloticus crocodile ranching, Colcom Holdings, Zapsnacks and Iris Biscuits, National Foods, WRS, Kodak Photo Marketing, TV Sales & Hire, Shearwater and SPAR, just to name a few.

It was this business empire that AMSCO and Zacarias had their fingers in. This had nothing to do with saving Mugabe.

In fact, The Insider understands that Mugabe was able to contain Mujuru at the 2007special congress because one of his lieutenants informed him that Mujuru was working with the West to oust him and cited the River Ranch case.

Things seemed to add up. Mujuru had refused to endorse Mugabe as the presidential candidate for 2008 at the party’s annual conference at Goromonzi in 2006 and had called for a special congress to elect a new leadership in 2007.

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