lithium

DEALERS who boast of close links with powerful Zanu PF politicians and senior employees at Bikita Minerals are making a killing by facilitating the smuggling of truckloads of lithium from Zimbabwe’s biggest lithium producer on a daily basis, depriving the country of potential revenue, The NewsHawks can reveal.

MORRIS BISHI

This investigation, with support from Information for Development Trust under a project meant to support investigative reporting focusing on the accountability and governance of foreign interests and investments in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, shows that cases of smuggling increased after the acquisition of the mine by China Sinomine Resources Group for US$200 million early last year.

The acquisition and subsequent investment resulted in a five-fold increase in production in the 15-square-kilometre mining area.

Traditional leaders, security official and workers at the mine confirmed the massive looting. Mine management said the company hired the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Support Unit to secure the mine and stem mineral leakages.

The leakage of lithium is occurring at a time there is a rush for lithium exploitation in Zimbabwe as global demand for the valuable mineral soars.

Why lithium is in demand

Lithium, critical to the production of electric vehicle (EV) batteries, has fast become a top commodity as countries move to ramp up the use of electric-powered cars while phasing out traditional internal combustion engines to meet global climate targets.

Lithium is becoming a highly sought-after commodity in the drive to achieve a net-zero global economy.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that by 2030 the global economy will have to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% in order to meet the goal set in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

One way of achieving this goal is by taking steps to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050.

According to miningweekely.com, the production and processing operations for lithium are concentrated mainly in Australia, Chile, and Brazil. Efforts to increase lithium production have now placed a new focus on Zimbabwe, which has the largest lithium reserves in Africa and the sixth-largest in the world.

Zimbabwe is also estimated to have the highest number of lithium projects under exploration in Africa.

According to the World Economic Forum, 540 000 metric tonnes of lithium were mined globally in 2021. This is expected to increase to 1.5 million metric tonnes and 3 million metric tonnes by 2025 and 2030 respectively.

These numbers pale in comparison to the approximately 10 million metric tonnes of untapped lithium resources that are believed to be present at the Bikita lithium project .

Experts estimate that 20% of the world’s lithium demand can be met by Zimbabwe if it fully exploits its reserves.

Chinese investors have moved quickly into acquiring mining entities,  including the much-sought-after lithium in Bikita.

Demand from China has persisted despite the Chinese government stopping subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles from January this year. Other policies to stimulate the industry however remain.

China has been granting subsidies to EV buyers since 2010, to level the price difference with combustion vehicles, and to support commercialisation.

Originally set to stop at the end of 2020, the subsidy was extended to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impact.

Looting lithium at Bikita is easy: dealers

An investigative visit to Bikita Minerals on 12 and 13 July this year by The NewsHawks established that more than five truckloads of lithium are illegally finding their way out of the mine into the hands of syndicates every day.

This reporter spent time at Chinhamo Business Centre a few metres away from the mine, interacting with dealers who are facilitating the smuggling. The reporter was posing as a potential buyer.

A dealer assured this reporter that getting lithium at Bikita Minerals “is the same as taking a stone from the bush”.

They played up their connections to powerful Zanu PF politicians and decision makers at the mine, with another dealer boasting that their “connections” to the authorities are the most important factor in the illicit deals.

The dealers said they could facilitate two 30-tonne truckloads of lithium ore at a cost of US$3 000. They also promised clean paperwork for the load to evade police and Zimbabwe Revenue Authority officials in the case of export.

“I am not an employee of the mine because working for the mine cannot give me more than what I am getting as a dealer. My job is to facilitate the smuggling out of lithium from the mine on behalf of buyers. This is something which is easy since we use our connections in politics and within the mine,” said a dealer, in a recorded conversation.

“You said you want two truckloads of lithium ore, it’s fine my brother, you can give me
US$3 000 for a 30-tonne truck and we will give you the paperwork for the load. That money is enough to pay everyone involved inside, including security guards and officials who will give us papers. This is something safe, don’t worry.

“The ore is loaded at the same area where the mine is taking their ore to the processing plants and our trucks use the main exit points without any hassle. We normally use trucks belonging to known Zanu PF leaders so that it can be easier for us. You can get those two truckloads within a few hours if you pay us,” said the dealer.

On 27 July the dealer made a follow-up through a phone call and assured this reporter that the passage to acquiring the lithium ore was still open.

“Why are you silent after our last conversation where you promised to come for that deal? We are also dealing with the cops (police officers), so you come anytime, but don’t forget to bring your own trucks.

There is a shortage of trucks here since lithium ore is in demand, many people are now getting involved in the deal. We have loads of lithium ore waiting for you. Everything is ready, we are only waiting for buyers,” said the dealer in the recorded conversation.

The NewsHawks received more than 12 calls from various dealers since the visit to Bikita, with the dealers making follow-ups on the envisaged deal. The last call, which was also recorded, was on 12 September.

The dealers even promised to assist with connections to lucrative markets in Mozambique, where they said lithium is paying better.

“You keep promising, but you are not coming for the deal. Don’t be afraid of the presence of police, we are smarter than them since we are connected. When are you coming? If you do not have a market, we can organise lucrative ones for you in Mozambique. Please try to come over the weekend so that we can finish the deal,” said the dealer.

We’re aware of the looting: workers

A worker at the mine confirmed the leakages. However, he said ordinary workers were not involved in the smuggling, pointing fingers at “those who have financial capacity to do so”.

The worker said some big names were involved in the smuggling, hence the difficulty in containing it.

“This cannot be done by an ordinary general worker. Trucks are loading and leaving the premises illegally. Looking at our capacity as general workers, we are unable to do it, but it is done by those with the financial muscle. It is something which is known. The vehicles are known and besides deployment of police the syndicates are still at work as we speak,” he said.

The loot from Bikita Minerals is finding its way to Durban through Beitbridge Border Post or Beira port in Mozambique through Nyamapanda or Sango Border Posts.

The dealers revealed that the trucks use forged documents, some of which are corruptly issued by officials from the ministry of Mines with instruction from senior government officials.

On 12 May 2023, Masvingo police impounded 3700 tonnes of lithium at 4284 Westview Drive, Masvingo Industrial Site. Bikita Minerals claimed ownership of the minerals, saying it was stolen from their mine despite the absence of a police report about the purported theft.

Aurion Resources (Pvt) Ltd, a company which claimed in court that it is also undertaking lithium mining operations in Mberengwa, was charged for theft of lithium from Bikita Minerals. Aurion Resources owns the premises where the lithium was found.

Moses Masongeya, one of the directors of Aurion, appeared at the Masvingo magistrates’ court on several occasions facing theft charges, but the case is proceeding at a slow pace since Bikita Minerals applied for permission to undertake metallurgical tests in South Africa to ascertain the origin of the lithium ore in question.

The ore is still at 4284 Westview Drive in Masvingo awaiting the completion of the court case which will only proceed after the metallurgical tests.

In the same month, over 200 tonnes of lithium with fake documents were intercepted at the port of Beira in Mozambique, but an instruction from an unnamed Zimbabwean government official resulted in the contraband being released, a security official told The NewsHawks.

In December last year, the Zimbabwean government imposed a ban on the exportation of unprocessed lithium so that the country can cash in on value addition and stop losing billions of dollars in mineral proceeds to foreign companies.

Companies developing mines and processing plants were exempted from the ban, leaving Sinomine (Bikita), Chengxin Lithium Group and Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) with the permission to export.

Former Bikita Rural District Council ward 30 councillor Trust Zinyama (CCC), who is also a Bikita Minerals employee, told The NewsHawks the looting of lithium at the mine is coordinated between syndicates and senior employees.

He said workers and the community were not benefitting from the lithium.

“I worked for this mine under the previous European owners, but there is a huge climbdown of relationships between the mine and communities as well as the workers. There is also this issue of looting. This is happening daily in the faces of employees, which shows it is coordinated between mine owners and syndicates who are linked to the ruling party. Lithium cannot be stolen on a higher scale without the involvement of senior mine employees. Trucks are loaded and leaving the gates without any hassle, day and night,” Zinyama said.

“Communities used to benefit but, as we speak, our people are getting nothing. We saw some boreholes being drilled recently, but it was done with the involvement of ruling party politicians who were campaigning for positions in the coming elections. Projects were only done to mobilise votes for the ruling party, not as part of community share ownership scheme. The mine also sponsored ruling party activities like providing food at [Zanu PF] campaign rallies.”

Besides the anger over looting, mine owners are accused of creating harsh working conditions and perpetrating racial abuse on workers.

The community is also unhappy after the new owners disregarded a community share ownership programme which was set by previous mine owners.

Chief Marova speaks out

Chief Marozva, born Philip Mudhe, the traditional leader for the area covering Bikita Minerals, confirmed the lithium looting, but distanced his subjects from the activity.

He said the management was working with the police to contain looting.”Few cases might have been recorded, but there is no proof to show that the culprits are from my community. What is important is that the police, mine authorities and community have collaborated and tightened security at the mine. This is our resource and we need to guard it jealously,” said Chief Marozva.

Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CRNG) director Farai Maguwu said there is a need for government leaders to enact laws which benefit the general populace of the country. He said the looting of natural resources like lithium is being masterminded by top government officials.

He said those caught are not being prosecuted.

Maguwu also bemoaned how the local community is not benefitting from lithium.

“Even that by-product which former owners used to give to people of Bikita that we call vim is no longer accessible to locals. The Chinese mean business and there are very serious allegations that they are not only extracting lithium ore but there are other minerals that they are mining. I can’t over-emphasise the role of political will. Zimbabweans have their fate decided by 20 or so ministers who sit down and make policies. Those who sit in cabinet should be patriotic enough and understand that being a cabinet minister does not mean you are a minister for your family but there are 16 million Zimbabweans who rely on those policies,” Maguwu said.

“Rhodesians used to create masterplans which led to the birth of many towns, but in our case the masterplan is to loot. We have leaders that are in a race to be millionaires and we need rule of law in the mining sectors. Mining sector should be a rules-based sector.

“Regarding the Masvingo lithium case in which ore was impounded by police, that arrest was a smokescreen and the real owners will not see the inside of a court. That shows us that the whole idea that we need to arrest criminals who are smuggling lithium is a facade because those who are smuggling our lithium are the untouchables in this country. To stop these leakages the law must be revised and enforced and our judiciary also needs to be patriotic.”

A senior Central Intelligence operative told The NewsHawks that the lithium seizure in Masvingo was motivated by factional fights within the ruling party which led to a push for police to execute it.

He said some ruling party officials were looting mineral resources countrywide, including lithium at Bikita Minerals.

“This looting of lithium started after the takeover by the Chinese at Bikita. This is being done by ruling party officials in collaboration with Chinese nationals at the mine. Sometime in May, trucks were intercepted in Beira with forged papers, but the case was swept under the carpet after the intervention of a bigwig whom l cannot name for my safety. Our minerals are going through these coordinated syndicates,” said the intelligence source.

Police have been deployed to contain leakages: mine management

Bikita Minerals spokesperson Colin Nikisi said the mine had tightened its security to contain leakages. Nikisi said mine management had requested the deployment of Zimbabwe Republic Police officers around the mine.

“I cannot go into details about that issue but what l can tell you right now is the mine requested the services of the police Support Unit department to tighten security around our area. I am not aware if the stealing is still continuing after the deployment of police which took place some few months back,” said Nikisi.

Contacted for comment, Zimbabwe Republic Police Masvingo spokesperson Inspector Kudakwashe Dhewa said police will arrest all those found on the wrong side of the law, including those looting minerals. He said police charged individuals found in possession of lithium loot at an industrial stand in Masvingo and said the case is before the courts.

“Our policy is to arrest anyone found committing a crime, including stealing of minerals. I remember we made an arrest of people who were found in possession of lithium and as l know the case is now before the courts and it is for the courts to decide who stole the mineral,” said Dhewa.

Zanu PF Masvingo provincial chairperson Ranson Mavhenyengwa said it was unfair to say the ruling party is the only organisation with thieves. He said thieves are even found in churches and said he is unaware of any party members who are implicated in the theft of lithium from Bikita Minerals.

Bikita Residents and Ratepayers Association (BIRRA) spokesperson Lickson Mukomondera said locals are not happy about the amount money which is being paid to Bikita Rural District Council by Bikita Minerals on an annual basis. He said the money is too little to develop the district to a better level.

“Bikita is still in poverty, we are not empowered and we are not getting what can leverage our social well-being from Bikita Minerals, considering the huge profits they are getting from our resources,” said Mukomondera.