On 23 January, the Sunday Times in the UK reported that in the dying days of 2010 the Zimbabwe government clandestinely transferred arms to incument President Laurent Gbagbo's administration in the Ivory Coast.
The arms consignment allegedly comprised small arms, mortars and ammunition, which was mainly of Chinese origin. The transfer was facilitated by the state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), and was supposedly dispatched with the blessing of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as part of an arms-for-oil exchange agreement with the Gbagbo regime.
The Sunday Times report was derived from "highly placed intelligence sources in Zimbabwe's capital", but this information is yet to be verified by other independent sources.
If such an arms transfer did take place, the implications for the Zimbabwe government could be serious, as it would have been a violation of the UN arms embargo (which has been in place since 2002).
In addition, such an arms transfer would have been taken place in flagrant disregard of the decisions and resolutions of the UN Security Council, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, all of which have condemned Gbagbo's refusal to step down as head of state following his defeat in November 2010 presidential elections to his political rival, Alassane Dramane Ouattara.
The Zimbabwe government, and in particular ZDI, does not have an exemplary record regarding international arms dealings.
The Zimbabwe government is subject to an EU arms embargo, and ZDI appears on the US government's list of Specially Designated Nationals (economic and trade sanctions). This list is "based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the US." Zimbabwe has also actively disapproved of efforts to negotiate an international Arms Trade Treaty.
There have been further three developments that have reinforced the problematic nature of Zimbabwe's international arms dealings.
Firstly, UN investigative panels have implicated the Zimbabwe government in the contravention of certain UN arms embargoes. For example, ZDI was fingered in the smuggling of arms to the Revolutionary United Front rebel group in Sierra Leone and to Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia in the late 1990s, with both countries being under a UN arms embargo at the time. The Zimbabwean government denied any wrongdoing in this regard.
In 2008, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reported that a large consignment of ammunition was transferred from the DRC to Zimbabwe. The UN expressed concern that this ammunition may have been re-exported to Zimbabwe in violation of the end-user certificate supplied by the original exporter.
Secondly, ZDI has been implicated in supplying arms to mercenaries and rebel groups. In March 2004, a group of mercenaries led by Simon Mann, who were en route to stage a coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea, were arrested at Harare airport by the Zimbabwean authorities.
The group indicated that they had landed at Harare airport to collect a consignment of arms, ammunition and equipment from ZDI for a private security contract in the DRC. According to media reports at the time, the head of ZDI, Tshinga Dube was allegedly "incensed" by Mann's arrest as it had cost him a "good regular customer". During the court case however, the Zimbabwe government claimed that the weapons deal with Mann was part of a "sting operation". To date, no evidence has been presented in the public domain to substantiate this claim. In October 2010, Africa Confidential implicated ZDI in the supply of arms to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels through an Ecuadorian arms dealer between 2000 and 2003.
Thirdly, the Zimbabwe government has been implicated in questionable business practices in some its dealings. In the mid-1990s ZDI was contracted by the Sri Lankan government to manufacture and supply them with arms. The Sri Lankan rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, allegedly captured one of the shipments. This resulted in investigations by the Sri Lankan government and journalists. The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) and other sources claimed that ZDI, rather than manufacturing the arms, had sourced the arms from an Israeli arms dealer, and had made use of counterfeit documentation in order to disguise the alleged breach of contract.
In 2010, the secretary general of the UN Convention on International trade in Endangered Species indicated that the Zimbabwe security forces had been engaged in rhino poaching. This was followed by speculation in the Zimbabwe media that the sale of rhino horns had been used to partially offset the cost of arms purchases from China. The Zimbabwe military dismissed these allegations as a vilification campaign by the "enemy press".
In the coming weeks it is critical that the veracity of the allegations of the Zimbabwean arms transfer to the Gbagbo regime be determined, as it has implications for the international reputations of both Zimbabwe and China (the supposed source of the arms). However, the most pressing concern is that if these allegations are valid, then this arms transfer is possibly an early warning of renewed civil war in the Ivory Coast.
Guy Lamb is Senior Research Fellow in the Arms Management Programme of the Institute for Security Studies.