The Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) has taken delivery, via an African intermediary, of the first of several consignments of Chinese small arms and equipment.
The delivery, via a so-far unidentified intermediary, has been negotiated by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. The indirect route is intended to keep the deliveries below the radar of Western governments, which have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe since 2002 - and of Southern African governments, trade unions and journalists who have hampered recent deliveries.
The consignment is intended to re-equip the army ahead of a national referendum and national elections within the next 18 months. It includes basic equipment for the ZDF's infantry units: at least 20 000 AK-47 automatic rifles, uniforms and 12 to 15 trucks. The inclusion of 21 000 pairs of handcuffs points to the intended domestic deployment of the refurbished units. A second consignment is due before year's end.
The two Zimbabwean officers responsible for coordinating delivery are Colonel Ndlahli Mbkhalhe and Captain Sabestine Zabethe.
Although the intermediary country is so far unidentified and it is unclear whether the weapons' end-user certificates identify Zimbabwe as the recipient, it is unlikely that Beijing is unaware of the ultimate destination. Chinese officials are directly involved with Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) - China is constructing an intelligence training campus for Harare - and with its armed forces.
China has in the past been Zimbabwe's most reliable source of weaponry for the past decade. During Zimbabwe's involvement in the civil war in the DRC (1998-2002), China sold it at least US$66-million worth of small arms. Since 2004 China has sold to Zimbabwe 139 military vehicles and 24 combat aircraft. This has, however, not been sufficient to offset the losses in the DRC campaign or the ravages of Zimbabwe's hyperinflation period. With a Western arms embargo imposed in 2002, Zimbabwe has been seeking a reliable source of arms, particularly small arms.
Since South African trade unions thwarted delivery of six container-loads of small arms and equipment in 2008 (preventing China Ocean Shipping Company's vessel, the An Yue Jiang, from unloading in Durban), Harare has also been keen for a reliable delivery route. In March this year Mnangagwa told local journalists the military was looking for arms, but was struggling to acquire them because of the arms embargo.
A month later (April 2011), dockworkers in Beira, Mozambique identified two containers unloaded from another China Ocean Shipping Company vessel as containing arms. The consignment, apparently containing AK-47 ammunition mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, was addressed to Abaxis Enterprises, a company owned by Neville Mutsvangwa, son of a Zanu-PF official and former ambassador to China. After Mozambican trade unionists informed their counterparts in Harare, the containers were reportedly never collected.