Zimbabwe is on the verge of replacing its antiquated military helicopters with Russian-made fighter jets, among other armaments, in a deal that has seen Harare mortgaging part of its vast mineral wealth to Moscow, it has emerged.
The deal is one of many inked during a trip to Zimbabwe by Russian Foreign Affairs minister Sergey Lavrov in 2018.The trip was part of Lavrov's tour of Africa, during which he highlighted that Moscow was scouting for military cooperation opportunities with Harare in a deal tied to a US$3 billion joint platinum project with the southern African country.
A Russian consortium, including Kremlin-owned arms conglomerate Rostec, in 2014 partnered a Zimbabwean group to set up a US$3 billion platinum operation near the capital city, but the project had stalled.
This was followed by a visit to Russia in January 2019 by President Emmerson Mnangagwa where he sealed a number of deals ranging from collaborative geological exploration, mineral resource management, platinum extraction and diamond exploration with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
At the time of his visit to Moscow, Mnangagwa noted that Harare's long-term plan was to bolster its military arsenal with Russian-made hardware.Military sources close to the arms-for-minerals deal told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that Harare, seeking to fortify its
arsenal in the region where neighbouring countries were also strengthening their military hardware, would soon take delivery of Russian-made MiG-29 and MiG-35 aircraft to replace its single-engine J-7 fighter jets procured from China.
The deal, sources said, was forged during former president Robert Mugabe's tenure, but stalled when he was toppled through a military coup that catapulted Mnangagwa to the helm.
However, Mnangagwa's trip to Russia in January last year, sources said, was partly meant to reassure Moscow that his administration was still committed to the deal.
During Mugabe's time, the then Defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi, travelled to Kubinka, Russia, in 2016, to attend war games where fighter jets including MiG-29s were showcased among other Russian armaments.
The military exhibition, held at the military-themed Patriot Park, was organised by the Russian defence ministry."Zimbabwe has always wanted to replace its fighter jets with Russian-made MiG-29s and MiG-35s.But it was discouraged by the West. Buying military hardware is a major military strategic statement.
The idea to acquire military equipment from Russia has always been on the cards since 2002. More recently, in 2017, this matter resurfaced with Zimbabwe seeking to buy MiG-35s from Russia in exchange for the Darwendale platinum reserves among other mineral resources," a source who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Independent this week.
"You must remember that Sekeramayi went to Russia in 2016, seeking to buy fighter jets under the cover of attending military games. And there is a report to that effect by MiG confirming that they had finished quoting and costing, as well as doing specification and contract terms with Zimbabwe. So when the Russians came here last year, the idea was to revive the deals which had stagnated when Mugabe was toppled.
"When Zimbabwe attended the military games hosted in Moscow in 2016, the idea was to familiarise themselves with the fighter jets they were going to acquire through its mineral claims."
At that time, Sekeramayi was quoted by a Russian publication, Sputnik, as saying: "It is a very good exhibition and the ground forces assets that have been shown are very impressive. There are some that we are very interested in and that will be discussed with the relevant authorities.
"At this point in time we are still assessing and are coming to a conclusion on what we want to acquire from here but that could be artillery, jet fighters and helicopters."
Russian armaments including MI-17-VS helicopters, MI-17ISH, MI-8/17 and MI-35 were showcased during the war games.Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri was not reachable on her mobile phone. She also had not responded at the time of going to print to questions on when Zimbabwe would take delivery of the new fighter jets from Russia.
Her deputy Victor Matemadanda was also not reachable for comment.Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) spokesperson Overson Mugwisi did not pick up calls to his mobile phone when the Independent called. He also did not respond to questions sent to him by email.
Western countries, which had traditionally supplied Zimbabwe with military hardware, cancelled the deals in 2000 after they slapped Mugabe with sanctions over Harare's deteriorating human rights record.
Zimbabwe has been struggling to bolster its arsenal which was heavily depleted when the country intervened in the costly Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) war of 1998.
The Zimbabwe government has previously demanded US$1 billion in compensation from Kinshasa for participating in the war.When asked to explain the nature of mining deals Zimbabwe has forged with Russia over the years, Mines and Mining Development minister Winston Chitando said he was "busy" and requested for questions via text messaging.
He had not replied at the time of going to print.