Zimbabwe: Vultures Looking for a Meal in the Oil

There are some things that people keep talking about, which don't make sense. The often-repeated intention to construct a second oil pipeline from Beira in Mozambique to Harare and beyond is one of them.

The Beira-Feruka-Harare pipeline that Zimbabwe is using to ferry fuel supplied by numerous players -- among them IPG, Glencore, Vivo, Praise Petroleum and BP - was built in 1966 and has survived the tumultuous Renamo-Frelimo wars and other disturbances. Most of the pipeline is controlled and managed by Mozambican interests and Zimbabwe owns a fraction of the infrastructure.

Yet when successive Zimbabwean governments have not been talking themselves hoarse about the need to upgrade the existing pipeline, they have been shouting ad nauseum about their Disney dream to build a second oil pipeline. Upgrading the Feruka pipe stretch makes sense, but building a second line is full of absurdities and stinks like a skunk.

The first loud calls for a second pipeline came in 2012, even though there could have been muffled talk before that. Then -- in 2012 -- we woke up to this creepy announcement that Rosneft, a Russian oil giant, was involved in the construction of a new oil pipeline. The talk died as fast as it had come. Two years later, someone remembered the oil pipedream again. Just that the Mozambican government was disinterested. It didn't see any rhyme in building a new pipeline when the current one was, in fact, being underutilised. In 2016, the pipedream was back again but, predictably, it fizzled out. Then, last year, the dream came back with some zeal. This time around, it came with the angel of war.

Mining, Oil and Gas Services (MOGS), a South African company, wanted to snatch up the contract to build the second pipeline. Locally, it was getting mysterious backing from Christopher Mutsvangwa, a loudmouthed ally of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and a retired politician from the opposition side of the board, Eddie Cross. The government said no. And it had a strange reason for rejecting MOGS. It said there was no need for a second pipeline at that moment because the Beira-Feruka-Harare one could still do the job.

Early this year, we were told about a government-to-government arrangement between Harare and Moscow to build the new pipeline at a cost of US$1,5 billion. A Russian delegation was supposed to then visit Harare in March for further talks but it's not clear if this materialised, considering that we went under lockdown the same month. In fact, this plan would shut the door right in the face of the US$1 billion MOGS deal and make Mutsvangwa madder.

When the MOGS deal was rejected last year, he went out on a smearing spree and was accusing Kuda Tagwirei and his oily Sakunda company of all sorts of things.

Whether he was right or wrong is not what you will hear about in this space. But it seems clear that the intended Russian deal would take the bread straight from his mouth, hence his anger. Sakunda is still in the thick of the oil deals, having used an

US$11 million Feruka refurbishment investment to extort the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe by taking profits off the oil corridor. And Sakunda was then a bosom ally of Trafigura.

So when you heard the official media repeat the mumbo jumbo about the new pipeline last week, you were certainly bound to yawn. We didn't hear who was supposed to do it this time around, but it seems the Russians are the toast of the day, considering that they were the last to be named in this long saga. After all, the Russians are breathing down China's neck in Zimbabwe as far as inward "investments" are concerned. Alrosa, one of its companies, is already doing things in the Marange diamond fields, in addition to other investments here and there, courtesy of the "new" dispensation.

You are right. Things were never going to stand out in a neat row regarding this now-you-see-it, now-you-don't new pipeline. The Zimbabwean government has this tall dream of getting involved in building a 600km oil pipeline between 2022 and 2025 when it has failed to dualise its own Harare-Beitbridge road in 40 years. Granted, it won't be the only player if the pipeline was going to stop being a pie in the sky, but why would charity stop beginning at home, with our own local projects?

Well, there is a universally accepted -- albeit unwritten -- freedom of dreaming, so these chaps can take out the hammock and continue counting the stars. Yet that's not the only absurdity. Mozambique is clear on this, there is no need for a second pipeline because we can still use the current one without any hassles. In any case, the Zimbabwean government, in its never-ending tale of contradictions, has admitted that we don't need a new line on more than one occasion.

In 2018, for instance, while touring the oil line, the then Transport minister, Rugare Gumbo, said we musn't rush things because the Beira-Feruka-Harare pipeline was grossly underutilised. On his own admission, we were then using only 75% of the line's capacity. And when you hear a government official say 75%, he means well less than that.

Available figures show that Trafigura, the main supplier, pumped in some 850 million litres of oil into the pipeline in 2014, translating to some 39%. The other players brought in about 540 million litres. The combined

offload left around 35% of the pipeline's capacity unused. Last year, Trafigura and the other suppliers used less than 70% of the line.

You must only start talking of building a new line if the current one is failing to cope. But then, the current one is being underutilised, which means it is not failing to cope. Optionally, you can only plan to build a new one if you make grounded projections that the current line will soon be overwhelmed. However, there are no such projections. Why they plan to build a new one when you don't have the reason to do so?

Besides, do we have details about how such a huge investment is going to be made without risking and harming our interests as citizens and stockholders?

Undoubtedly, this project is being kept away from the public as far as possible. Put differently, there is neither transparency nor integrity. And when things start happening that way, you know for certain where we are headed.

Politicians and politically connected people use such projects to eat sumptuous meals. Brown envelops shuffle very fast. Tenders are fixed. Prices are inflated. And the projects take donkey years to complete, if ever they will.

The Zimbabwean government and its other partners who agreed to the new Russian project at the Russia-Africa summit recently seem to have forgotten something crucial, assuming the deal will go through. Mozambique is currently suffering terrorist attacks. The terrorism may be currently largely limited to Cabo Del Gado, but who says those good-for-nothing militias will not extend their attacks to the areas through which the new pipeline would run?

Let's cut a long story short. The proposed new pipeline must remain what it is at the moment -- a pipedream. It would serve no other purposes besides giving greedy people the chance to eat.

l Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted at tmajoni@idt.org.zw.

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