On October 26, 2020, a well-heeled lady walked into Robert Mugabe International Airport and went through the motions as dictated by rules of air travel.
But she was no ordinary passenger.
BY ALEX MAGAISA
The lady was carrying precious cargo. It should have been so easy, and up to a point it was.Then something went wrong. It was the precious cargo that became the proverbial stone in the lady’s shoe.
The result was that instead of spending her night in a plush hotel in the rarefied environs of Dubai, the lady was, by the end of the day, an unusual guest of the Zimbabwean state.
The conditions of the accommodation offered by the Zimbabwean state are the opposite of what the Sheikhs offer in the palatial hotels of the Emirates.
The lady’s name is Henrietta Rushwaya. It is a familiar name, even to millions who have never met her.
This familiarity owes more to notoriety than popularity.
Her recorded age is 53 and, in that time, she has carved a chequered history.
Some accounts of her life suggest that she began her career with the humble chalk and blackboard, having trained to impart knowledge as a teacher.
But Rushwaya’s eye was always on a bigger prize.
Its vision and ambition could not be contained by the four walls of the classroom. That eye allowed her the gift of not seeing boundaries.
It has taken her to the highest corridors of power, which she has navigated with effortless ease.
She charmed her way into the late vice-president Joseph Msika’s office, where she was decorated with the title of director of sport.
In one recent image, she is seen kneeling ever so closely before the current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa can be seen examining something that she had probably brought to his attention.
It’s fair to say that Rushwaya knows her way around the labyrinth that is Zimbabwean politics.
She has managed to build a complex web of relationships that have placed her in good stead.
Being savvy took her to the helm of the football governing body, the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa).
And more recently, until her current predicament, she was president of the Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation, a network of small-scale miners.
But if her rise from the humble beginnings at a teacher’s college to these lofty heights was remarkable, it has also not been short of controversy.
But first, a return to the scene of the crime at the international airport in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
The media in Zimbabwe has described the scene as one that could have been scripted for a Hollywood movie.
Rushwaya’s precious cargo were gold bars weighing just over 6kg.
Altogether the value of the gold is estimated at over US$330 000. These gold bars were stashed in her hand luggage.
A court heard that upon arrival at the exit point, the closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the international airport were temporarily shut down.
It took her just four minutes to make her way through the gates. Being an individual of higher stock, she used the VIP fast lane.
Ordinary mortals must queue in the normal lines. They have no idea of the pleasures and benefits of VIP life.
But as regular travellers know too well, before you get to the security checkpoint, you must make a declaration at the customs desk.
If you have goods that must be declared, it is there that you make disclosures.
Most passengers are waved through after informing the dutiful officers that they have nothing that requires their attention.
Rushwaya’s precious cargo is one that should have been declared to the taxman.This, it appears, did not happen on this occasion.
Nevertheless, if Lady Fortuna had been in a generous mood in earlier times, she took leave just when Rushwaya needed it the most.
The common account is that military intelligence officers (some say detectives) advised staff at the security checkpoint to carefully check Ms Rushwaya’s luggage.
They would have been acting based on a tip-off.Someone who knew what was going on supplied the inside information to authorities.
In any event, it is said that the precious cargo was identified by the scanners at the security checkpoint.When the bag was opened in the presence of witnesses, the gold bars were discovered.
Rushwaya was without a cogent explanation. She did not have the documents to support the possession of gold at the point of exit.
Attempts to contact the state security agents who had helped her through the gates were unsuccessful.
In desperation, it is alleged that she tried to offer a bribe to a member of the airport staff.
The guillotine was coming down and a person will do anything to avoid it, including committing more offences.
She immediately grassed her accomplices, to use the colloquial language of the criminal trade.
One Ali Mohamed was the owner of the gold and he was a licensed gold dealer, she said, according to media reports.
Mohamed is a Pakistani chap who runs a company that is curiously called Ali Japan786.
Rushwaya was recently pictured at a ceremony with Mines minister Winston Chitando where the said Mohamed was also a guest and participant.
He too is now a guest of the state.
When the news of Rushwaya’s arrest for smuggling arrived, long-term observers of the Zimbabwe political and economic scene were not surprised.
It is no longer a secret that well-heeled syndicates are playing a major role in the illicit financial flows involving precious minerals.
In September 2020, the man in charge of law enforcement, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe, revealed that Zimbabwe was losing at least US$100 million worth of gold each month on account of smuggling.He blamed it on “porous borders”.
It was this porosity that Rushwaya nearly exploited on October 26 and she may have exploited similar holes before.
What Kazembe does not say is that the porosity of these national borders is man-made.
Consider what is alleged to have happened in this attempted smuggling.Rushwaya was not acting alone.
She had help from the very offices that are supposed to safeguard national borders and security.
Two of the men who accompanied her through the airport security checkpoints are state security agents.
Another tried to extricate her from her predicament when she was caught by dropping names of the president’s wife, Auxilia, and her son and invoking a familial relationship with the president.
Later, it emerged that some senior police officers tried to tamper with the investigations when Rushwaya’s accomplice, Ali Mohamed, was picked up.
More significantly, it is said the airport’s CCTV cameras were turned off to cover for the heist.
The aim was to conceal evidence of criminal activity, but in doing so they were also compromising national security.
It was state employees who created a porous point at the border.
Rushwaya has told authorities that someone was waiting for the gold delivery in Dubai and that she was acting on the instructions of Mohamed.
This Mohamed, whom we have already encountered, is said to run a car dealership called Ali Japan786.
How a car dealership is also a holder of licence to deal in gold should immediately raise concern for any law enforcement agency.
This is the modus operandi of money-laundering syndicates.
Yet it seems none of the Zimbabwean authorities had picked any whiff of suspicion around this entity.
It already signed an agreement with the CMED, a government-owned entity that deals in vehicles.
Furthermore, when Rushwaya was brought to court, she was nearly a beneficiary of a curious and bizarre deal between her lawyers and the state prosecution.
Within the space of 24 hours and despite the gravity and complexity of the offence, the prosecution had already consented to bail on suspiciously thin terms.
In return for bail, Rushwaya was supposed to pay bail of $90 000 (less than US$1 000) which is minuscule and insignificant considering the value of gold that is the subject of the offence (more than US$300 000).
Her lawyer was also supposed to tender title deeds to his personal property as insurance that Rushwaya would not abscond.
There is nothing in these conditions that puts anything of value to Rushwaya at risk should she try to dodge bail.
These conditions are supposed to act as an incentive to the accused to honour bail terms, but if they are weak, the accused has no reason to do so.
Why would Rushwaya’s lawyer pledge title deeds to his property when Rushwaya probably has multiple properties to her name?
Here again, it is the state which was creating a porous point for Rushwaya.
The magistrate, Ngoni Nduna, was not amused by the state’s readiness to concede to bail without further scrutiny.
His refusal to accept the consent temporarily shut the hole that had been created by the prosecution.
But the question remains: Why had the prosecution been so submissive in the first place?
Had the prosecutors made this decision freely using their professional judgement or were they acting on instructions from other sources?
This is a line of investigation that needs scrutiny because it has signs of a complex web of concealing or playing down criminal activity.
In any event, it also reaffirmed the phenomenon of selective application of the law in Zimbabwe.
It has long been public knowledge that there is in Zimbabwe an Animal Farm scenario where some animals are more equal than others.
There is one set of rules for members of the opposition and activists and another one for members of Zanu PF and politically exposed persons connected to it.
If Rushwaya were a member of the opposition, she would have been paraded openly as an enemy of the state, an economic saboteur deserving the worst punishment ever.
She would have been the pre-eminent example of how members of the opposition were undermining the country’s economic recovery efforts.
After all, gold is the country’s highest foreign currency earner.
The Zimbabwean treasury says it earned the country US$946 million in 2019.But this was down from US$1,3 billion in 2018.
l This is an extract from Magaisa’s latest Big Saturday Read blog post