IN our interview with Pfungwa Kunaka, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development this week, he made an important point. The government has been impressed by mass scale lithium discoveries recently, and plans to declare the mineral as ‘strategic’ are under consideration.
Effectively, government has understood that lithium has emerged as an essential commodity to Zimbabwe.
Strict measures in controlling how claims are parcelled out and how it is sold, and proceeds distributed, have become necessary.
For a country that has seen its gold spirited away at an estimated value of US$1,5 billion annually, bold steps towards putting a lid against the plunder of Zimbabwe’s latest discovery sound good.
At least two countries mining lithium at a large scale have already classified their resource as ‘strategic’.Such important decisions have been made in good spirit. Those countries are determined to protect their resources by lining up policies that give them true stewardship of the resource before it is exhausted due to rocketing demand.
They are pursuing an equitable distribution of windfalls coming out of lithium, which is crucial to fund development in areas living in close proximity to mining belts, which are mostly remote underdeveloped out back locations. They do not want to turn lithium into a new highway for funnelling ill-gotten riches.They do not want to pamper presidents and Cabinet ministers, their families and inner circles. Given the history of theft and pillage of strategic resources already seen in Zimbabwe, it is important to view anything that looks like a progressive policy with significant caution.
For long, the country’s elites have demonstrated that they can flex their muscles needlessly to protect their own selfish interests.
And much of this political muscle flexing unusually takes the form of ‘innocent’ policies that, along the way, mutate into serious crimes of misgovernance and theft. Before US$14 billion vanished from the Chiadzwa diamond fields about a decade ago, thousands of unemployed, poor and defenceless villagers were killed or injured in bloody crackdowns by security forces unleashed by government to protect the claims.
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The strategy was almost the same as what is being pursued for lithium. Today, many of the victims bear the scars, but their country and they have nothing to show for the massive diamond endowments.
Strategically positioned elites creamed off all the riches during the crackdowns. They either awarded claims to close allies, or awarded them lucrative contracts to supply whatever was required to diamond firms, later sharing the spoils. A repeat of the same modus operandi would create fiefdoms of rich clans out of lithium. But if citizens discover that the new strategy will place them at huge disadvantage again, they will flood lithium claims and trigger another conflict. It will not end well. As we report elsewhere in this edition, Zimbabwe’s lithium endowment is vast.
It can supply 20% of global demand, and opportunities for Zimbabwe’s economy are immense, if authorities decide to share output equitably.
There should be no blood on the floor, or looting.