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January 8, 2014

China's hand in Zimbabwe's military future

The US$98-million military college in Mazowe, 15 km east of the capital Harare, is Zimbabwe’s largest investment in a military base, but, asks Stanley Karombo, is it wise to allow China to fund, build and operate it?

Story originally published in News of the South

The National Defence College (NDC) bank rolled by the Chinese is to be nurtured into a fully-fledged national defence university by 2015 and is expected to facilitate qualitative training of students.

Sydney Sekerami, the Minister of Defence said the NDC is set to work in collaboration with other local and international cooperating partners that include international military and civilian experts from China and Pakistan and a highly experienced Kenyan external examiner.

The debutantes of NDC – which was opened in September 2012, will be conferred their certificates in 2014.

Sekeramai said the establishment of the defence college was conceived as part of the answer to the country’s challenges, “thanks to the Chinese government who quickly came to the rescue by providing an interest-free loan of US$98 million for the construction of the college.”

“The important role of defending our country cannot be left to mediocre officers incapable of comprehending and analytically evaluating the operational environment to ensure that the sovereignty of our state is not only preserved, but enhanced,” Mugabe said at the ground breaking ceremony of the college in October 2007.

The facility is the largest such complex in the country, and is to be tentatively operated by the Chinese and its foreign intelligence service in conjunction with Zimbabwe’s spy organ, the CIO and local military intelligence.

The facility covers several square miles and Chinese engineers, technicians, and military personnel are working at the base. It is expected the base will also monitor diplomatic, domestic, commercial and military communications, but these claims could not be  independently verified.

China does have a strong presence in many sectors in Zimbabwe, and Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei have supplied most of the country’s internet equipment.

The academy is expected to train members of the Zimbabwean army, Central intelligent Organisation (CIO) and police, as well as operatives from other southern African countries.

Ties between Zimbabwe and China date back to the 1960s – when the Chinese supported Zanla, the military wing of ruling Zanu PF, with training and equipment – have deepened since Zimbabwe’s political isolation from the West more than a decade ago. China has been described as the “only major international supporter” of Zimbabwe, due to its willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy has expanded bilateral and trade relations and China is now the biggest buyer of Zimbabwean tobacco. It is also especially interested in Zimbabwe`s platinum and diamond deposits.

Government records indicate that it has purchased massive amounts of military hardware from China, including a $13 million radar system, six Hongdu JL-8 jet aircraft, 12 JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, and more than 200 military vehicles since June 2004 – reportedly funded by the new-found diamond wealth.

In April this year, the state controlled newspaper, the Herald wrote that the Chinese donated seven buses and state-of-the-art Information Communication Technology (ICT) equipment to the college to enhance learning at the premier defence learning institution.

The equipment has already been installed at the institution and experts from China have been seconded to train locals to enable them to operate and maintain the equipment.

The then Minister of Defence Emmerson Mnangagwa said the donations to the NDC by the People’s Republic of China were a result of the long standing cordial relations between the People’s Republic of China and Zimbabwe.

“The invaluable assistance that continues to be rendered to the NDC by the People’s Republic of China is a clear indication of the achievements of this noble and strategic policy,” he said.

Minister Mnangagwa said a Memorandum of Understanding for the provision of military aid to Zimbabwe had been signed between the two countries last year with the donations received by the college being part of the package under the agreement.

“Zimbabwe will forever be grateful for the support received from the People’s Republic of China in the fight against the illegal economic sanctions imposed by Britain, US and their allies following the launch of the land reform programme.

“In 2008 the People’s Republic of China and Russia used their membership to the UN Security Council to veto the proposed UN sanctions on Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said.

The newly appointed Minister of Defence, Sydney Sekeramai said that China would soon ship a fully equipped ambulance for the college and a 169 KW solar power system. Last year China also donated furniture to the college. The college has enrolled students for a National Defence Course and Master of Science Degree in International Relations.

Meanwhile, the NDC has started off with a year-long pilot programme with students drawn from the ZDF and other security organs such as the ZRP, the ZPS and the President’s Department.

“This will be extended to other strategic Government institutions,” the minister said.

ZDF Chief of Staff for Joint Operations and Command Major General Nicholas noted the challenges of the construction of the college.

“We ran out of bricks and sometimes I had to personally call executives of brick companies, but they failed to meet our demand.

“The next thing was cement, there was no cement company that could produce at the speed the construction was going,” he said.

He said at the peak of construction, 100 000 bricks were required a day.

Major General Dube said they also had labour disputes as a result of the long working hours undertaken to complete the project as some workers were unwilling to work overtime.

The college was built by Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group.

It comprises lecture rooms, students’ and lecturers’ accommodation, a gymnasium and sports fields among other amenities.

This story was produced as a result of a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.

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