DOHA, Qatar – One of Zimbabwe’s most influential diplomats, Uebert Angel, offered to use his status to launder millions of dollars through a gold-smuggling scheme, during an undercover operation by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
Angel, appointed ambassador-at-large and a presidential envoy by Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa in March 2021, told reporters he would be able to carry large volumes of dirty cash into the country using his diplomatic status.
The 44-year-old, who claims to be a prophet and heads a congregation — the Good News Church — with branches in 15 countries, said he would facilitate a scheme through which unaccounted cash could be exchanged for Zimbabwe’s gold. Recipients of the gold could then sell the precious metal for legitimate money, effectively turning their cash clean.
Angel and his business partner Rikki Doolan also claimed that their laundering operations had the approval of Mnangagwa, who has been in power since November 2017, when Zimbabwe’s controversial former leader Robert Mugabe was ousted in a military coup.
“You want gold, gold we can do it right now, we can make the call right now, and it’s done,” Angel told Al Jazeera’s reporters. “It will land in Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe can’t touch it too until I get to my house. So, there can be a diplomatic plan.”
“So, it is a very, very easy thing,” he said.
Angel made the offer during an operation that was part of ‘Gold Mafia’, an investigation into several gold-smuggling gangs in Southern Africa, with Zimbabwe and South Africa as key hubs.
The investigation reveals how these gangs have turned Western sanctions meant to target Zimbabwe’s government into an opportunity to smuggle large quantities of gold and launder hundreds of millions of dollars through a complex web of companies and bribes.
Al Jazeera reporters, posing as Chinese nationals who were looking to launder large sums of money, were offered several ways to remove all stains of corruption from their dirty cash.
Among those mechanisms was the use of Angel’s diplomatic clout. Officially, the pastor-diplomat is tasked with finding investors to come to Zimbabwe. However, Angel made it clear that he was willing to help smuggle gold and launder money.
Zimbabwe needs dollars because the country’s own currency has lost its value in international trade due to hyperinflation. A commodity like gold is a good way to earn dollars, but international sanctions imposed on the country make it difficult for the government to export gold because of the additional scrutiny on officials in power.
“So you have to figure out other ways to do that,” Karen Greenaway, a former FBI investigator who tracks international money laundering schemes, told Al Jazeera. One way around: individual gold miners, who don’t face those restrictions.
This scenario makes Zimbabwe fertile ground for money launderers who can help the country earn dollars in exchange for gold.
Central to Angel’s gold-for-dirty money operations is Henrietta Rushwaya, president of the Zimbabwe Miners Association. Rushwaya, who is also President Mnangagwa’s niece, told Angel and the reporters on a phone call that smuggling 100kg of gold each week would be no problem.
The scheme would need an initial investment of US$10 million of dirty cash into the government’s gold refinery, Fidelity. Of that, US$5 million would be held in reserve by Fidelity for the duration of the scam, with the rest being used every week to buy gold.
Once the gold is bought, another US$5 million would be brought in to buy more gold until all the money had been laundered into the precious metal — which would then be sold internationally for legitimate, clean cash.
“They can buy the gold directly in cash, because we are the only sector in the country that is paying in foreign exchange on a cash basis,” Rushwaya said during the call.
During the meetings, Angel and Doolan, also a British pastor and music artist, said everything they were doing had the blessings of “number one”, referring to Mnangagwa. Doolan even offered to set up a face-to-face meeting with Mnangagwa on the sidelines of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in 2021.
The gang also offered to help launder money by building properties near the tourist town of Victoria Falls. This, Angel said, would be appreciated by Mnangagwa because it would allow him “to cut a ribbon”, and build his legacy as a leader who brought visible infrastructure investments into Zimbabwe.
“A politician wants to open something,” Angel told Al Jazeera’s undercover reporters. “Gold is easy, but there is nowhere to cut a ribbon.”
Tendai Biti, former Zimbabwe minister of finance, told Al Jazeera that although gold trade by law should be overseen by the central bank, the vast majority of gold is smuggled out of the country.
“We have got world class deposits of gold, but we have nothing to show for it,” Biti said. “I think we are losing about a billion US dollars in illegal gold exports — which is a euphemism for gold smuggling.”
“The biggest challenge Zimbabwe now faces is the existential threat that comes from this mafia, the gold mafia.”
When asked for a response to Al Jazeera’s investigation, Fidelity denied all involvement in money laundering or smuggling. Mnangagwa, Angel, Doolan and Rushwaya did not respond to our inquiries.