Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter
FUEL smuggling is rampant along the Zimbabwe-Botswana border, with illicit traders resorting to paying bribes to evade arrest, a practice that has seen the country losing millions of dollars in potential tax revenue.
A network of fuel smugglers comprising villagers living in communities near the border, fuel dealers; some coming as far as Bulawayo and rogue police officers who turn a blind eye to the illegal activities has turned the illegal trade into a thriving enterprise.
The fuel is smuggled into the country from Botswana through the bush, mostly under the cover of darkness.
A Chronicle news crew conducted an investigation into fuel smuggling activities in Plumtree and observed that the smuggling is done openly.
In most rural areas in the country, it is common knowledge that when you come across villagers pushing wheelbarrows with containers, they will be carrying water.
But in Nxele village near the Botswana border, they will most likely be transporting smuggled fuel.
The news crew posed as dealers who wanted to establish contacts to use in smuggling fuel after meeting a man who was transporting fuel in a wheelbarrow.
He directed the news crew to a certain homestead.
Villagers do not trust strangers; hence it’s hard getting them to speak of the smuggling.
Nxele village head Mrs Siboniso Mpazo said most of those who come to buy the smuggled fuel come from Bulawayo.
She was at pains to explain the involvement of villagers.
“While the smugglers may not be violent people, if they hear that the village head castigates their activities, will this not result in my home being torched at night and me being killed? But yes we have had engagements with the police in trying to discourage the community from being involved in this,” she said.
On claims that the smugglers were operating with law enforcement agents, Mrs Mpazo said: “Since this is happening in the bush and at night I don’t know how they operate with the police. What I know is that most of the times the cars that come to buy fuel are from Bulawayo.”
A villager who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation said fuel smugglers survive on paying bribes.
He said there is also a risk of being arrested in Botswana but Botswana security officials will make you pay a “fine” and allow the smuggler to take away the fuel.
He described the illicit trade as “a high risk high return business.”
He said while some security officials sometimes arrest fuel smugglers, others were also getting kickbacks to allow smuggling activities.
“The deals are always ongoing but it’s risky. If you want fuel, we can organise it for you. But you need containers and a transporter. One of the transporters has to be based in Botswana and will be the one to bring fuel at the border. On the fence, there are some guys who will receive the fuel and they will communicate with guys on this side to come and collect the fuel,” he said.
He said they can smuggle at least 1 400 litres of fuel at one go.
“You need 35 litre containers and we can push up to 40 containers at one go. The guys who will be operating in the bush are the ones who tell you when to come and collect the containers. However, police and soldiers will be operating on the ground, sometimes they take bribes but on other days they will just say we are arresting you and they confiscate your fuel and take it to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority at the Plumtree Border Post,” he said.
He said when an arrest has been made, Zimbabwean authorities impound the vehicle and demand that the smuggler pays duty for the smuggled petroleum.
The villager said some police officers who receive kickbacks visit local bars where they drink while in uniform, carrying service firearms.
When the news crew arrived at Nxele Business Centre there were groups of men who were milling around the shops and it was unclear what they were doing.
Two police officers, one of them armed with an AK-47, also arrived at the shops and within a few minutes they had ordered food while drinking beer.
About an hour later, a female Zimbabwe immigration department official also arrived at the shops and bought several beers.
A villager from Zimnyama village said fuel smuggling has become a source of living for most villagers.
“Most of the villagers in Nxele village are involved in fuel smuggling but you will have challenges accessing it. They no longer trust anyone. There are police officers, soldiers, neighbourhood watch all who are deployed to the ground. All these teams do not trust each other, although some of them are all involved in fuel smuggling,” he said.
National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said police have in the past arrested fuel smugglers along the Zimbabwe-Botswana border.
“To be quite clear we have always arrested people who smuggle fuel along the Plumtree Border Post. Some of them will be travelling in Toyota Granvia vehicles. In some of the instances, when these suspects see police approaching they leave their fuel containers and in some instances their cars,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.
He said police officers and other security services were not above the law and if they are found to be part of smuggling syndicates they will be arrested.
Asst Comm Nyathi said members of the public who know the police and security services members who are involved in smuggling should report them to authorities.
“On the issue of police officers who go to villages armed and also drinking, they will be arrested. We will investigate that. We are also going to arrest villagers who are involved in the smuggling of fuel. We are also going to arrest villagers who connive with police officers and security personnel. I want to assure you on that,” said Asst Comm Nyathi. — @nqotshili
Article Source: The Chronicle