Photos (Left): Three Chinamen implicated in the illegal possession of elephant tusks in Dar es Salaam. (Right): Tanzania Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Khamis Kagasheki inspects confiscated ivory at Mikocheni Dar esSalaam. (Internet Photos)

Is Setting Free Chinese Criminals an Option?

By Jaston Binala

A Chinese military official recently on duty in Tanzania was caught attempting to smuggle gemstones out of the country. The arrest of Zhong Lei on August 20, 2013 by the Tanzania Minerals Audit Agency (TMAA) as reported in the Tanzania Guardian newspaper came not as an isolated criminal activity by a Chinese national, but as one of several others.

Tanzania may be facing a difficult predicament on its relations with China, although actions taken so far suggest economic national security is slowly getting the upper hand to let foreign criminals know Tanzania is getting tough; maybe not tough enough, but getting tough, somehow.

Zhong Lei, the Chinese military contractor who was in the country building a military airfield somewhere was caught with an assortment of illegally possessed gemstones at the Julius Kambarage Nyerere International Airport August 20. He was about to catch a flight for China carrying 14.522 grammes of gemstones valued at USD 15,825.51 (Tsh 25,320,816/-).

TMAA ordered his arrest, but the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) intervened to stop the arrest. There had been considerations on China-Tanzania relations it seems, especially as pertains to military links. TPDF told TMAA Zhong Lei was their man.

The two government institutions then agreed in principle to save the image of the army by letting Zhong Lei fly out to China without facing the attempted smuggling charges. But they agreed gemstones be nationalized. The predicament here is in the choice Tanzania has to make when criminals are Chinese–a predicament similar to a man who discovers a close friend who has helped him for so many years is also helping him in another way, in the woods, sleeping with his wife.

Sting operations are going on around the country to avert mineral smuggling as well as poaching. In Zhong Lei, the events show non-Chinese suspects do not get the luxury the Chinese military official got; that of being set free. Joint operations involving the Tanzania Minerals Audit Agency (TMAA), Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services (TISS), the police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) have saved billions of shillings in recovered gemstones from foreigners attempting to smuggle them out of the country. Court cases have been filed.

Sting operations include those conducted at the Julius Kambarage Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) in Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro International Airports (KIA) where an assortment of gemstones valued at over Tsh. 1.6 billion/- have been saved from suspected smugglers, according to an investigation by The Guardian.

The Investigation, funded by Tanzania Media Fund (TMF), learned that on August 20 this years, officers from the TMAA headquarters in Dar es Salaam, along with officers from TISS, the CID department at Kawe Police Station in Kinondoni District as well as officers from the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) ambushed a house at Jangwani Beach and found one British national named Robert Twist in the alleged illegal possession of a wide assortment of gemstones.

His possession of the gemstone allegedly contravened Section 18(2) of the 2010 Minerals Act. A TMAA official said this catch was the result of TMAA-CID co-operation. The police contacted TMAA one day earlier to say they had searched Robert Twist and had found him in possession of various types of gemstones. The police needed another search with experts this time for verification and valuation.

The second search was conducted in the presence of officers from TMAA, TISS, and the TPDF. The minerals found were listed in the presence of the suspect, other witnesses, the and the suspect’s lawyer. TMAA determined the minerals to be of 81,494.85 grams valued at $680,256.29 (Tsh. 1,088,410,064/-). On September 4, the police submitted to TMAA another parcel of gemstones taken by the police during the first search at the suspect’s home. This other lot contained gemstones with 1,111.90 grams worth $156,248.97 (Tsh. 249,998,400).

An illegal possession of gemstones case has been filed in court under case file CD/IR/3140/2013 according to TMAA, although the suspect is out on bail. An Asian national was caught on October 22 this year, attempting to smuggle through KIA, a packet of Tanzanite worth USD 123,000 (Tsh. 200,000/-). A case has been files in the District Magistrates Court at Hai, in Kilimanjaro region. The Chinese suspect is free.

Tanzania now await the fate of three Chinese nationals caught in Dar es Slaam in possession of elephants tusks and therefore linked to poaching. The 706 pieces of ivory found at their house, represents more than 200 elephants killed in the country’s national parks and game reserves. The Chinamen trading in ivory were found hiding the elephant tusks at a Mikocheni house in Dar es Salam.

Hidden in sacks and boxes as shells of snails mixed with garlic, the ivory was hidden in a manner that needed informed intelligence to uncover because it was possible to fool any suspicious minds sniffing about the ivory. Even the minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Khamis Kagasheki, and police officers at the scene were stunned by the ingenuity of the Chinese residents at the ivory hide-out house in Dar es Salaam.

Three Chinese nationals were implicated in this criminal activity: these were, Che Jinzhan, Xu Fujie and Huang Qin, who were said to use a special Noah microbus with registration number T713 BXG to transport the ivory pieces from the elephant killing fields to the house.

The Chinese angle to elephant killings in Tanzania took an even more sombre look November 14 this year, when a container with more than 1000 pieces of ivory was intercepted in Zanzibar enroute to China. The Government newspaper, Daily News, speculated this container load may be linked to three Chines criminals in Dar es Salaam: Che Jinzhan, Xu Fujie and Huang Qin.

In a related event in October, Hong Kong authorities confiscated $26.7 million worth of ivory found in two shipping containers. The authorities seized a total of 1,209 pieces of ivory tusks and three pounds of ivory ornaments arriving there in containers from Kenya and Tanzania.

Hong Kong Customs were on alert after a tip-off from Guangdong officials in China. On October 16, Hong Kong officers inspected a container from Tanzania claiming to carry plastic scrap and found $13.5 million worth of ivory. A day later, a second container from Kenya was seized with ivory valued at $13.2 million, according to Hong Kong Customs.

Seven people, including one Hong Kong resident, have been arrested by Chinese authorities in connection to the cases, according to a customs spokeswoman there.

The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visited Tanzania earlier in 2013. During this visit, President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete is reported to have made an important statement then. When asked whether China is pursuing a neo-colonial policy in Africa, President Jakaya Kikwete said: Africa needs a market for its products. Africa needs technology for its development. China is ready to provide all that. “What is wrong with that?”

Events on the ground suggest there could be something wrong in the China-Tanzania relations. Yes, China and Tanzania have enjoyed a long and friendly relationship during the past decades. One notable highpoint being the 1800-kilometer-long Tanzania-to-Zambia Railway, which was built with the help of China.

Tanzania took the socialist path shortly after obtaining independence in the 1960s. Back then, socialist China was trying hard to re-enter the UN. The newly independent Zambia was in the meantime having a hard time exporting bronze from its mines. China decided to help build the 1800 kilometer-long Tanzania-Zambia Railway in the 1970s, so that Zambia could export bronze through Tanzania. But this gesture came at a hefty price according to the Chinese national television station CCTV. Over 64 Chinese workers paid with their lives. In 1971, China was finally re-admitted to the UN. Among the African countries that supported this motion, Tanzania played an active role. Today, the two countries’ still maintain close ties.

And yes, of the five East African Community member states, Tanzania continues to attract the most Chinese investment, with 3 billion US dollars flowing into its mining sector in 2011, with their co-operation covering a wide range of areas in the arenas political, economic and military. Tanzania has taken 25% of the Chinese investments in Africa so far.

 But there is an ugly side to this flowery China- Tanzania relationship which may be calling for answers.