Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe failed to attend a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that is investigating his claim that $15 billion of the country’s diamond wealth is missing.
Temba Mliswa, the Zimbabwean lawmaker leading the inquiry, tweeted later on Wednesday that, “We’ve considered that 9 a.m. may be rather early for Mr. Mugabe to appear,” adding that the investigatory body had written to the former leader asking him to appear on May 28 at 2 p.m. instead.
Mugabe’s appearance in front of lawmakers has been postponed multiple times, and would mark his first public appearance since losing power in a coup in November last year. His then-deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa has since become president of Zimbabwe. Mugabe, 94, is understood to be in frail health.
“This isn’t a witch hunt or to seek to cause embarrassment,” Mlisawa wrote. He described the summons as a “quest for answers,” adding that “We remain respectful whilst we exhaust all options.”
The inquiry reflects a claim made by Mugabe in 2016 that Zimbabwe has lost $15 billion in diamond revenue. Mugabe blamed corruption and foreign involvement for this. But, he has since dismissed the figure as “urban legend.”
In March 2016, Mugabe announced that the Zimbabwean state would take control of all diamond operations in the country. “Companies that have been mining diamonds have robbed us of our wealth. That is why we have now said the state must have a monopoly,” Mugabe said at the time, as reported by Reuters.
The investigation is part of Mnangagwa’s broader political strategy, Charles Laurie, director and head of politics at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC via email.
“Mnangagwa’s efforts to reign in off-the-books practices are another strong signal to Western governments that he is serious about engendering a credible and plausible investment environment,” Laurie said. “The move is also a risk-free political objective supported by all Zimbabweans and international observers, a no-brainer populist strategy in the run-up to the election.”
Laurie also noted that Mnangagwa stood to gain should Mugabe’s authority be further discredited. This important for the current president, “who wants to snuff out lingering claims by Mugabe that he was removed from power improperly.”
Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields, located in the east of the country, are thought to be among the biggest reserves in the world. But their discovery has served as a poisoned chalice for the nation.
In 2006, upwards of 20,000 illegal diamond diggers descended on the Marange fields. Reports have since surfaced of atrocities committed by the army and police in their crackdown on the smuggling.
Ahead of elections expected in July or August of this year, Mugabe has backed a splinter group of his original ZANU PF party. The New Patriotic Front was formed in March, and represents lawmakers and voters “outraged by the unconstitutional and humiliating manner in which President Mugabe was criminally ousted from leadership.”
Mnangagwa’s tenure so far has been characterized by his promotion of a pro-business agenda in an attempt to resurrect Zimbabwe’s basket case economy.
Following months of speculation, it was announced earlier this week that Zimbabwe had applied to rejoin the Commonwealth, a 53-nation bloc comprising of the U.K. and its former colonies. Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the group in 2003 in a row over sanctions.
At the ZANU PF manifesto launch on May 4, Mnangagwa said that Zimbabwe had secured $11 billion in investment commitments. “We need FDI (foreign direct investment) to catapult our economy. We will continue to create a conducive environment for investors in our country,” he said.