Construction of Chinese-built Zim defence college under scrutiny

Government's public works ministry engineers were kicked off the site of the recently launched Zimbabwe National Defence College after they raised concerns about perceived poor workmanship on the buildings.

Four ministry of public works engineers who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity confirmed they were forced off the property by Chinese contractors and army soldiers during a routine inspection in July after raising concerns about structural defects.

The college was built by Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group at a cost of about $100-million. The money to build the college was a loan the Zimbabwe government sourced from the Chinese government. 

Government sources privy to the loan agreement said, as part of the loan conditions, Zimbabwe agreed that the college would be built using Chinese contractors.

A senior inspector in the ministry told the M&G that the problems they discovered related to the design of the buildings, the quality and quantity of material used and issues to do with the foundation. He said the buildings "told a story of a hurried job".

The defence college, situated along Harare's Mazowe Street, was opened by President Robert Mugabe in September. He told journalists the college was designed to improve the country's intelligence, security and defence systems, and said expert military training for the college was going to be sourced from Pakistan and China.

The complex was completed in two years and comprises lecture rooms, student and lecturer accommodation, a gymnasium and sports fields.

Construction of public buildings is supervised by the ministry of public works, which usually outsources private engineers to sign off buildings as they reach specific stages.

Public Works Minister Joel Gabuza was not available for comment.

Chinese contractors
A source in the public works ministry said their Chinese counterparts "are too powerful to control as they seem to have a network of powerful political connections".

As part of the unity government agreement, public works is headed by the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change.

One ministry engineer who was part of the team working on the site last year said the contractors at the college were "very argumentative and confrontational engineers who wouldn't take advice on anything". He said they were "reminded" that the college was a "high security zone" before being asked to leave.

"Procedures were flouted on the building of the defence college," said another engineer who was part of the public ministry team. "It's unprecedented that engineers engaged by the ministry of public works are chased off a site for raising problems to do with professional compliance."

Ben Rafemoyo of the Engineering Council of Zimbabwe told the M&G it is a requirement that foreign nationals working on public projects be registered with his council, and be issued with "temporary practising certificates". He said work permits, as opposed to practising certificates, are issued by the department of immigration, and there may be cases in which some of the engineers are not referred to them for registration  after being granted work permits. 

An Engineering Council member alleged that the council did not register any of the engineers who worked on the college as required under the Engineering Council Act. 

"Our counterparts from Eastern countries are operating above the law because they say they are part of government-to-government agreements," Rafemoyo said.

"It's possible there could be people practising without certificates," he said, but added his organisation was "yet to receive complaints about poor workmanship" by Chinese engineers on public sites.

The Engineering Council of Zimbabwe is a professional body of engineers set up to register engineers and ensure compliance with best engineering practices in the country.

The ministry engineers said similar defects were noted in the building of the National Sports Stadium in the 1980s, leading to, they say, the cracks and frequent repair work always being carried out on the stadium.

Enrolment at the college is only open to members of the Zimbabwe National Army who hold the rank of colonel or group captain and above, or those with similar rank in the police, intelligence or prison services. The college also accepts students from the armies in the Southern African Development Community.

Shopping mall and hotel project
Meanwhile, the construction of a $200-million shopping mall and a 300-room, five-star hotel project by the Chinese in Harare's Belvedere suburb is meeting stiff resistance from the Environmental Management Agency, which argues that it will create serious ecological problems because it is being built on a wetland. A leading environmentalist who spoke to the M&G said the project is an ecological disaster for Harare as it "threatens the city's future water supplies".

The Environmental Management Agency is a statutory body established to ensure sustainable utilisation and protection of the environment.

The mall is being built by the same company that built the defence college. The mall will comprise retail shops and a Chinese-style amusement park, parking and accommodation.

The hotel project, reportedly being built at a cost of  $150-million, will begin next month.

Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group officials were not available to respond to the environmental agency's concern that they are building on a wetland.

Mugabe toured the mall in September and spoke about the country's close "friendship and ties" with China. He said the mall was "a real contribution to development".

The chairperson of the construction group, Jiang Qingde, said the project is "a monument of Sino-Zimbabwe corporation", but the environmental agency insists the project is problematic.

"The environmental impact assessment of the project was done in retrospect," said the agency's communications officer Steady Kangata. 

He said local authorities were treating environmental concerns "as peripheral issues, and we are saying no to that".

Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chairman Karikoga Kaseke weighed in on the controversial mall and hotel buildings, saying the projects "met all environmental requirements" and that the outcry was driven by "personal hatred of the Chinese by certain sections of society".

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