Obama fundraiser digs for Zimbabwe business deals

A major Chicago fundraiser for United States President Barack Obama has been schmoozing senior Zanu-PF figures, including President Robert Mugabe, in the hope of winning business deals from the Zimbabwe government.

In return, amaBhungane understands, senior Zimbabwean security force members have been looking to the fundraiser, real-estate tycoon Elzie Higginbottom, to help the country to wriggle off the hook of targeted US sanctions.

Internal Zanu-PF documents seen by amaBhungane suggest that the Zimbabwean military was keen to enter into negotiations with Higginbottom to form a joint-venture diamond mining company in 2011.

Higginbottom's vast property portfolio has been “conservatively" valued at $200-million by the Chicago Tribune. Campaign finance records indicate that he and his wife contributed $400 000 to Obama's campaign war chest between 2008 and 2012 and donated generously to both Obama inaugurations.

Higginbottom's largesse has catapulted him into a super-category of party political funders in the US popularly referred to as “bundlers" (see “Support in bundles").

Zimbabwe security forces apparently saw the participation of Americans in the Chiadzwa diamond fields near Marange as key to avoiding further action by a “hostile" US government to restrict the Zimbabwe diamond trade.

The security forces also hoped that a delegation of Chicago businessmen led by Higginbottom would lean on key members of the Obama administration to reverse, or ease, US sanctions against senior Zanu-PF figures.

The sanctions, administered by the US treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (Ofac), prohibit US citizens from engaging in “any transactions with any person, entity or organisation" on a list of “specially designated nationals".

Mugabe meeting
Senior Zanu-PF figures on the list that Higginbottom is known to have met since 2011 include President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF chairman Simon Khaya Moyo.

Although no evidence has come to light that Higginbottom has sealed business deals with Mugabe or Moyo directly, he is skating on thin ice.

Ofac broadly prohibits “exports [direct and indirect], imports [direct and indirect], trade brokering, financing and facilitation, as well as most financial transactions".

“Attempts to evade or avoid these sanctions are also prohibited," it states.

Higginbottom confirmed this week that his company had “been seeking business opportunities in Zimbabwe for several years". 

“Our agenda has consistently and solely been related to business. We have no political agenda," he said.

But documented attempts by Higginbottom's team to negotiate a diamond-mining joint venture with a business team from the Zimbabwe ministry of defence rings alarm bells. Evidence gathered by civil rights groups and journalists in recent years suggests that the military has perpetrated human rights abuses in the Marange diamond fields, and that senior military figures have imposed themselves as silent shareholders in diamond mining companies.

Concerns have been raised – most recently in a damning report by both Zanu-PF and Movement for Democratic Change MPs on the parliamentary portfolio committee on mines and energy – that these diamond companies remit only a fraction of their revenue as taxes to the government.

Parallel state
There are suspicions that diamond revenue is being used to fund a parallel state presided over by securocrats and anti-reformers, and possibly to finance another violent Zanu-PF election campaign ahead of general elections planned for this year.

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director McDonald Lewanika told amaBhungane that “the money from diamonds is being turned into black money to serve dark political purposes".

Higginbottom distanced himself from diamonds this week: “We are no longer pursuing any diamond interests," he said. “The Zimbabwe state diamond entities engaged in the diamond trade are sanctioned and thus we have eliminated this area from our potential ventures. We are and will remain in full compliance with US policy and laws."

However, a source said Higginbottom still retained the services of a geologist in Zimbabwe, but Higginbottom said “our geologist is looking into other possibilities".

Another source connected with military leaders in Zimbabwe said: “I have been told that they [Higginbottom] were also interested in exploring the recently discovered diamonds in the Bikita area, near Devure in Masvingo Province. They made it clear that they were not interested in politics, but that they were remaining behind while the Chinese and Russians were moving forward."

Higginbottom was exploring a wide range of other business opportunities in Zimbabwe in 2011, including agriculture, tourism and real estate.

“I would be very surprised if someone like Higginbottom, with the kind of money he has and the ambitious investments he proposes, can be in Zimbabwe for three or four years without having to transact with senior Zanu-PF government, security and intelligence officials subject to sanctions," said a long-time security and intelligence source working for the Movement for Democratic Change.

US reaction
A spokesperson for the US embassy in Harare, Sharon Hudson-Dean, declined to comment on Higginbottom's business interests in Zimbabwe, but said: “Compliance with US laws is non-negotiable for anyone engaging in or investing in any business covered by those laws."

Moyo said that he could not comment on Higginbottom's activities in Zimbabwe as the party's primary election results were about to be released and “I do not want to be diverted at all".

Multiple sources in Zimbabwe have confirmed that Higginbottom actively continues to pursue business opportunities, and that the government is keen to do business with him.

Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi said: “We have a 1 200ha park in Victoria Falls which is open to investors and, since Higginbottom is a property mogul, I am sure if we packaged it properly, they would be very interested. We have also had discussions with him about starting an airline. But they are just discussions."

Higginbottom's business dealings with Zimbabwe have been inextricably entwined with politics from the beginning, and he has associated himself with the major thawing of US-Zimbabwe relations this year.

He first met Mugabe on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly in New York in 2011, and sponsored a Doing Business in Zimbabwe Day in Washington, DC.

He then led a delegation of Chicago businesspeople to Zimbabwe in November 2011, where he met Mugabe again.

Disgraced former US congressman Mel Reynolds, who assumed the mantle of Higginbottom's spokesperson during that trip, told Zimbabwe state media that “mining, housing, insurance, farming, banking, medical and other" deals were under discussion.

In a wide-ranging interview with the state-owned Sunday Mail, Reynolds praised Mugabe as “one of the last lions of Africa that brought freedom to the people of this great continent".

He concluded with a statement: “I personally believe that sanctions should have never been imposed in the first place. I also believe that Zimbabwe can move forward despite sanctions."

Reynolds's position was also noted by Zimbabwean security forces in internal documents seen by the M&G.

Higginbottom distanced himself from the claims attributed to him in Zimbabwe in November 2011, saying that they were made in his name without his approval.

“We can assume no responsibility for comments he [Reynolds] made in Zimbabwe or elsewhere about his political/professional affiliations. Nor did we approve any representations he may have made about our objectives that were not true," said Higginbottom.

Reynolds could not be reached for comment.

Attempted mediation
Higginbottom also accompanied civil rights activist Jesse Louis Jackson on a quasi-diplomatic visit to Zimbabwe in May this year, following the state department-sponsored visit to the country by former US ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, in April.

Jackson hosted a breakfast meeting at the high-end Meikles hotel in Harare to discuss mediating in the land-compensation dispute between the Zimbabwe government and the Commercial Farmers Union.

The union's president, Charles Taffs, confirmed being introduced to Higginbottom at the meeting and recalled being keenly questioned by him about “investment protection and property rights".

Taffs said he knew nothing about Higginbottom's planned forays into the Zimbabwean farming, tourism and real-estate sectors, but commented: “We welcome equal partnerships coming in to attract foreign investment, but want a situation where the rule of law, property rights and human rights are respected. 

“If there are investments coming in through the back door for personal gain, that's not a solution, that's just going to prolong the agony of this country."


Support in bundles

There are limits to how much money a single person can directly contribute to federal political candidates in the United States, but there is no limit on how much people can “bundle", said Michael Beckel, a reporter who monitors bundling for the US Centre for Public Integrity,

“‘Bundling' is the term given to the process of asking friends, relatives or business associates to make a contribution to a candidate," said Beckel.

“The bottom line is this: Bundlers are elite fundraisers. They can enjoy access to policy makers and decision makers that ordinary citizens do not have. 

“They can have the ear of a candidate, or the ear of the president. And having the ear of the president can be a powerful thing." – Lionel Faull


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Lionel Faull
Lionel Faull
Lionel is a reporter at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, Amabhungane.

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