By Chrispin Inambao
A Chinese ship carrying bullets and mortar bombs reportedly worth US$200 million procured by Zimbabwe has changed course and is now headed home after several African ports heeded calls to bar it from off-loading its cargo.
Though the ship, An Yue Jiang, faced a withering verbal attack on all fronts from human rights groups and from unionists, the local public interest law firm the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) marshalled the Namibian side of the attack. Placard-wielding protesters marched to the Chinese Embassy yesterday to vent their rage.
The Political Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Windhoek, Lin Jing, said the Chinese government is aware of the ‘sensitive’ political situation in Zimbabwe where many believe the opposition MDC might have ‘won’ recent elections but where uncertainty still reigns.
The shipment, in light of delays to release the results from the heavily contested poll, had triggered alarm among rights groups, trade unionists, religious leaders and diplomats.
And it has most probably caused a rift among SADC countries, split between a potent pro-Robert Mugabe faction and another fearlessly opposed to the Zimbabwean leader.
Lin, the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Windhoek yesterday told New Era that, “the latest information is that the company that made a deal with Zimbabwe has confirmed that this batch of cargo is not going to be off-loaded in any African country and during this voyage, the cargo will not be handed over to Zimbabwe.”
Lin echoed Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu’s sentiments. Jiang was quoted as having said COSCO, the shipping company, was contracted to deliver the controversial cargo to Zimbabwe “which is part of the normal arms trade between China and Zimbabwe”.
Lin said the ship and its armament is already on its way to China. He ruled out the possibility of his country using air to transport the arms to Zimbabwe though he hinted Harare might have to pay for costs incurred by COSCO. He could not give specifics.
He trashed reports suggesting Harare will try to circumvent current restrictions on its procurement by using air transport saying these are merely “rumours” and “lies”.
“The relevant contract was signed last year and has nothing to do with the latest developments inside Zimbabwe. Since the Zimbabwe side could not receive the goods as scheduled, COSCO could not unload at Durban Port and is considering shipping back the goods,” Jiang was quoted as having said at a media briefing in Beijing this week.
Lin said “I know that the Namibia public, especially media, has paid a lot of attention to the issue of the ship and to the situation in Zimbabwe and because we have very friendly relations with Zimbabwe and we have been following the situation in Zimbabwe very closely,” said Lin.
“We are very concerned about the situation there. We are hoping that all the parties can make efforts so as to avoid a further deterioration of the situation,” he said, adding, “We really appreciate the efforts made by countries in the southern African region to mediate, to bring about peace in Zimbabwe. And we are following the situation very closely.”
China is well aware of the volatile situation unfolding in Zimbabwe but Lin explained that at the time the Chinese arms deal was sealed last year, things were still “okay”.
“When the deal was made in 2007, there was nothing wrong in Zimbabwe,” he explained.
Lin also brushed aside suggestions from certain sections of the media implying the order was made explicitly with the aim to violently crush Mugabe’s opponents.
He said this is impossible, as a ship needs 45 days or even more to sail from China to African shores.
Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, told The Herald newspaper that Zimbabwe had a right to arm itself and defend its territorial integrity. He dismissed suggestions that the military would want to use the arms against civilians particularly the opposition.
Lin suggested all arms exports to African countries should also receive similar attention. He said China only accounted for a mere 2 percent of arms being sold globally.
Citing statistics compiled by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute last year, the US ranked number one, the UK number six and China number 10 after Sweden.
During the past few days, Lin has briefed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and State House on China’s position. He also phoned Norman Tjombe, the LAC Director, whom he tried to persuade to cancel the protest march. Tjombe all the same went ahead with the march.