VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe (AP) — The Zimbabwe Diamond Conference, which wound up here Wednesday, was sponsored by President Robert Mugabe's government to highlight its emergence as a major player in the world diamond trade.
The conference was held to "shed light" on Zimbabwe's diamond mining and to allay widely-held concerns of corruption and looting of the gems, said organizers.
But the conference raised more questions than answers.
Delegates spoke of the amazing potential Zimbabwe has as a diamond producer. Zimbabwe allegedly has the capacity to produce between 110 million to 160 million carats of diamonds annually, making it one of the top five diamond producers by volume in the world.
But where the diamond money is going is not clear. The Mugabe government seemed unconcerned about providing clarity on how much is mined or earned at the country's eastern Marange diamond fields. Mines Minister Obert Mpofu dismissed calls for transparency.
"How then are you expected to be transparent when there are hyenas chasing you?" said Mpofu to conference delegates, referring to diamond watchdog groups. "They want to know what car you drive, which house you are living in and what plane you are flying."
Mpofu was named as having amassed "unexplained wealth" from illegal diamond deals, in a report released at the start of the conference by a Canadian group campaigning against conflict diamonds, Partnership Africa Canada. The report described Mpofu as "the chief guardian of Marange" because of his role in awarding "opaque" concessions beyond the scrutiny of government ministers and the public.
Mpofu denied the accusations and dismissed the report as being funded by the Canadian government to "vilify and lie" about Zimbabwe.
"You think Africans can believe that nonsense? We are very emotional about it and we have suffered enough," Mpofu said.
At least $2 billion from diamond sales was allegedly stolen from the Marange diamond fields and enriched President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party loyalists and military hierarchy, the report said.
The funds from diamond sales could have turned around the country's embattled economy, but they have not shown up in the national coffers.
After years of political and economic meltdown, Zimbabwe's health and education services remain broke.
Finance Minister Biti said in his budget speech he had been promised $600 million from diamond sales but the head of state-run Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, Goodwills Masimirembwa said that figure had to be revised downwards to $150 million due to poor performance of diamond sales affected by Western sanctions.
While Zimbabwe's entire budget for education for 2012 was $8 million, Mugabe's party is constructing a $6 million conference hall in the provincial city of Gweru for its annual convention in December.
Education Minister David Coltart criticizes the government's spending. Coltart said last week that the number of children dropping out of school has risen by 10 percent because of increased school fees. Coltart said his ministry must rely on the goodwill of donors to assist in its programs.
He accused Mugabe's party of having misplaced priorities.
"We have a warped system in Zimbabwe, a history of misplaced priorities; this hall in Gweru and the military college constructed for $100 million," Coltart said.
"If that money had been channeled toward the rehabilitation of schools, then we would have improved the learning institutions."
Zimbabwe received a $98 million loan from China to build a sprawling military training college. China wants the loan repaid over 13 years from proceeds from the Marange diamond fields.
However, the Mugabe government complains that sanctions by Europe, Australia and the U.S. are "denying the people of Zimbabwe a chance to benefit from diamond sales."
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki told Zimbabwe that it must ensure the "greatest possible transparency" in the mining and sales of its diamonds and guard the diamond industry against "a predatory elite which uses its access to state power to enrich itself, against the interests of the people as a whole, acting in collusion with the mining companies."
Mbeki said the country's political leadership "owes a sacred obligation to the peoples of Zimbabwe to ensure that the country's diamonds serve as the people's best friend."
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- President Robert Mugabe