Mine workers leave a diamond mine in Marange, in eastern Zimbabwe. (Picture: Reuters)

In an astonishing confession, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has revealed that diamonds worth more than $15 billion have been looted in the eastern mining area of Marange.

Speaking in a belated 92nd birthday interview on state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday night, Mugabe said the state treasury received less than $2 billion. Mines Minister Walter Chidhakwa has previously stated that the amount which reached the public purse was $600 million.

In frank remarks that have stunned Zimbabweans, Mugabe also revealed that the country has failed to learn from neighbouring Botswana, Namibia and Angola on how to manage the diamond sector.

He spoke glowingly of Botswana President Ian Khama, saying he has fared much better than Zimbabwe in ensuring that diamond income contributed to socio-economic development. Mugabe has a testy relationship with Khama, who accuses the Zimbabwean strongman of violating human rights and rigging elections. Such praise is rare.

“We have not received much from the diamond industry at all. I don’t think we have exceeded $2 billion yet we think more than $15 billion has been earned,” Mugabe said. Last year, Mugabe’s government sent a team of technocrats to Botswana to learn international best practice on diamond mining, but analysts said the move was coming too late.

Diamonds have been mined in eastern Zimbabwe since 2006. In 2011, government officials announced that the country had vast gemstone deposits which would account for 25 percent of world rough-diamond supply.

In 2013, the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) projected that the Marange fields would produce 16,9 million carats, making the project “the single largest in the world in terms of carats produced annually”. The country stood to earn upwards of US$2 billion per year, government officials claimed, and yet in 2012 the then Finance Minister Tendai Biti complained that only a measly US$19 million reached the state treasury.

The Zimbabwean leader defended last week’s dramatic eviction of nine diamond-mining companies from the Marange area, including Chinese firms Anjin and Jinan. “The state will now own all the diamonds, to cut and polish,” he added.

When asked whether the eviction of the Chinese companies was straining bilateral relations with Beijing, Mugabe said he foresaw no problem. “I don’t think it has affected our relations at all,” Mugabe said, adding that China has many firms operating in Zimbabwe, therefore relations cannot be defined by one or two firms.

One of the evicted firms, Anjin Investments—a joint venture between the government-run ZMDC and China’s Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group—boasted in 2011 that it had become the largest producer of rough diamonds on the planet. Four years down the line, Anjin’s real production statistics are shrouded in secrecy.

The government’s auditor-general Margaret Chiri reported last year that all the diamond companies were now bankrupt, a revelation which jolted the government to take action. The eviction of the diamond companies came a month after the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, John Mangudya, complained about the non-transparent operations of the firms.

Mangudya, lamenting the difficulties faced by the government in funding this year’s $4 billion national budget, said the authorities did not know the gem production volumes or what was being exported.

Minister Chidhakwa said the government has now formed the Zimbabwe Diamond Consolidated Company to exclusively mine the Marange area.