Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Plunder for Profit:  The ‘tobacco Mafia’ and the twenty first century new tobacco epidemic

Elijah Doro

Plunder for Profit by Elijah Doro

In March and April 2023, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit released a documentary series on gold smuggling, money laundering, corruption, and organised crime in Zimbabwe. The documentary implicated the Zimbabwean President, his family, the central bank, state diplomatic officials, customs officials and a ring of notorious smugglers and fraudsters in a multibillion-dollar transnational money laundering and gold smuggling scandal. The exposé prompted public outrage and revealed the riotous extent to which state entities were captured by shadowy networks, corrupt businessmen and international criminals who were looting and pillaging the state with reckless impunity, bankrupting both political accountability and the national fiscus. An interesting revelation contained in the explosive documentary was the allegations that one of the top tobacco companies in the country, Gold Leaf Tobacco, was (through its owner Simon Rudland) connected to this criminal network, and actively involved in illicit financial transactions, tax evasion, money laundering, cigarette smuggling and extensive bribery. The Gold Leaf Tobacco saga illuminated the insidious and pervasive nature of the tobacco epidemic in the country as transcending realms of public health to pose existential threats to arenas of good governance, national security, political accountability, economic sustainability, and corrupting the criminal justice system. The global epidemic of tobacco related diseases killed 100 million people in the last century and estimates suggest it could kill one billion people this century. Yet, these figures — colossal as they are — only reflect a fraction of the total cost of the tobacco production value chain to ecologies, ecosystems, landscapes, livelihoods, social potential, political accountability, governance and sustainable development.

Plunder for Profit holistically engages with the historical profligacy of the tobacco production value chain and the political economy of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe within a historiographical framework that links tobacco culture to colonial systems, contemporary politics, and global capitalism. The book critiques the hegemonic and triumphalist ‘golden leaf’ narratives that celebrate the historic and contemporary role of the commodity in sustainable national development. The tobacco production and consumption cultures are etched in global histories of colonial occupation, labour exploitation, slavery, plunder of natural resources, state capitalism, cooperate multinationalism and integrated markets. This structural infrastructure and edifice connect the tobacco industry to institutional centres of power and enable it to subvert accountability and regulations. Many decades after the establishment of medical and scientific consensus that tobacco use is harmful to health, the industry still thrives and has opened new markets and production centres in the third world.

Yet, the 21st century tobacco epidemic is much more than just a public health threat, it is a political epidemic that erodes good governance, corrupts institutions of state power, weakens accountability, empowers, and enriches a clique of tobacco merchants, manufacturers, top state officials and their sidekicks who receive hefty bonuses from the proceeds of plunder. The tentacles of this ‘tobacco mafia’ and its predatory footprint pervade Zimbabwe´s political and economic landscape. Tobacco production and marketing is run almost entirely by private tobacco contracting companies and tobacco revenue is essential for the political survival of the ruling regime that is facing an economic embargo, international isolation and political pressures from civil society and the disgruntled populace. Tobacco cash has oiled the repressive machinery of the ruling regime and political donations from tobacco companies have buoyed the political fortunes of the incumbent government for the last twenty years or so. In September 2021, British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the biggest tobacco contracting companies in the country, was alleged by an investigative BBC documentary to have donated US$ 500,000 dirty money as a political bribe to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Unity Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party during the disputed 2013 election campaigns. In 2015, the same company availed US$ 527,000 towards a ‘youth empowerment fund’ under the auspices of the ruling party. Other top tobacco companies in the country Savannah tobacco and Masters International controlled by husband to former and late President Mugabe´s niece Adam Molai and top ruling party political connect the late John Bredenkamp have been respectively fingered in illicit cigarette smuggling to South Africa involving millions of dollars. The proceeds from the criminal enterprise are believed to have been channelled into prebends to fund the political machinery of the ruling regime in Zimbabwe.

The nexus involving tobacco cooperations, smuggling, corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, political donations and illicit activities constitutes an expanding frontier of the new tobacco epidemic in Africa and the third world. Lax government regulations and weak institutions of governance and accountability compound the vulnerability and precarity of citizens to the political and economic grip of the tobacco industry that has taken over agro-business and has substantial political influence. The public relations stunts and green washing machinations used by the industry such as social responsibility, ‘eco-friendly’ afforestation projects and anti-smoking campaigns have been useful smokescreens and trojan horses to expand profits and extend the frontiers of the epidemic and the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, death, and political dysfunctionality. Consequently, over the years the tobacco control movement has not had much traction in addressing the many facets of the tobacco epidemic such as deforestation, child labour, illicit cigarettes’ trade and smoking related diseases. The book is motivated by concerns over the socio-environmental crisis inherent in the tobacco production and consumption culture and my own personal experiences of this while growing up in a tobacco farming community. I want to contribute to the tobacco control initiative through a historical approach. Most tobacco control narratives are scientific and economics-based approaches located in contemporary tobacco production and consumption dynamics. However, these do not sufficiently provide context to the enduring historical, institutional, and systemic parameters that inform the ‘epidemic culture’. A transdisciplinary perspective that integrates scientific processes of enquiry and historical methods could offer transformative pathways towards revolutionary and proactive tobacco control research and intervention discourses that could halt the tobacco epidemic during this century.

About The Author

Elijah Doro

Elijah Doro is a research fellow at the University of Agder and an environmental historian with an interest in southern Africa. His research on agrarian and environmental histories...

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