US-Africa summit invites Zimbabwe in from the cold

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: US – Africa: Evolving relations

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 19 September 2022 16:50, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:23

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends the swearing-in ceremony for Kenya's new president William Ruto, at Kasarani stadium in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

The Joe Biden administration will use its upcoming Africa summit to try to chart a new path forward with Zimbabwe after almost two decades of sanctions against the late President Robert Mugabe and his successor.

The US government sent out formal invitations for its 13 – 15 December US-Africa Leaders Summit this past week. Only governments that don’t have diplomatic relations with the US (Eritrea, Western Sahara) or have been suspended by the African Union (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan) weren’t invited.

In a marked departure from President Barack Obama’s original 2014 summit, the Biden team asked the government of Zimbabwe to join as the US presses President Emmerson Mnangagwa to abandon the authoritarian ways of his predecessor. The invitation however went to Foreign Minister Frederick Shava, as Mnangagwa remains under US sanctions, accused of undermining democratic processes in the country.

Biden’s goal, a National Security Council spokesperson says, is to host a “broadly inclusive summit.”

“There are countries across the continent [which] […] struggle and are challenged on the democracy and governance side,” Dana Banks, the White House point person for the summit, tells The Africa Report. “But it’s important to have those conversations, right? You have to be able to talk about your concerns … That is the mature engagement that we are seeking with our African partners.”

The admin should … carefully consider who is invited to the US-Africa Summit

Zimbabwe’s government welcomed the invitation as a chance to repair ties with Washington.

“We are in continuous re-engagement with the United States and any other Western country,” Livit Mugejo, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs and international trade, tells The Africa Report. “Hence, the invitation for the minister to attend the [US-Africa] summit provides another opportunity for the government to continue with its re-engagement efforts.”

Some Zimbabwe critics in Congress however aren’t pleased.

“The admin should … carefully consider who is invited to the US-Africa Summit,” the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, said on Twitter on 15 September. “If the admin insists it must invite a gov’t representative from Zimbabwe, it should look for someone who has a less abysmal human rights, corruption, and democracy record than the foreign minister.”

Confidence building

Ahead of the summit, the US Treasury Department lifted sanctions last week on 11 Zimbabwean officials while adding deputy police commissioner for administration Stephen Mutamba for his alleged role in “undermining Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions”.

“Over the past two years, Mutamba has organised a host of actions that threaten and undermine legitimate political parties and others who oppose the policies of the Government of Zimbabwe or the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front [ZANU-PF] party,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. ”It is vital that the Government of Zimbabwe allow full participation across the political spectrum.”

Risch suggested the timing of the sanctions removal was meant to placate South Africa, stating on Twitter that it was “no coincidence” that the Treasury Department updated its sanctions list on the eve of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 16 September visit to the White House.

“While adding Stephen Mutamba is good, many key officials responsible for undermining Zim[babwe]’s democracy remain missing,” Risch said on Twitter. “Biden should use his meeting with Cyril Ramaphosa to urge the gov[ernment] of South Africa to end its blatant misinformation about US sanctions and use its regional leadership to support democratic reforms in Zimbabwe.”

South Africa has been lobbying for Zimbabwe to be invited to the summit, according to congressional sources. During their meeting, Ramaphosa also reportedly pressed Biden to lift sanctions.

[11 delisted individuals] are either deceased or have been deemed to no longer undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions

“Meeting with President Biden, President Ramaphosa raised the issue of sanctions on Zimbabwe,” Peter Ndoro, a journalist with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), said on Twitter. “He explained to President Biden that Zim[babwe] sanctions affect other countries in the region as economic migrants are forced to leave Zimbabwe in their droves to seek economic opportunities.”

Washington has long countered that Zimbabwe’s corruption, not sanctions, is the root cause of the country’s dismal economic record.

Price however described the update as a regular periodical review and said the 11 delisted individuals “are either deceased or have been deemed to no longer undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions”. They include the late generals Perrance Shiri and Paradzai Zimondi, who helped topple Mugabe in 2017, and five former members of Mugabe’s cabinet.

“It is imperative that ZANU-PF allow full participation across the political spectrum in next year’s elections,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement. “The United States continues to stand with the Zimbabwean people against unjust actions against political opponents or assaults on Zimbabwe’s democracy by the ZANU-PF.”

US under fire

The US and other Western powers have long been under pressure from Southern African nations to amend their policy toward Harare.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has repeatedly called for the removal of international sanctions on Zimbabwe, arguing that they harm the country’s economy and that of the entire region. The 16-member group has declared 25 October as ‘Anti-Sanctions Day’ in solidarity with Harare.

“We welcome [President Biden] and the US government’s fresh look at sanctions on Zimbabwe,” Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema said on Twitter. “We greatly appreciate the White House having a listening ear to the SADC region.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on Human Rights, Alena Douhan, likewise denounced the humanitarian impact of the decades-old sanctions after visiting Zimbabwe last year. The sanctions were first imposed in 2003 under President George W. Bush after the Mugabe regime seized white-owned land and locked up the opposition.

Now the ball is in Zimbabwe’s court, the US says, with either a new era or fresh sanctions looming depending on Mnangagwa’s next steps.

“The United States continues to stand with the Zimbabwean people against corruption, human rights abuses, and efforts to undermine democratic processes or institutions,” Price said. “We will not hesitate to designate those who undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions or otherwise fall within the scope of our sanctions program.”

Farai Matiashe contributed to this report

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Biden must prove his Africa strategy is no ‘tick the box’ exercise

President Joe Biden came into office eager to turn the page on his predecessor’s disdain and disinterest in the African continent.

US nightmare in Afghanistan is keeping White House focused on the Sahel

To date, Africa has been a sideshow in US defence planning, characterised mostly by reactive crisis response. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden's officials have changed their tune.

US-Africa: ‘We want to be a critical partner going forward’ – Banks, Devermont

Fresh from the release of the new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, and mere months away from the December US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, the top two Africa officials at the White House are in the spotlight. An interview with Dana Banks, the special adviser for the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the National Security Council (NSC), and her successor as NSC senior director for African affairs, Judd Devermont.

US-Africa trade: Lofty goals, lagging investment

To hear the Joe Biden administration tell it, the US government is convinced Africa will be the next global economic powerhouse.

America’s great strength: The African diaspora

More than 100 Nigerian-Americans and their supporters descended on Washington’s luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel this April to celebrate the record number of diaspora Africans in the Joe Biden administration.

US taps private sector to help save democracy in Africa

The US government is throwing its weight behind the private sector to help fledgling democracies in Africa and beyond deliver tangible benefits for their citizens as freedom recedes around the world.

US looks to Africa to diversify supply chain for critical minerals

The US is turning to Africa in its quest to diversify the supply chain for the strategic minerals critical to the green energy revolution.

Biden’s new Africa strategy promises democracy while countering Russia and China

Africa has long played a secondary role in US defence planning, a sideshow theatre characterised mostly by reactive crisis response. No longer, say Biden officials.