Cosmetic changes

How Zimbabwe’s charm offensive with the West went south

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on August 15, 2023 08:24

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends a rally against Western sanctions in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2019. (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends a rally against Western sanctions in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2019. (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s vow to make Zimbabwe ‘open for business’ remains a largely empty promise on the eve of new elections.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa projected confident optimism in his country’s economic future as he hobnobbed with other world leaders at last September’s UN General Assembly in New York.

He expressed gratitude for UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan’s call for the lifting of unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and other Western countries. The Zimbabwean leader reaffirmed his government’s commitment to enacting business as well as political reforms and finally break free from the global isolation suffered under the late Robert Mugabe.

“At the international level, Zimbabwe has adopted an engagement and re-engagement policy,” Mnangagwa told the world body. “The policy is underpinned by the principles of mutual understanding and respect, cooperation, partnership, and shared values with other members of the international community. We desire to be a friend to all and an enemy to none.”

At the same time, however, the president’s deputies were scrambling behind the scenes to mitigate yet another self-inflicted blow to better relations.

The previous month, overly-eager members of the security services had harassed a visiting staff delegation from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prompting a furious backlash from Congress and the Joe Biden administration.

Spy chief Isaac Moyo and Ambassador to the US Tadeous Chifamba were forced to ‘clean up’, interfacing with State Department Africa bureau Number two Ervin Massinga (now the new US ambassador to Ethiopia) to try to repair the damage.

“The State Department is seriously concerned by such a brazen act of intimidation against US officials,” a State Department spokesperson told The Africa Report at the time.

“More broadly, we are deeply concerned by increasing reports of politically motivated harassment, intimidation, repression, and violence in Zimbabwe.”

Promises, promises

The incident was a potent reminder of the entrenched distrust between the two countries and the paranoia of a ruling ZANU-PF party, which remains riven by internal disputes since Mnangagwa toppled Mugabe in 2017.

“There is a desire from Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF government and Zimbabweans to engage with the West,” says Gideon Chitanga, a Zimbabwean research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “There’s just no trust.”

In his first electoral campaign the following year, Mugabe’s former vice president had promised that Zimbabwe would henceforth have “free and fair elections”. He also vowed to make the resource-rich country attractive for foreign investment.

“Those who want to live in the past can continue to live in the past,” Mnangagwa told CNN shortly after seizing power. “But those who want to see the future, where we are going, can look at what we are doing.”

Over the following months, Harare took a series of steps aimed at a fresh start with the West.

Starting in early 2019, the ministry of foreign affairs hired a trio of US lobbying firms with ties to President Donald Trump and members of Congress – Ballard Partners, Avenue Strategies and Mercury Public Affairs – to remove sanctions against the country (all three contracts have since been terminated).

The 2001 sanctions were prompted by Mugabe’s seizure of White-owned farms in 2000 for redistribution to Black Zimbabweans, many of them close to the government.

Despite [Mnangagwa‘s] pronouncements, the Zimbabwe government has not implemented enough investor-friendly policies to attract robust investment and corruption remains a major concern

The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) limits the country’s access to international financial institutions. President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2003 that imposes targeted sanctions on entities and individuals for human rights abuses, including Mnangagwa, for allegedly undermining democratic process in his role as the then-speaker of parliament.

Mnangagwa is also angling for readmission into the 56-member Commonwealth of Nations. The voluntary association of former members of the British Empire suspended Zimbabwe in 2002, and Mugabe officially pulled out the following year.

On the economic front, Harare created the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency in 2020 as a “one stop investment centre” to attract domestic and foreign capital. Mnangagwa is eyeing a $12bn investment target into the country’s mining sector by the end of this year.

Incentives include tax breaks, reduced regulatory costs and allowing investors to expatriate profits in freely convertible currency.

Since 2017, Harare has also promised to compensate farmers who lost their land under Mugabe. The government and White commercial farmers signed a $3.5bn compensation agreement in 2020, although only token payments have been made so far.

Zimbabwe is also working with international financial institutions to clear the $13.5bn owed to foreign creditors and regain eligibility for lending from the International Monetary Fund, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube told The Africa Report at last year’s annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF in Washington.

On the eve of the rematch of his disputed 2018 win against opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, Mnangagwa has little to show for his overtures.

Missed opportunities

The country remains mired in unsustainable debt. Inflation is still in the triple digits and real GDP (gross domestic product) growth slowed to 3.4% in 2022, according to the World Bank, down from 8.5% the year before.

“Despite [Mnangagwa‘s] pronouncements, the Zimbabwe government has not implemented enough investor-friendly policies to attract robust investment and corruption remains a major concern,” the US State Department says in its latest annual report on the investment climate in the country.

“FDI [foreign direct investment] into Zimbabwe remains below regional peers.”

Handel Mlilo, Washington coordinator of the pro-opposition Zimbabwe Diaspora Voices, isn’t surprised.

“You have a regime that is doing everything that it can to remain in power by any and all means necessary, creating laws and regulations that suppress political activity.” Mlilo tells The Africa Report.

“Opposition politicians are in jail; free speech is curtailed; the police are all over the place. Those are the things that an investor looks at and thinks: Oh my God, what’s going on here?” he says. “And is my money safe to put in there or not?”

The pre-election violence clampdown has also created additional obstacles for a Biden administration that is eager to engage with African nations in its bid to displace China as the preferred partner on the continent.

Harare has largely succeeded in its quest to blame the narrowly-tailored Western sanctions for its economic difficulties, both inside the country and within pan-African blocs including the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

There are countries across the continent [which] […] struggle and are challenged on the democracy and governance side

In a sign of its willingness to extend an open hand, the US government invited Foreign Minister Frederick Shava to attend President Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last December. At the same time, the Treasury Department sanctioned two new entities and four people – including President Mnangagwa’s son – to show that it was keeping the pressure on.

“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, told 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.”

Tensions within ZANU-PF make political and economic opening a tough sell, says Witwatersrand’s Chitanga.

“Within ZANU-PF, there is still an ongoing pushback against [Mnangagwa’s] power,” he tells The Africa Report. “The internal transition inside ZANU-PF since the fall of Mugabe is still seriously affecting the extent to which the government can reform.”

Members of the ruling party are embedded across the economy, he adds, further impeding reforms.

Western powers are also to blame for the lack of progress, he says. Rather than continuing their failed policy of hoping for regime change away from a ZANU-PF that remains the most potent political force in the country, Chitanga recommends proactive engagement with reformist factions of the ruling party as well as civil society, academics and other actors, notably on the charged issue of land reform.

“The more the West proactively comes to the table and addresses this issue, the better for relations, not only with Zimbabwe, but other African countries,” he says.

“[It] also has broader geopolitical implications, in terms of why some African countries have chosen to forge close relations with China as a way of insulating themselves from the economic cost that comes with hostile relations with Western countries.”

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