ZANU PF is harping on about how old allegiances with the British Conservative party could help mend relations with London, but for Zimbabwean migrants the new UK government could mean a ticket home.
Conservative leader David Cameron is heading a coalition with Liberal Democrats. Analysts say the new government could open new lines of re-engagement with President Robert Mugabe after a decade of icy relations under Labour.
However, Zimbabweans who fled political and economic turmoil blamed on Mugabe could become victims if immigration policies flagged by the British coalition government partners are implemented.
John Makumbe, who teaches political science at the University of Zimbabwe, said that the Conservatives-Liberal Democrats position on immigration could affect Zimbabweans who fled economic and political problems after 2000. They want to see people who are illegally staying in the country sent home, he said.
Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative party’s official website indicates that the party will reduce immigration levels to “tens of thousands a year” instead of the “hundreds of thousands a year under Labour.”
The party says it will introduce an annual limit on the numbers of non-EU economic migrants allowed to work in Britain, “taking into consideration the effects a rising population has on our public services and local communities”.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats leader and Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government campaigned on an immigration policy that would see his party helping immigrants who have been in Britain without the correct papers for 10 years, but who speak English and have a clean record, to acquire British citizenship. They would be afforded an amnesty, he said.
Makumbe said most Zimbabweans in Britain would fail on this criterion as they started trooping to London after the 2002 disputed presidential elections.
“What might change is that Zimbabweans in the UK might find it difficult to have their papers approved for them to stay there,” he said. “We might see some Zimbabweans being deported. The immediate past Labour government was sympathetic to asylum seekers.”
So Mugabe could as well emerge the winner, and victims of his policies the losers? Not so fast, say British officials and local commentators.
Zanu PF’s intransigence on contentious issues such as political and economic reforms and farm invasions are likely to retard re-engagement progress.
It has been over a decade since President Mugabe’s Zanu PF enjoyed warm relations with the British, then under a Conservative government. Mugabe was on hugging terms with overseas development minister Baroness (Linda) Chalker and Kenneth Clark came here to advise on privatisation.
Now Zanu PF says the return of the Conservatives, who are leading the coalition with the Lib Dems, could help thaw relations that have been on ice under successive Labour Party governments.
“Our view is that the new government is better than the Labour government,” Rugare Gumbo, the Zanu PF national spokesperson, told the Zimbabwe Independent this week.
“We are more hopeful that better relations will be restored because past Conservative governments have been extremely understanding about the Zimbabwean situation,” said Gumbo.
Analysts and British government officials say times and circumstances have changed. Cameron, half Mugabe’s age at 43, was unlikely to shift from benchmarks such as the full implementation of the Global Political Agreement set by Gordon Brown’s Labour government. The same permanent officials in Whitehall will brief the new PM on what the government’s position should be.
Conservative politicians showed their disdain for Mugabe when one of them, Andrew Robathan, an MP in 2007, campaigned for the stripping of an honorary knighthood bestowed on the former guerilla leader. In June 2008, the Queen obliged, leaving Mugabe furious.
Cameron was just 33 when the first signs of dispute between Harare and London emerged. Most of the causes of that dispute however, remain unresolved and could complicate relations between Mugabe and his one-time Conservative friends.
Key triggers of the Zimbabwe-Britain standoff such as violent evictions of white farmers, harassment of human rights and political activists, and unfair election laws remain part of the current environment.
Britain’s ambassador to Zimbabwe Mark Canning said the new government was yet to announce its foreign policy. He however said Mugabe, a man accused of election theft, gross human rights abuses and starving his countrymen, could remain in isolation if he doesn’t democratise.
“We’ll obviously have to wait to see how, or whether, policy in this particular area (foreign policy) might evolve. But I would hazard two observations. Achieving the objective of a Zimbabwe which is more prosperous and democratic will continue to be a high priority, as will the task of helping the people of this country overcome the myriad challenges they face,” Canning told the Independent on Wednesday.
Makumbe said lack of progress by Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara’s coalition government meant the international community, including Britain, could wait a while before fully engaging Zimbabwe.
“The British foreign policy on Zimbabwe will not change. All political parties in Britain are opposed to what Zanu PF has done since 2000,” Makumbe said. “Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are opposed to the fast track land reform of 2000, Zanu PF’s dictatorship and human rights violations.”
Analysts such as Mandla Nyathi, a Risk and Resilience Management lecturer at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK however thinks Cameron will be under pressure from Commonwealth members to negotiate with one of Africa’s oldest and most difficult rulers.
Zimbabwe unceremoniously pulled out of the Commonwealth, a club originally for former British colonies, in 2003 after it became apparent that Harare would not get its suspension lifted from the group for gross human rights violations.
“There is a good chance of a graduated restoration of relations between Harare and London. The amount of pressure on the British government is unprecedented,” Nyathi said.
“There are many people in powerful institutions who oppose the current set- up,” he said. “The Commonwealth, for example, though Zimbabwe is not a member, is doing a lot of work (behind the scenes) that will make it easier for the British to re-engage with Harare. It may take longer than most people wish, but it is likely to happen,” he said.
However, for the time being Cameron is likely to listen to his Foreign Office mandarins which means in the absence of any tangible reforms in Harare, no reengagement just yet.