WHILE Zimbabwe is experiencing severe economic problems characterised by a chronic liquidity crunch, which has led to many companies either downsizing or shutting down at a time foreign direct investment (FDI) is also declining, many were shocked by President Robert Mugabe’s decision to travel to Japan — ostensibly to lure investors — without economic cluster ministers, captains of industry and heads of critical parastatals.
By Taurai Mangudhla
In his visit to Japan, just like his other numerous foreign trips, Mugabe appeared to ignore modern foreign policy practices that find ways to incorporate economic diplomatic agendas during state and official visits, putting to waste a number of opportunities to push Zimbabwe’s recovery prospects by re-aligning the country with big economies that have hosted him.
Mugabe visited Japan, the third largest economy in the world with a US$5 trillion GDP, accompanied by his wife Grace, Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and his aides.
The Zanu PF leader travelled to the Asian state without any representation from ministries in charge of key economic sectors such as mining, manufacturing, tourism, agriculture and banking as well as industry bodies such as the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe and the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe. This is at a time the country hopes to secure concessional funding to resuscitate key economic sectors.
As such, analysts have described Mugabe’s recent visit as a waste of taxpayers’ funds at a time the country is grappling with a severe liquidity crisis and is struggling to mobilise food aid to feed millions facing hunger stemming from an El Nino induced drought.
Economist Vince Musewe said Mugabe’s decision to exclude businesspeople from his trips is a clear testimony that he does not prioritise the economy in his agenda.
“If there is one thing for sure, the last thing on Mugabe’s mind, is the economy. Clearly, it’s not a priority to him at all,” said Musewe.
“He goes overseas alone and announces a lot of promises in the form of deals that never materialise. It’s just a farce to me. He doesn’t bring anything home.”
Ken Yamamoto, a research fellow on Africa at an institute in Tokyo, wrote: “It’s downright silly if not mindboggling that presented with an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister of a US$5-trillion economy with cutting-edge technology, Mugabe chose to fly to Tokyo with his wife and Foreign Affairs minister plus a coterie of pretty much useless hangers on that don’t add value to Zimbabwe’s very troubled economy.”
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), an opposition party led by former finance minister Tendai Biti, described Mugabe’s Japan trip as a mere waste of resources as millions are gobbled for no meaningful returns.
“It is very clear that funds for Mugabe’s foreign trips would go a long way in mitigating the current drought that is ravaging the countryside,” PDP said.
Mugabe’s globetrotting gobbled more than US$33 million between January and September 2015. Treasury in 2016 allocated US$17,3 million for Mugabe’s trips.
Actual figures of expenditure up to September 2015 outlined in the estimates of expenditure for the 2016 national budget show that Mugabe’s office spent US$33 270 491 on foreign trips, overshooting the budgeted US$27 446 000.
This exceeds by almost three times the US$11 817 053 spent by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, a ministry that is expected to spearhead the revival of the manufacturing sector hard hit by low capacity utilisation which now stands at 34,3%.
But Zimbabwe has little to show for the numerous trips, and observers say it is partly because Mugabe never travels with business minded delegations.
Ironically, Mugabe failed to take a leaf from China when its President Xi Jinping visited Harare en route to the China-Africa summit in Johannesburg, South Africa last year.
Xi, who is the most high-profile leader to visit Harare in recent times, was accompanied by government ministers from various sectors of the economy and businesspeople in the form of heads of Chinese parastatals and private businesses.
Closer to home, South African President Jacob Zuma travels with business leaders as part of his delegation wherever he goes on official state business as a means to market the country as an investment destination while also opening new trade avenues.
Mugabe’s trips are also shrouded in secrecy as he does not announce the purpose of his visit and what deals he will be trying to clinch unlike some of his regional peers.
Countries such as the Philippines and the United States keep a public diary of state visits and the agenda with key expected deliverables debated openly. In fact, they keep a long history of state visits in a form of a gazette that is accessible online.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is also known for his openness when it comes to state visits, even going as far as giving public updates on social media.
A 2011 paper by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) titled State Visits as a Tool of Economic Diplomacy: Bandwagon or Business Sense?, noted that including business representatives in a state delegation, though controversial, is a viable tool to position a country as a preferable investment destination.
The SAIIA research, which was headed by Catherine Grant, focused on South Africa and observed that one of the most talked about, and arguably controversial, tools used by the South African government to pursue commercial diplomacy is business delegations accompanying the president on official state visits to other countries.
Although not a new phenomenon, said the report, these have become more prominent since Zuma assumed office in 2009.
“It is said that governments do not trade and, therefore, to achieve credibility when engaging on such issues, it is important to demonstrate a strong linkage to the private sector. Involving business in state visits is one way to accomplish this,” reads part of the report.
Policy inconsistencies and unpredictability has also rendered Mugabe’s foreign trips unproductive. For example, while he was in Japan to woo investors, his nephew Patrick Zhuwao, who runs the Indigenisation ministry, was threatening foreign companies with closure for failing to comply with the indigenisation law compelling foreign firms to cede 51% stakes to locals.