Examining Mnangagwa’s likely foreign policy

Zimbabwe’s Vice-President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is the best positioned politician in and outside Zanu PF to replace President Robert Mugabe as the leader of the southern African nation. Only a grand coalition of the opposition forces, centred around Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T and Joice Mujuru’s newly created Zim People First, has a realistic chance at stopping an exclusive Zanu PF government under Mnangagwa in 2018. But, if the grand coalition does fail to come up with an effective electoral strategy, opposition forces might find themselves in another government of national unity, this time, not presided over by the ruling nonagenarian, but by Mnangagwa. The Midlands Godfather is a man who might not command votes, but he has what it takes to grab power; tremendous will power.

Simukai Tinhu,Political Analyst

Sensing that the State House’s threshold is within grasp, so self-assured that he is set to become the nation’s next president, either in a Zanu PF government or government of national unity, Mnangagwa, since he ascended to the vice-presidency, has been giving foreign investors, other nations and international instititutions, a rough indication of what the relations between his government and the international community might look like.

And in that respect, incontestably, to date, everything seems to be pointing towards a leader who is keen on improving the nation’s relations with the West. Following close to two decades of Zimbabwe’s estrangement from the international community, Mnangagwa seems to be advocating for a foreign policy direction that could be dubbed “zero problems with the West”. Thus, rather than strictly follow what has often been regarded as repulsive liberation and ultra-pan-Africanist politics of the current leader, President Robert Mugabe, who sees the West as a permanent enemy, when it comes to relations with European capitals, the vice-president seems to have opted to be guided by pragmatism first.

But suggestions that Mnangagwa’s foreign policy is likely to tilt from the “Look East” towards the West might seem odd to some. After all, the vice-president is a man who has been known to have close relations with China, a country which he has visited the most on state business since becoming Mugabe’s deputy. Indeed, he is still to visit London, or Washington for that matter. A question can even be posed: What evidence is there to draw conclusions that Mnangagwa’s foreign policy philosophy is Western-oriented? This is understandable and legimate querying since Mnangagwa is not a man whom one would expect to have the West on his foreign policy menu, given his close associations with Mugabe, his repugnant human rights record, and his widely cited — by international organisations including the United Nations — involvement in diamond deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

However, the evidence that the Vice-President has set his sights on Washington, London and Brussels is innumerable, and there are many different ways to work it out.

First, we have to infer from his rhetoric. Mnangagwa’s rapprochement rhetoric towards the West has been subtle rather than the usual bombastic style of his colleagues and the president. In fact, how he has conveyed his message is more important than what he has actually said about the West. The vice-president has avoided the language of brinkmanship against European capitals and Washington. This has set him apart from Zimbabwe’s strongman and senior Zanu PF politicians who have used various platforms to lash out at the West. Instead, he has opted for a more diplomatic approach emphasising how, as a nation, Zimbabwe would benefit from good relations with other nations.

Mnangagwa’s cautious approach towards the West is very understandable. In a government in which he feels choked by Mugabe’s strong anti-Western stance, the vice-president cannot help it, but be circumscribed in what he thinks his government’s position towards London, Brussels and Washington should be.

But there are moments when he has struggled to hide enthusiasm for the trajectory that he is setting for his anticipated government’s foreign policy. Indeed, in February last year, as he addressed a group of Zanu PF officials in Mutare, the vice-president was anything, but subtle; “We can’t do without the West”. This statement was not random, nor was it meant for the audience that he was addressing on that day, including foreign diplomats, but was a well-calculated utterance meant for ears in London, Brussels and Washington. The statement immediately earned him high marks in Western capitals, as Europe in particular started considering him as a potential solution to Zimbabwe’s more than a decade long political and economic crisis.

Second, the vice-president has positioned himself as a reformer, a message that seems to be resonating with Britain in particular. He has advocated for the introduction of investor-friendly policies in the country. Indeed, though very much unfounded, Mnangagwa is now considered as a business-minded politician. To be sure the vice-president has a business empire of some sort. However, it is also public knowledge that his business empire is mostly obscure and confined to the murky underworld. There is no track record of him having successfully run any conventional businesses.

In fact, a Zanu PF internal investigation a decade ago found that he presided over the demise of the party’s business empire.

In an attempt to project himself as a champion of the rule of law, Mnangagwa has promoted, through his political surrogates, propaganda that he owns a single farm which he purchased — not invaded — from a white farmer to circulate without hindrance. In January 2016, he even went on to say, as he addressed a group of white farmers in his Midlands region, that during the land invasions that started in 2000, he had actively opposed the eviction of white farmers in the province, and even protected some from attacks by Zanu PF activists. Indeed, he likes to project the Midlands region, which he reportedly controls, as having been characterised by less chaos during the confiscation of white-owned farms by the state, mainly due to his protection.

Thirdly, through one of his closest allies in government, the current Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa, Mnangagwa has been making efforts at rapprochement with international financial institutions, in particular the World Bank and the IMF. Indeed, with Mugabe’s hostile attitude towards these institutions, has seen the IMF and World Bank preferring to use Mnangagwa as a conduit to doing business with the Zanu PF regime.

Whats behind this pivot?

The motives behind Mnangagwa’s attempts are questionable. Some, including this author, take the view that his attempts at re-engagement are not motivated by a noble agenda or national interest, but obscure efforts to grab power and also attempts to sustain the regime in power. If he contests on the Zanu PF ticket in 2018, due to his unpopularity, he is likely to resort to the tried and tested — or tired and defested as the late John Makumbe would say — methods that he has used to “win” elections on behalf of Mugabe since 2000; rigging, and violence if necessary. In other words, it is inevitatble that under such circumstances his ‘win’ in the next election will be disputed by the opposition and the West.

For a man who has been in government since 1980, Mnangagwa has learnt, particularly in the last 10 years, that governing with constant disapproval from London, Brussels and Washington is burdening. In other words, by gravitating towards the West, he is preparing the ground for legitimising of his “electoral victory” in 2018. He seems to understand that in the grand politics of international diplomacy, approval by the polical class in these capitals, not voters, matter the most.

How will the West respond?

To date, the response of the international community has been varying. The United States has since made it clear that they will not buy into the argument that Mnangagwa’s presidency would be marked by reformism. Reportedly, the US wants a clean break, and are not keen on working with Zanu PF in any shape or form. In other words, it appears that they are still keen on seeing a much more democratic and progressive party in power in Zimbabwe, in line with its democratisation agenda.

This US rejection has forced Mnangagwa to make Britain the centre-piece of his foreign policy. After all, Britain and Zimbabwe have historical ties that predate colonialism, and it also seems the conservative government is very keen to rekindle relations with Harare. Outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, which has been impressed by Mnangagwa’s efforts so far, consider him as more predictable than Mugabe. Indeed, the current British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing’s enthusiasm when it comes to Mnangagwa is well known in deplomatic circles. In July last year, she invited the ire of the opposition and pro-democracy forces where she told the media that Mnangagwa was a man that Britain could do business with.

Brussels, as usual, has been arm-twisted into buying into this foreign policy thinking towards Harare. Indeed, reportedly, London and Brussels are not prepared to hear any local political initiatives that do not involve Mnangagwa as part of the post-Mugabe political order. However, this might change following the referendum as London turn inwards, and its diplomatic clout in Brussels is dramatically reduced by the pullout from the EU. It will be difficult to see whether Brussels will have the same enthusiasm for British foreign policy on Zimbabwe as was the case before the referendum.

Though they might not embrace him with enthusiasm given his association with violence and corruption, in and outside DRC for example, other countries that have a significant interest in Zimbabwe such as the Nordic states, Australia and New Zealand, are likely to follow the UK’s lead on Zimbabwe. The Nordic countries will acknowledge that the southern African nation is Britain’s sphere of influence, and are happy to tag along with the British’s policy on Zimbabwe. New Zealand and Australia are likely to be influenced directly by London as nominal nations of the United Kingdom, or through the Commonwealth.

But the ultimate policy of the West on Zimbabwe is predicated on the resolve of the US. If the US is adamant that they do not want Mnangagwa, that stance is likely to carry the day in Western capitals, including London whose diminished influence on the world stage will be accelerated by Brexit. In particular, with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as US president, the leaders who are renowned for being vehemently “anti- Zanu PF”, under their stewardship America is likely to take a very divergent policy to that of Britain, forcing London to soften, if not abandon its conciliatory approach towards Harare. Trump’s policy is likely to be unpredictable and he has already indicated that he does not like Mugabe, and by extension the regime’s entire leadership, including the Mnangagwa.

Clinton is very close to the MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai. She is expected to pursue a hawkish foreign policy characterised by more interventionism in Harare as compared to that of outgoing President Barack Obama.

But Mnangagwa’s attempts to make our fores, friends, risks making our friends new foes, in particular China. This fear explains why Mnangagwa is not embarking on a cautious rather than a full-blown revolution of Zimbabwe’s foreign policy. What he is likely to do is to keep the Chinese on his side, at least for now as his ascendancy in Zanu PF party and also the nation’s leadership is dependent on Beijing. Appeasing the communist state, while courting the West, in particular, London and Brussels, will require delicate diplomatic skills that he might not possess.

Will his Foreign Policy succeed?

Friendly relations with London, Brussels and Washington is likely to be high maintainance as these capitals will inevitably demand the liberalisation of the political space. And, for a man whose presidency will be predicated on authoritarianism given his unpopularity, his rule will set him on a collision course with these Western capitals.

In order to counter that, Mnangagwa is likely to be generous with promises of good business deals, something that appears to have softened the British’ stance on Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa appears to understand that total and strategic obedience to US, EU and British interests will buy him their support, resulting in demands for democratisation and respect for human rights being shelved. Indeed, as one of the most idealist US presidents Obama conceded in his The Audacity of Hope: “There is going to be times where our … interests conflict with our concerns about human rights.” In such situations, Obama explains further, “we have to be hard-headed.”

Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe could be one such country where Clinton or Boris Johnson might have to be hard-headed if the offers of diamonds, gold, platinum or setting up a military base in the country are considered good enough. And for a man who is desperately seeking legitimacy, and keen on impressing the West, Mnangagwa should not surprise many if he sells his country for an invitation at World Economic Forum.

Ultimately, to pursue this foreign policy in full he needs to be president first. So far, indications are that Mugabe is not happy with his deputy’s foreign policy stance. If not careful, Mnangagwa risks being Jean-Sylvain in revolutionary Paris, or Alexander Kerensky in pre-Bolshevik Moscow, men whose ambitions were swept aside by the very same causes that they championed. By moving in the direction of the West, he has set himself on a collision course with Mugabe and he might lose in that combat.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.