Currently, it is hardly a stunning discovery that the British are seriously contemplating pivoting on a post-Zanu PF government and new dispensation which has Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa as its leader.
Simukai Tinhu,Political analyst
In this endeavour, London’s representative to Harare, Catriona Laing, has been on a charm offensive as she leads attempts to normalise relations with Zimbabwe’s governing party. Besides an image that captures her sharing lighter moments with the vice-president, she has already declared to some that Mnangagwa is a man the British can do business with.
This pretty much “gung-ho” approach at rapproachement is a source of deep mystery to many Zimbabweans. To be sure, it is not that long ago, in a British-influenced 2002 United Nations report, that Mnangagwa was fingered in a diamond exploitation ring in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), presumably in an attempt by London to undermine the Zanu PF government. The then Labour government of Tony Blair, even contempted — at least according to former South African president Thabo Mbeki and former British Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie — toppling Mnangagwa’s party from power through a military invasion.
With such unpredictable approach to foreign policy, it is no wonder that last year, the witty English playwright and author, Alan Bennett, who penned the brilliant The History of Boys and Talking Heads, told the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 4 audience that being adept at inconsistency is probably the most distingushing character of the British. One can imagine the ire that these sentiments drew from his fellow nationals. The Telegraph’s Michael Henderson, failing to grasp Bennett’s wit, called the octogenarian an “ungrateful bore”.
Henderson’s apoplexy towards his countryman is by no means an indication that the British are blind to this perception of their national character, particularly by outsiders. But, instead of Bennett’s description, they prefer a much more euphemistic phrase to capture that character: “We are pragmatic”, is what the foreign policy mandarins at White Hall would tell you.
Indeed, pragmatism — which presumably is behind Laing’s attempts at sanitising and backing Mnangagwa — is viewed as the foundation of British conduct on pretty much everything, including foreign policy. In other words, in terms of its behaviour on the international stage, Britain does not like being straightjacketed by an ideology, belief system or principles; in the case of Mnangagwa, someone’s history, but prefers to pursue a course that is practically achievable to attain or further its foreign policy objectives and interests. This approach follows Hans Morgenthau, the Australian realist’s thinking, that action must follow reality rather than deep convictions or emotions about some 20 000 ethnic minority people who were killed by their government in the 1980s in some Third World country.
This disregard for steadfast rules, history, principle, friendship or even prudence, when it comes to how they conduct their foreign policy, must be the reason why Zimbabweans shouldn’t be surprised by the British’s attempt to pivot towards the Zanu PF regime.
What is this pragmatism?
Britain’s commercial self-interest is at the heart of their pragmatic foreign policy in Zimbabwe. In order to illustrate how commercial self-interest drives London’s behaviour towards Zimbabwe, let me divert a little and pick one particular era — post Second World War period — and look at how the British were even prepared to undermine their most important relations with their most important ally, the United States, in order to further their economic interests.
In 1946, the Soviets applied for licences to manufacture British jet engines, and soon afterwards to buy sample Meteor and Vampire aircraft. This was sensitive merchandise that the Americans insisted should not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the enemies.
At a time that the US was contemplating the possibility of a war against the former Soviet Union, former British prime minister Clement Attlee went on to approve the sale of some 85 Nene and Derwent Rolls-Royce jet engines which were duly shipped to the Soviet Union. The then US Air Force secretary, Stuart Symington, was not amused. He laid bare the Americans’ thinking on the British foreign policy conduct in a letter to a friend: “The Soviet sale,” he wrote, “illuminates a distinct British philosophy, not just an engine sale.”
Again, in 1961, prime minister Harold MacMillan attempted to sell the long-range Vickers Viscount jet to the Chinese. The American reaction was ferocious, with The Okland Tribune accusing “Great Britain (of) … (being) guilty of another disservice to the free world for the sake of monetary profit.” The Americans threatened to veto it through the Cocom, an organisation of 17 countries in which they were the most powerful member. But, MacMillan was unmoved, and threatened the translantic relationship by threatening to resign from this “nonsense” (Cocom).
British historian, Max Hastings, prefers the term commercial self-interest to describe what is at the centre of the mandarins at White Hall’s attempts to redirect Britian’s policy towards overlooking Mnangagwa’s past record and normalise relations with the Zanu PF government rather than the abstract notions of democracy, human rights and the rule of law they publicly espouse.
In the low politics of a country of people of a lessor god, democracy, human rights and rule of law, no matter London’s extravagant rhetoric and Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s commitment to these principles, are secondary if not non-existent to the old country’s commercial interest.
Mnangagwa is a man of serious gravitas. He is the second most powerful, if not already the most powerful man in Zimbabwe, given his association with the security sector, in particular the military, and Mugabe’s serious health problems.
On the nation’s political landscape, he has successfully projected himself as a man in the centre between the indecisive opposition on one hand, and reactionary Zanu PF elements on the other hand. In other words, his politics has been carefully crafted to give the semblance of a politician who is leading a centrist movement within Zanu PF, a remarkable shift from 10 years ago. Mnangagwa does not only like to be seen as serious, but also business-like and as fully in command of his brief. Except for formal TV and press conferences which he struggles with when conducted in English, he knows how to articulate himself to his audiences at political rallies.
That, however, is only a small part of his resumé.
Whereas the British see a man they can do business with, Zimbabweans see something different. Indeed, Mnangagwa’s chequered human rights record is appalling and well-documented.
The Midlands godfather is regarded as the man who has been central to President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, and by extension, the nonagenarian’s brutality. As an enforcer of Mugabe’s policies, Mnangagwa can not seperate himself from the 1980s massacres that came to be known as “Gukurahundi”. In those atrocities, thousands of women and children died, bodies were mangled and communities destroyed in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions of Zimbabwe.
In 2005, via the shadowy Joint Operations Command (Joc), thousands of peri-urban dwellers, who are known to be opposition supporters, were hounded out of their homes in a brutal operation known as Murambatsvina. Displaced, many became homeless, their livelihoods destroyed and their children missed schools for months, years and some never went back.
And lately, in 2008 he headed a hecatomb against the opposition supporters in the second round of presidential elections. Hundreds died, forcing the opposition MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw from the elections.
Indeed, to many Zimbabweans, more than once, Mnangagwa should be held to account for violation of human rights.
Many see Mnangagwa’s appraisal by the British as a concerted attack on their efforts at democratisation.
With such a dark record, one would have thought that London would be at the forefront of at least facilitating a pre-hearing to consider evidence against Mnangagwa at an international court, or at least to have initiated a containment strategy aimed at derailing his ambitions. Alas, they are at the forefront of promoting and aiding him as the potential successor of Mugabe.
What is it then that Mnangagwa has done to make London ignore his alleged crimes and also given them the confidence that he can facilitate their commercial interets?
How he charmed the British
From the outset, the British have never made secret their dislike for Zimbabwe’s strongman, Mugabe. In the run-up to independence, Britain, which had automatically ruled out Joshua Nkomo because of his Soviet links and electoral dynamics, did everything in its power to derail Mugabe taking over, including discreetly facilitating the ill-fated Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime of Abel Muzorewa. But Mugabe’s ascendance was inevitable. And when he took over, Britain had no option but to work with him, particularly when he initially showed a moderating hand on his foreign and internal policies in a Cold War context.
But the British were always sceptical of the sustainability of this approach by a man they regarded as a Marxist. They were wary that Mugabe would change his policies. Still, as leader of the southern African nation at the time, they had to work with him in order to protect their commercial and strategic interests, hoping that someone would soon take over within the party. Their association with Mugabe was purely pragmatic.
The year 2000 marked a sharp turn in Mugabe’s policies as he grabbed white and foreign-owned land and threatened foreign-owned entreprises through the indigenisation law. The British immediately ceased their convenient association with the then octogenarian, sought refuge in the opposition as they waited for someone within the liberation movement to take over. Support for the MDC was never necessitated by interest in advancing democratic efforts, but attempts to dislodge Mugabe and secure their interests. In 2004, with the emergence of Joice Mujuru as a serious contender after she was made vice-president and with the backing of her husband, the late General Solomon Mujuru, the British pinned their hopes on the most powerful woman in Zimbabwe at the time.
Mujuru was long regarded as a moderate and her thinking Western-oriented. Her nemesis in factional politics, Mnangagwa, who, during that period was cast as a hardliner and a representation of the old and nationalistic politics of Zanu PF, watched and learnt from Mujuru: if you want to be friends with the West, you have to depart from hydra nationalistic and Marxist rhetoric and practice of his party.
During the period of the Government of National Unity within the opposition MDC, the Midlands godfather implemented some of what he had learnt from Mujuru. Indeed, during this period, his rhetoric sharply shifted from that of a hard revolutionary to that of a moderniser. And, when he took over Mujuru’s position as vice-president in late 2014, his transformation into a modern-day pragmatic politician quickened. He started to use various platforms to air rhetoric that was music to London. This message in the rhetoric was not only meant to send a message to the British that he undestands their concerns, particularly around the economy, but also that he is different from his boss Mugabe.
The most classic one is: “We cannot do without the West”, an acknowledgement that Mugabe’s hydra nationalistic and unrealistic notions of sovereignty will have no place in his administration. In other words, he was trying to say that he understands the limitations of the notions of sovereignty of a smaller nation, particularly in a globalised system.
Such rhetoric, not only sent the message that his Harare administration will have an ear to London’s requests, but will also be willing to play ball and by its rules, in particular, economic reforms. Indeed, he has used his closest ally in government, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa — who has since told the nation, in a desperate attempt to woo the West in general, that he has fallen “in love with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank” — to push for a raft of the neo-liberal prescriptive economic policies: cutting public spending, adopting investor-friendly policies and attempts to re-ignite relations with the Bretton Woods financial institutions.
Although these efforts have been reversed by Mugabe, this moderating trend in government policy he led has provided an opening for a British initiative.
The best way to describe Mnangagwa’s calculated rhetoric and action is the notion of a “courtier’s instinct” used by Henry Kissinger’s biographer Walter Isaacson to describe someone’s willingness to say what those with power or influence want to hear or see in order to gain their favour. His “courtier’s instinct” has not only been confined to economic positions, but also in respect of property rights and the rule of law. In January this year, he told a group of mourning white Zimbabweans that he had defended white farmers from land invasions in the Midlands region, which he controls through his godfather status. He is now being seen by the British media as a man who secretly supports white farmers.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.
To be continued next week…