HomeAnalysisZanu PF, UK relations: Is rapprochement possible?

Zanu PF, UK relations: Is rapprochement possible?

THIS is a continuation from last week in which the writer unravels the British foreign policy with regard to the current succession game plan in Zimbabwe.

According to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s close allies, the Midlands province was the region least affected by land invasions as a result of his protection.

Simukai Tinhu,Political analyst

Rapprochement ... Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and British ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing at a recent press briefing in Harare.
Rapprochement … Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and British ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing at a recent press briefing in Harare.

He is also known to enjoy telling Western diplomats at every opportunity that his farm is not a product of the post-2000 land invasions, but was actually purchased from a white farmer who was compensated in full for his land and infrastruture on the farm.

Rule of law, property rights, coupled with neo-liberal economic policies, underpin the principles that enhance commerce and, in the case of Zimbabwe, could facilitate Britain’s commercial interests in the country better than President Robert Mugabe’s administration. Whereas Mugabe thwarted their commercial interests in the agriculture and mining sectors, Mnangagwa is the trustee of their hopes — he is the man they can do business with, in the literal sense.

Thus, in Mnangagwa the British detected a potentially more pragmatic direction in Zimbabwe’s politics. Indeed, the British believe that exploiting the opening that the vice-president seems to be offering should be treated as a matter of urgency, which explains why British ambassador to Harare Catriona Laing has the temerity to tell the world that Mnangagwa is a man they could do business with. This also explains why, today, London is not prepared to listen to any talk of a political transition initiative from the opposition and pro-democracy forces — such as talks about a National Transitional Authority — that does not involve Mnangagwa as part of the post-Mugabe power matrix.

The British initiave with Mnangagwa is also an attempt to kill many birds with one stone. First, it’s an attempt to reconnect with the ruling establishment in the Zanu PF government. London has since lost faith in the ability of the opposition to attain change. Pivoting towards Zanu PF is yielding to the pressure of these intractable circumstances.

Second, it is meant to put Britain in a better position to deal with a post-Mugabe era. The death of Mugabe is likely to result in crisis, either caused by infighting within the ruling party, or soon after the 2018 elections, which Mnangagwa is expected to lose. In the event of losing an election, as head of state and government, the British will need someone decisive, a quality Mnangagwa possesses in order to resolve a potential crisis. Third, to counter growing Chinese influence in Zimbawe by capturing the man favoured by Beijing, the British hope to dissuade him from continuing with the “Look East” policy of his boss.

Very complex

But, the assumption by the British that Mnangagwa is Western-oriented is a premature interpretation of a man who not long ago was regarded as anti-Western. Indeed, his position is considerably more complex than what the current British government assumes.

In other words, although Mnangagwa and Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa have been associated more or less with consistent policies that are desirable to London, they are not alone in the ruling establishment; and their influence to take the direction that London prefers in the post-Mugabe era should not be taken for granted. Mnangagwa and his allies in Zanu PF will have to tailor their policies to other powerful and conflicting domestic constituencies, such as the military’s interests, as they are likely to resist attempts to downsize their role in the economy.

The same applies to hardline Zanu PF elites who still have an affinity for the president’s leftist policies.
Untangling Mnangagwa’s intentions to sway towards the West also helps us understand the limitations that confront him in his pursuance of the “Look West Policy”.

Mnangagwa’s attempts at re-engagement — considering he was until a few years ago regarded as a hardliner — are not motivated by honourable objectives, but by a desire to save the Zanu PF regime from collapse and, more importantly, to aid his ascendance to the nation’s presidency. If he contests on the Zanu PF ticket in 2018, due to his unpopularity he is likely to resort to the tried and tested methods that he has used to “win” elections on behalf of Mugabe since 2000. In other words, his “win” in the next election is likely to be disputed by the opposition.

Mnangagwa has learnt from past elections that governing with little approval from London is burdening. By gravitating towards Britain, he is preparing the ground for seeking, through British influence, the legitimacy of his “electoral victory” in 2018.

In the grand politics of international diplomacy, the African Union (AU), Sadc or even voters, are of little consequence in African elections. All one needs is a nod of approval from European capitals, in particular London.

There is no doubt that he is taking a cue from the late Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawe, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame’s books of realpolitik tricks. These leaders, whose countries are the biggest recipients of UK donor funds, have suppressed with brutality the opposition in ways that sometimes make Mugabe look like a saint. But their close relations with London have ensured that they got away with it.

Because his reforms are motivated by his intentions to maintain Zanu PF in power, and ultimately ascend to the presidency, the extent of Mnangagwa’s reforms will be circumscribed if the Chinese and the Russians are willing to facilitate his ascension. He might not need the British after all although Beijing’s new position on Zimbabwean politics and Mugabe’s succession seems to be shifting against him.

Will his foreign policy be a success?

Friendly relations with London are likely to be high-maintainance as the British, in an attempt to insert a morality plank to their foreign policy, might be forced to demand the liberalisation of political space in order to placate the left, silence dissent and the demands of the democratisation movements at home and to an extent appease the United Nations and some of its allies.

But what the British will ask for is token political reforms, meant to quieten the noise at home that will be generated by support for an authoritarian regime. Token reforms, coupled with a strong developmental state, such as in the case of some of the largest recipients of its aid in Africa — Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia — will be used by London to point out progress being made in Zimbabwe. Indeed, the ascendance of Mnangagwa is likely to be accompanied by a raft of all sorts of British “consulting firms”, — from Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative to Peter Mandelson’s Global Counsel, invading Harare to offer advice on how to reform.

However, as history has shown, small political reforms are often dangerous to an authoritarian regime. As Henry Kissinger likes to put it, small reforms can be like salted peanuts to the public. The moment you introduce them, more will be demanded. Soon, citizens will be calling for a Swiss or British-style democracy, something which is not on the cards in Mnangagwa’s political game.

He understands precisely the dangers of opening the political space in Zimbabwe as he spent most of his career as minister of security stamping out dissent and locking up people in prisons. If the pace and extent of political liberalisation is too much for him, Zanu PF’s number two can be relied on to shelve rapprochement with Britain, setting him on a collision course with London.

In order to counter the possibility of a collision, Mnangagwa is likely to be generous with promises of good business deals, something that, to date, appears to have softened the British stance on Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa appears to understand that total and strategic obedience to British’s commercial interests will buy him their support, resulting in demands for democratisation and respect for human rights being soft.

It is also important to note that this foreign policy initiative is a Conservative government affair — who historically have had better relations with the Zanu PF government — and to an extent bears the hallmarks of Laing (who appears to have more enthusiasm than Downing Street for Mnangagwa to take over). Former British premier David Cameron had a laissez faire approach to managing his government affairs, giving his lieutanents much lattitude, which enabled diplomats such as Laing to take individual initiatives such as rapprochement with Zimbabwe. It is yet to be seen how much free reign the current British Prime Minister Theresa May will allow her ministers and diplomats.

Indeed, you need a nation’s leader (president or prime minister), to make foreign policy, not a foreign secretary (British foreign minister), least of all an ambassador. It is only when a British leader visits Harare or makes a pronouncement of rapprochement with Zimbabwe when one can truly accept that the British foreign policy is truly changing. Indeed, Laing is considered a third-level official after Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary) and May. Making contacts with foreign governments, through third-level officials, makes it easy for the British government to make a U-turn if and when necessary, without losing face.

Also, enter Chatham House, a foreign policy think-tank, an equivalent of the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations. Chatham House influences the direction of British foreign policy and its experts, and the views of those who frequent the place are important. Post presentations, informal chats over glasses of wine with diplomats, bureaucrats, academics and both Labour and Conservative politicians, who grace this venue, gives you a sense that there is little enthuasism for any kind of formal relations with the Zanu PF regime.

Views of other Western nations

To date, the response of the international community has been varying. The US 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 they are still keen on seeing a much more democratic and progressive party in power in Zimbabwe, in line with their democratisation agenda.

Historically, Brussels has followed the British lead on its foreign policy on Zimbabwe. It remains to be seen, following UK’s departure from the European Union (EU), whether Brussels will adopt an independent initiave towards Harare.

Though they might not embrace him with enthusiasm, given his controversial background, 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 policy. New Zealand and Australia, are likely to be influenced directly by London, as nominal nations of the UK, or through the Commonwealth.

The same applies to Canada. Canada, due to its proximity to and close relations with the US and also their intertwined policies, is likely to follow the US policy on Zimbabwe.

But, the ultimate policy of the West on Zimbabwe is predicated on the resolve of the US. If Americans are adamant that they do not want Mnangagwa, that attitude is likely to carry the day in Western capitals. In particular, with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as US president. The two, particularly Clinton, are renowned for being vehemently anti-Zanu PF and under their stewardship America is likely to take a very divergent policy to that of Britain, forcing London to soften, if not abondon its concilliatory 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 and its leadership, including Mnangagwa, although Harare prefers him to Clinton. And Clinton is very close to the MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai. She is expected to pursue a hawkish foreign policy characterised by more interventionism in Harare as compared to that of the outgoing Barack Obama.

Is rapprochement actually possible?

Laing’s statement that her government is ready to do business lit up a landscape of diplomatic thinking and manoeuvres that are usually kept away from the public’s view. Despite her attempts in a recent statement to argue that her government will always prioritise human rights and democracy, many think that this statement is just a ritual that she has to make, otherwise the British foreign policy towards Zimbabwe is set in stone.

As Alan Bennett, the English playwright, reminded his fellow countrymen, the British are so adept at saying one thing, yet meaning the other. The British may have indicated that they might want to work with a Zanu PF government, but this is pretty much a gamble. One has to wait until a red carpet is rolled out for Mnangagwa at 10 Downing Street in London to know their real position.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.

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