Following the November 2017 coup that resulted in the toppling of Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, the leaders of the new regime have not wasted time in a bid to shed the mantle of Zimbabwe as an outcast.
By Simukai Tinhu
As they attempted to win the hearts of the international community, the post-coup government, led by Mugabe’s former chief enforcer, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, made various attempts at salesmanship. What could be identified as a multi-pronged strategy at rapprochement, largely with the West in mind, can be discerned from the regime’s efforts.
First, the regime has used Mnangagwa, the main beneficiary of the coup, as the face of the “new dispensation”. Using a team of local and international public relations experts, including the controversial Lord Bell, the president could be said to have deployed the “maximum pressure” strategy to showcase him to much of the world.
However, much of it was a disaster as he was confronted by a hostile world; for example an interview with The Economist, he was portrayed as a remorseless murderer, and at an appearance at the World Economic Forum, at Davos, what came out prominently during the interview was his anger towards, and intimidation of a BBC reporter in full view of the world and global elites.
Following a series of such blunders, the president opted to stay at home and be quiet.
Second, the regime has capitalised on a group of unemployed but talented “mercenaries”, who have used social media industry to portray Mnangagwa and his regime as open minded and ready to embrace the world.
Again, this strategy suffered a premature death as most of these “experts” were overwhelmed, drowned or bullied out of social media by opposition activists. Even the president and the regime’s official social media pages struggled to cope with the sniggering claque of the local and international opposition social media communities. Third, the regime has, with maximum effect, used the outgoing British ambassodor to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, as an effective propaganda tool to advertise Mnangagwa to the world and to gain access to other international governments, largely in Europe.
With her odd activist role far outpacing what is expected of a foreign diplomat ,the out-of-favour ambassador has been accused of being the coup regime’s chief foreign aide.
Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, to date, whatever little foreign policy success that the post-coup regime has had, owes it to the British ambassador.
Last, but not least,Mnangagwa has drawn up, on paper, local policies that he claims to be specifically designed to suit the interests of both the Western and Eastern powers.
To the West, he has announced that he “cannot do without” them. As a result, he has promised a raft of neo-liberal economic policies and promised to adopt liberal political values that includes respect for freedom and upholding human rights.
On the other hand, Russia and the Eastern giant China have been easy to please. In return for low-interest loans and protection at United Nations Security Council, literally, these two powers have been allowed to carve up the country between themselves through the grabbing of large mining concessions.
No easy friendships
Having announced a series of economic and political reforms, without concrete action on the ground, Mnangagwa assumed that the world will roll. However, the reality is that the global community has been overly cautious. Indeed, relations have not moved in leaps and bounds since November last year, as the government propaganda machinery has been attempting to tell the nation. Why?
Mnagangwa appears London’s preferred candidate, at least for now. This is because the diplomatic momentum that the coup regime sparked in London is likely to wane as it becomes evident that there is continued slow progress on the political reforms front, and as a result of the much anticipated departure of Laing for Nigeria.
Indeed, the increased tempo in relations between Britain and Harare’s coup regime should be understood within the context of Mnangagwa and Laing’s odd relationship; when Laing took over as ambassador, from the safety and comfortable vantage position of the British embassy compounds, she dutifully cultivated relations between Mnagagwa and that of the Conservative government with her fawning regard of the Midlands strongman — despite his past record — being the most astonishing.
But what are her instructions to Harare? The assumption is that Downing Street is largley motivated by intentions to forestall an increasingly intimate diplomatic and commercial influence of the Chinese over the Southern African nation. During Mugabe’s era, London has been freaking at what it perceived as the “taking over” of Zimbabwe by China.
However, the British mindset has since shifted; Harare is no longer the 1980s or 1990s prized possession to be kept at all costs. Indeed, losing the country is not the real problem anymore; but collapse is, which might threaten British commercial interests in the region, in particular South Africa.
To mandarins at Whitehall, Zimbabwe is just like any other African country; a challenge to be managed through careful cultivation of stability rather than democracy; and the assumption is that Mnangagwa is the best candidate to bring about that stability. However, not all in the British foreign policy establishment are enthusiastic about Mnangagwa, and also Laing’s pushy agenda on Zimbabwe.
Indeed, those in London with a sense of history are reminded of Idi Amin’s experiences. Having created the Ugandan dictator through a coup, the British soiled themselves when he started butchering his own people. They have been hiding in shame ever since. It is unlikely that they would want to repeat the same, hence they are cautious about Mnangagwa’s regime. Indeed, once Laing has departed Zimbabwe, London is less likely to pander to Harare.
Whereas Britain has given the coup regime a premature pass, the United States has indicated that they are not going to be a small problem for Harare but a nightmare.
Washington sees Mnangagwa as Mugabe-in-drag, and resultantly, has since intensified “zero sum” game relations with Harare, keeping up the heat on the regime. The Republican adminstration’s stance is either you reform as we ask you to do, or you ship out, a strong stance that is keeping the heat up on the regime.
To the United States, the reference point with regard the Zanu PF government is not November 2017, but the year 2000. The removal of Mugabe did not change anything, so goes the US government’s understanding, but has made things worse. As if to reinforce its message of displeasure with the coup, Mnangagwa and the regime, conditions of the Zimbabwe Economic Development Recovery Act (Zedera) that was enacted by the previous Republican government of George Bush have since been tightened by the Donald Trump adminstration.
Zanu PF is unlikely to meet most of those conditions, abudantly making it clear that the US does not want to see Mnangagwa and the coup regime in power.
Europeans have largely adopted a wait and see approach. The outcome of the election will determine the direction that the EU is likely to take as a bloc.
However, there are slight differences with regards to how powerful European countries view the Harare regime; Germany is largley neutral, choosing to “respect” Zimbabwe as Britain’s sphere of influence. France has adopted a more critical stance.
Western Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand have largely taken a critical stance on the post-Mugabe government, arguing that Mnangagwa will need to demonstrate his commitment to political and economic reforms before they can embrace the regime, let alone contemplate economic and financial support.
China and Russia
China’s interest in the regime are in lockstep with those of the Russian Federation; the two are motivated by predatory resource contracts and politcal influence. In particular, China wants to protect its investments in the mining industry.
However, though the powerful Asian nation gives the public appearance of having strong relations with Zanu PF, it is likely to accept whoever wins the election. The amount of money that they have invested in Zimbabwe, and lent to the regime, will humstring whoever comes to power in August.
Whereas the Chinese have shown little interest in the elections, on the other hand, there have been allegations that Russia is intent on influencing the outcome of the elections. This is based on allegations that Zec chairperson Priscilla Chugumba and senior presidential advisor Chris Mutsvangwa visited Moscow early this year. The purpose of their visit was not made clear by the government, fuelling allegations that they were visiting the Russian government for “advice” on how to rig the elections.
African and region
South Africa is a powerful country that has the ability to shape the politics of its neighbouring countries including Zimbabwe. In the past, its previous presidents, in particular Thabo Mbeki through “quiet diplomacy” and Jacob Zuma have attempted to play a big role on how the nation conducts itself during voting.
However, having learnt from past experiences of his predecessors, the current president Cyril Ramaphosa has decided to take a pretty much hands-off approach towards Zimbabwe’s politics.
It also seems the leader of Southern Africa’s giant is seized with domestic politics, leaving room for him to influence the ongoings of what is happening politically across Limpopo. Equally, the southern Africa’s regional body, Sadc has taken an unusually circumscribed role in this year elections. Apart from sending an observer mission, its statements on the elections have been very limited. The regional body is aware of the Zimbabwean opposition’s suspicions that it might be biased towards the ruling party.
The African Union,on the other hand, has shown a greater interest in the elections. They have already sent an observer mission and have made various statements, indicating, at least nominally, that they will not recognise a sham election.
Any foreign policy approach carries its own risks. However, Mnangagwa’s attempts to please everyone are likely to prove unworkable. The West and East have clashing interests, and attempts to balance the interests of China and United States, for example, is an almost impossible task that not only require skills, resources and patience which the current regime does not have. Very soon, the realisation that it is difficult to balance the interests of the two blocs will push the regime towards one side, most likely the Eastern bloc.
In the Western capitals they quitely call him “The Butcher”, and in the East, he is a vehicle to plundering the southern Africa’s resources — his presence, or absence is of little consequence to the Russians and Chinese.
In other words, despite all the efforts that his government, local and hired international public relations firms, none except Ms Laing has faith in Mnangagwa, the post- Mugabe coup regime, and its claims that it will deliver a free, credible election, and deep economic and political reforms that Zimbabwe desperately needs.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in Harare.