ZIMBABWE’S international re-engagement programme and debt clearance plan are facing renewed headwinds with the United States government maintaining a hardline stance, insisting on tangible reforms, while the European Union (EU) member states remain unconvinced by Harare’s lethargic pace.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube, who is leading Zimbabwe’s re-engagement drive in the absence of the ill Foreign Affairs and International Trade minister Sibusiso Moyo, who was playing an influential role in extricating the country out of isolation, in October presented the reform and debt clearance agenda in Bali, Indonesia, where he assured creditors government would speedily implement political and economic reforms.
Zimbabwe has also committed to clearing its arrears with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and World Bank next year to enable the country to access new credit to revive its faltering economy.
Diplomats told the Zimbabwe Independent that the reform programme was good on paper, but the donor community has adopted a wait-and-see approach, as Harare dithers on implementing concrete political reforms.
“The goodwill is still there, no doubt. But some of the most supportive diplomats are disappointed by the slow pace of reform, especially on the political front. The August 1 shootings were particularly worrying, but this week’s threats to shut down NGOs seen as critical to government are also not encouraging,” a diplomat said.
“Some of the economic reforms outlined by the Finance minister are positive, but everyone is waiting for the implementation. The goodwill is still there, but government is losing momentum by dragging its feet.
“There are now doubts over whether government is fully committed to implementing some reforms, which will be crucial in normalising relations and potentially unlocking funds.”
Ncube on Monday met diplomats at Victoria 22 restaurant in Harare, as part of the re-engagement programme, before meeting the European Union’s Head of Delegation to Zimbabwe Timo Olkkonen on Wednesday for a bilateral meeting. A diplomat who attended the Monday lunch meeting said although Ncube made assurances that Harare was committed to reforms, the general feeling among diplomats was that Zimbabwe has not done enough, particularly on the political front.
Ncube’s reform drive suffered a major setback when the American senate heard damning testimonies from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Matthew Harrington and senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Todd Moss, who cautioned Washington against engaging Zimbabwe until sweeping economic and political reforms have been effected. The US is a major player and has influence in international financial institutions, which Zimbabwe is engaging, particularly the World Bank.
The testimonies tabled before Senators Chris Coon and Jeff Flake questioned President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s political will to embrace reforms, saying the reform programme was moving at snail’s pace. Washington has also expressed concern over Harare’s fierce clampdown on dissent and was particularly dismayed by the killing of six civilians on the streets of Harare by the military on August 1. The US officials urged Mnangagwa to allow the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) to act independently in the aftermath of July’s disputed polls. A diplomat in Harare said many countries shared the sentiments expressed by the US, although they had adopted a softer stance to give the Mnangagwa administration a chance and to encourage reform.
“It is clear that Zimbabwe has a long way to go and requires profound political and economic reforms to sustainably change the path on which it has been for nearly four decades,” Harrington said.
The US remains a critical partner in the country’s quest to unlock fresh funding while the EU is a major stakeholder in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and both are crucial financiers.
A US Embassy Public Affairs official told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that full engagement between Harare and Washington would only occur when Zimbabwe implements fundamental reforms.
“Zimbabwe needs to implement fundamental political and economic reforms to realise full engagement with the United States. Ambassador Brian A. Nichols has stated the same message in his meetings with government officials and publicly. The United States will remain an engaged partner to Zimbabwe. We share the desires of the Zimbabwean people — to see a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Zimbabwe that provides for its citizens and contributes to regional stability,” the official said.
US President Donald Trump recently signed Congressional amendments to the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera), which tighten the restrictions. Zidera has barred Harare from accessing fresh lines of credit, key towards setting its fragile economy on a firm recovery and growth trajectory.
The embargo has, over the years, curtailed financial inflows into the country, while baring US financiers from offering credit support. While the US has adopted a hard-line stance, the EU and its member states, who play a key role in the International Monetary Fund, European Investment Bank and in the Paris Club, have adopted a cautious approach, with many governments of the opinion that Harare needs to do more on reforms.
EU Ambassador Olkkonen this week said it was in Zimbabwe’s interest to implement reforms. “The reform agenda outlined in the TSP (transitional Stabilisation Plan) is a very positive and ambitious one. It addresses the issues the country needs to tackle in order to move forward,” Olkkonen said.
“The EU, as many other international interlocutors, is keenly following the process of putting these reforms into practice. I believe it is in Zimbabwe’s interest to move swiftly ahead with the implementation of reforms on both the economic and political tracks.”
He said the EU sees the 2019 budget as a first step to balance an economy “that has suffered immensely from many years of bad governance”.
“When the parliament has agreed on the budget, it becomes extremely important that it is also implemented as it was planned. Zimbabwe cannot afford the same kind of opaque over-expenditure as it has had in the past. An IMF staff-monitoring programme would be a welcome initiative to support the government in these efforts,” Olkkonen said.
He said the EU, through development co-operation, was supporting the constitutional alignment process.
“The Ministry of Information’s recent stakeholder meeting on reforming the legislation on the media was a positive event, and we hope that the parliament can soon work on restrictive media- and security-related legislation so that these laws can be brought in line with the Constitution of 2013,” added Olkkonen.
“Similarly, the EU is willing to continue its engagement on electoral reform, also as a follow-up of the EU election observation mission recommendations.”
Speaking to the Independent, Ncube argued that government was moving at the right pace, although admitting that more reforms are needed.
“We are moving at the right pace. It is not slow. Remember that we launched the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP) on October 4, which is basically more than a month ago. I think we are moving at the right pace,” Ncube said.
He also argued that reports from Washington had not affected the re-engagement programme as there was still widespread goodwill towards Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe is committed to paying US$1,4 billion to the World Bank, where the US holds majority voting rights.
The EU has also been insisting on a concrete, time-bound reform plan, saying Mnangagwa’s government had failed to take advantage of the “low hanging fruits” like media reform, human rights issues and aligning laws to the 2013 constitution.
Zimbabwe’s economy — ravaged by foreign currency shortages, acute fuel shortages and deteriorating social services — has since the July 30 elections, struggled to stay afloat and is in dire need of budgetary support.
Ncube told the Independent this week that government was committed to the reform agenda and his visit to the US last week was to convince the world that Zimbabwe was ready to end its isolation. He said the stance taken by the US had not derailed the re-engagement programme, although he admitted Zimbabwe needed to show serious in its engagement drive.
“I don’t think it did. Those conversations are not surprising. It’s not the first time those senators have expressed that, so it’s not new. But what it is important for Zimbabwe is to show that we are serious in terms of re-engagement with the rest of the world.”
A senior consultant at the International Crisis Group (ICG), Piers Pigou, argues that the door to constructive engagement is still open. “The politics of constructive engagement remains very much in play; the international community, at least key Western powers, are certainly very open to engagement, but they are increasingly concerned about the slow pace of reform and prospects for consolidation,” he said.
“The Mnangagwa administration continues to retain widespread goodwill in the international community more broadly, although this has not translated into the kind of budgetary support it had hoped for. Goodwill remains, but significant tangible support will only come when there is more visible progress on several fronts, politically and economically.”