In a grotesque twist of irony, the British government—whose army has provided training to the Zimbabwean military in the past—is now accusing soldiers in this country of trampling on civil liberties through the brutally disproportionate use of force.
Editor’s Memo: Brezhnev Malaba
With diplomatic temperatures rising rapidly and Zimbabwe’s international re-engagement project appearing dead in the water, President Emmerson Mnangagwa dispatched his special envoys to African capitals this week as it became increasingly clear that the foreign policy effort had suffered a major reversal, with the real danger that the wheels could completely come off.
With an African Union summit coming up, he had to move swiftly to salvage the narrative of a reformist “Second Republic”. On Tuesday in London, Harriett Baldwin,
Britain’s minister for Africa, was blunt and to the point, telling an International Development Committee meeting that her country would support wider European Union sanctions against the Zimbabwean government. She added that Britain would no longer back Harare’s bid for readmission to the Commonwealth.
As for a financial bailout, Baldwin said the chances were slimmer now, in the wake of a violent crackdown on dissent by the Mnangagwa government.
In the aftermath of this astonishing reversal on the international re-engagement front, we have witnessed a clumsy and disjointed attempt by spin doctors to push a lame narrative. Some are even claiming—quite disingenuously—that rejoining the Commonwealth is not important after all.
But a few months ago they were waxing lyrical and extolling the virtues of Club membership.
They can bury their heads in the sand, but there is no denying the fact that the calculus has shifted significantly—perhaps irrevocably so.
I have also seen some spin doctors claiming that the Tuesday bombshell does not matter because the event was a select committee briefing which does not amount to government policy.
The intention is obvious: peddling the false impression that Minister Baldwin’s strong words were nothing more than a rap on the knuckles.
Mnangagwa has just lost the support of the British government—his most vocal cheerleader in the West since the November 2017 coup. If the loss of this support is now flippantly dismissed as a non-event, as some self-styled hardliners would have us believe, then why did the government invest lots of effort in gaining the trust of Whitehall in the first place?
How will the government salvage the re-engagement project? The task is daunting. China, the “all-weather friend”, has a low opinion of the cabinet team. Russia has little interest beyond extracting precious minerals and finding new markets for military hardware.
The Americans will not provide a rescue package anytime soon. The European Union has discounted the possibility of extending budgetary support.
Britain’s newly appointed ambassador to Harare, Melanie Robinson, has tweeted that she had discussions with Finance minister Mthuli Ncube on Zimbabwe’s economic and political reform agenda. Everyone is waiting to see how that venture pans out.
The elephant in the room is the involvement of the military in national politics. Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London, emphasised the point that the Zimbabwean security services are divided.
Well, whether the troops are divided or not, the bottom line is that they are committing atrocities. Since Independence in 1980, there have been countless instances of illegal deployment of soldiers, and it has become common for unlawfully deployed troops to kill, rape and brutalise civilians with impunity.
Amnesty International last night issued a statement after interviewing relatives of some of the 15 people who were killed.
“The Zimbabwean authorities will never be able to convince anyone that the country is open for business if they continue to crackdown on anyone who dares to criticize them,” said the human rights organisation.
The government cannot dismiss this as Western propaganda. Amnesty International is a respected organisation which staunchly fought for the rights of Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters during the war of liberation.
International re-engagement is meaningless if Zimbabweans cannot treat each other with respect and dignity here on home soil.