ZIMBABWE’S re-engagement with the West suffered a major setback following last month’s brutal clampdown on civilians by security forces which left 17 people dead, scores injured and some women raped. In response, the European parliament last week proposed that more sanctions be imposed on Zimbabwe, although the European Union (EU) extended an olive branch by adopting a wait-and-see approach in the hope that the Emmerson Mnangagwa administration will implement far-reaching economic and political reforms. Our senior political reporter, Bridget Mananavire, had a chat with the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, Timo Olkkonen, about relations between Harare and Brussels:
BM: You have been in Zimbabwe for four months, how has been your stay and, in your assessment, have relations between Zimbabwe and EU improved in that time?
TO: I think Zimbabwe is a great country with tremendous potential, because of its human capital, natural resources, agriculture, minerals. I think there is a lot of opportunity here. The government has been saying that they want to re-engage and they have been on this mission for re-engagement, we have been there, never left Zimbabwe. We have been here through our development cooperation, we have a free trade agreement with Zimbabwe so the basis for closer cooperation is there, but we have been hoping that the reform agenda the government set forward would move faster.
And, obviously, now the violence and human rights violations in January were a setback, that’s clear.
BM: What’s your assessment of the decision by the EU not to extended existing sanctions on Zimbabwe, is this a sign of goodwill?
TO: The restrictive measures are there and while they do not have an economic impact, they do have a symbolic value. I think the member states were not ready for a complete overhaul, especially after the January events, because they are still looking at how the situation evolves.
It needs to be recognised that the restrictive measures are a legal instrument, it’s something that when you do something with the list there, it has legal implications, so there needs to be certain amount of certainty when you make changes. But like our high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Federica Mogherini said that the possibility of looking at the list is always there.
BM: There were proposals in the EU parliament to have more restrictive measures imposed on Zimbabwe. How do you view that and how does the parliament influence what the EU bloc acts on?
TO: The parliament is independent from other EU institutions; so political statements from the parliament are something we need to take account of, in political terms.
Strictly speaking, they are not binding on the council of ministers that then decide on the policy, but they’re certainly something, politically, that they have to take into consideration, when they make decisions. I think the discussions in parliament are a reflection of concerns that are there in Europe on the situation of Zimbabwe.
BM: Do you think the violence and state-orchestrated killings in recent months have affected Zimbabwe’s investment prospects, particularly from the EU?
TO: I have no doubt that they influenced investor perceptions because investors are not looking only on stability and security, but they are also looking at democratic and human rights environments and degree of law enforceability. It’s not only about the security of their investments but the overall operating environment, at least for the Western companies, these issues about social responsibility for companies are also important. So I’m afraid these kinds of events—not only afraid—but I know these kinds of events are not positive for investor perception.
BM: Have the investors said anything in relation to these events?
TO: There are a number of companies that are concerned about many issues in Zimbabwe; the operating environment; the expatriation of profits and so forth. These kinds of events about farm invasions and all these, are a deteriorating factor to people who are looking at Zimbabwe as an opportunity for investment. Those who are already here are different because many of them are quite resilient.
I think Zimbabwe is losing out on an opportunity to getting more people, more companies, and I know there has been a substantial interest from our side, but people are waiting and seeing how the situation evolves.
BM: Then there is the issue of Zimbabwe debt payments, the Lima process, do you still support that, in light of the human rights abuses?
TO: I think it’s a very important process, everything influences each other, politics is not separate from economics and economics is not separate from politics, so all of these are interlinked. I think the arrear settlement process is an important one and I hope that it will progress and they will be finding a way on how to settle these arrears so that Zimbabwe can tap into the international lending markets later on. But the political aspects come when you are thinking about the creditors of Zimbabwe and their willingness of chipping in into this kind of resolution is dependent on whether there is credibility in the agenda, both on the economic and political side. So of course all the bad news is a setback. In this sense it’s a question of trust and credibility, which needs to be there especially if the expectation is that there will be some kind of significant financial flexibility from the creditors’ side or members of the financial institutions. So all of these are interlinked but I think it’s an important process to press forward in any case.
We support the reform process, a comprehensive reform process, which we hope will result in some kind of a Zimbabwe rejoining the financial markets through an arrears settlement of one kind.
BM: What do you think Zimbabwe needs to do to show it is serious about upholding human rights, from the shootings in August, to the January killings?
TO: I think, and this is something that I have been taking up with the government of Zimbabwe, they have to ensure that there is no impunity. And there has been a series of human rights violations, which need to be investigated. We have heard promises that the killings and other violence that happened will be investigated and the culprits will be brought to book. I think that’s really important, now the follow-up on that. Because Zimbabwe has had traumatic experiences in its history earlier, it’s important now that these events be followed up. All crimes that were committed that they will followed up regardless of the perpetrators and there is a lot of evidence pointing out to the security services behind these human rights violations.
There is a difference between crimes and human rights violations, and the human rights violations are the big issue here. And also a reflection on how did this happen and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There was the commission of inquiry into August 1, which is quite an important one and they came up with important recommendations which the government have promised that they will follow up on. That will be a step forward if the recommendations are followed. The use of live ammunition, for example, directly reflects in the report and how the security acted in general and I think that would be positive if those are followed up.
And then also how it is perceived that the civil society is somehow opposed to the government, we have close relations with many of those civil society actors and we hope there will be no persecution of civil society for the work that they are doing.
BM: Would you say you were disappointed with what has been happening in Zimbabwe of late?
TO: Yes, initially I was shocked, when it started. The level of violence, and disappointment is not a wrong word to describe it. But we are still having discussions with Zimbabwe, we are not abandoning it.
BM: What’s your assessment on the rule of law in Zimbabwe?
TO: There were causes of concern which we highlighted in our discussions with government representatives, issues that the Law Society took up, for example, and what lawyers have been saying about the courts being independent. All these are important and should be taken seriously. The whole issue about these crimes and human rights violations that took place in January, now is the time to show that there is rule of law and all these will be followed up and action will be taken and that will be really important.
It’s hard to say, and obviously there are limits to what a diplomat should say about what the courts in your host country should be doing, but I do hope that the investigations and the legal processes that will follow serve as proof that the rule of law is functioning in the country.
BM: What’s your take on the dialogue process that has been proposed, how do you think it can be achieved?
TO: Being a diplomat by profession, I think dialogue is essential. You need to have discussions going on and I think it’s positive that there have been these initiatives to promote dialogue.
How that unfolds is an issue for Zimbabweans to decide, I think to promote stability and a common vision for the country, I think it would be good for all stakeholders to come together. It is good that the church were also trying to get that going. All of these efforts in trying to support dialogue, and reconciliations are important.
BM: And then there was the EU observer mission report that raised certain electoral concerns, how is the EU going to take that forward? Will action be taken?
TO: Definitively, electoral observer missions such as that is a big investment, it costs a lot of money to organise for something like that, but not only because of that, but also because of the importance that electoral processes have in countries, we have an obligation to follow up on those recommendations. So that’s what we are doing, we are also taking dialogue with government, with the Minister of Justice, for example, trying to impress on them to take these recommendations. And we recognise that our recommendations are not the only game in town, there were other observations as well, international and domestic, but we indeed have an obligation to follow up on recommendations that were put forward by the EU mission, and we hope they will be helpful and be taken into account and we are supporting the different stakeholders in taking them forward.
BM: How can Zimbabwe rebuild its economy?
TO: I think there should be enough attention on structural issues, obviously there are some burning issues that need to be tackled, the import bill, the forex and all these other issues that require immediate attention, but I hope this wouldn’t mean taking the focus completely away from the structural issues, policy issues because these ultimately would result in Zimbabwe becoming the economic powerhouse it should be. These include agriculture policies, security of tenure, the transparency in the mining sector and how it operates, most of which are mentioned in the TSP (Transitional Stabilisation Programme) and hopefully there would be a plan and we will be very supportive of these processes.