THE decision by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to employ a public relations consultancy firm to lobby for the scrapping of United States sanctions is futile as the real solution lies in implementing political and economic reforms.
By Kudzai Kuwaza
On February 13, the Zimbabwean government signed a contract with an American consulting firm, Ballard Partners Inc, in a desperate move to charm US President Donald Trump’s administration.
There were two signatories to the agreement. The government was represented by Foreign Affairs and International Trade minister Sibusiso Moyo. Brian Ballard — a prominent lobbyist in Washington DC and president of Ballard Partners Inc — signed for the consultancy.
According to the terms of the contract, the US company will lobby on behalf of the Zimbabwean government and provide advice on communications strategy. Harare will pay an annual fee of US$500 000 for two years. This follows the decision by the American government to extend the sanctions.
In a notice issued by Trump last week, the White House said it was extending its restrictions against Mnangagwa’s administration by another year. Trump said regardless of Zimbabwe declaring a new dispensation, there were no tangible reforms and the new government continued to pose threats to democracy and US foreign policy. The conditions for the removal of the sanctions include restoration of the rule of law, free and fair elections, equitable, legal and transparent land reform and a military and national police surbodinate to government. The European Union also extended sanctions, demanding the restoration of the rule of law and respect for property rights as conditions for their removal.
The extension of the sanctions comes in the wake of the killing of at least 17 people by security forces following protests triggered by a 150% fuel hike by government in mid-January. Thousands were either arrested or severely beaten up in the violent crackdown.
Opposition members, among them Harare West member of the National Assembly Joanna Mamombe and Kuwadzana East house legislator Charlton Hwende, have been arrested on treason charges which have drawn widespread condemnation even from the Mnangagwa administration’s erstwhile cheerleaders such as the United Kingdom. A civilian was recently arrested for pointing out that he did not like Mnangagwa in a move reminiscent of the Mugabe era.
The crackdown has raised serious questions as to whether the government is serious about implementing substantial reforms.
The arrests and shootings of civilians in January comes on the heels of the killing of at least six people in August last year after protests over irregularities in the harmonised elections held on July 30 last year.
The killings, torture and rape of civilians and the shutting down of the internet during the January crackdown have thrown Mnangagwa’s re-engagement drive with Western countries off balance.
The impact of sanctions would be minimal if government instituted proper mechanisms of governance, according to economist and the CEO Africa Roundtable chairperson Oswell Binha.
“I believe that proper structure mechanisms by government will reduce the sanctions to a bare minimum,” Binha opined. “There is need to ensure accountability in the way we handle state activities. We have overplayed the sanctions mantra to the detriment of initiative and creativity as a nation. Sanctions have become the midwife to mediocrity, lack of accountability and general impunity in the state mechanism.”
He cited the looting of diamonds in Marange which could have contributed to the country’s economic revival as an example of the impunity and lack of accountability blighting the country.
Binha said that Zimbabwe, in any case, cannot dictate to the US within the broad spectrum of bilateral relations in the community of nations.
“If we want to be friends with the Americans, we have to listen to what they want,” said Binha.
A paper by US diplomats Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Bruce Wharton clearly spells out US scepticism over Harare’s commitment to genuine reform.
“But other than a different President, Zimbabwe has not changed much as events of January 2019 have shown — grossly disproportionate use of police and military to stop protests and looting — Zimbabwe government/ruling party remains willing to do whatever it takes to remain in power,” part of the paper read.
“While government talking points on fundamental issues such as rule of law, debt and international co-operation are more rational, measurable reform is elusive … the government economic managers continue to look for short-term responses to systemic problems, print fake money and extract hard currency from any place they can find it.”
They note that Mnangagwa remains beholden to the military that was responsible for elevating him to the presidency after toppling Robert Mugabe.
“Hopes that Zimbabwe, through Mnangagwa and his government would be one of those rare examples of a military coup that restores democracy are slowly and methodically being dashed by a military not willing to allow change,” the envoys said.
Government needs to put its house in order before it cries foul over sanctions, business consultant Simon Kayereka says.
“We do not need other countries to clean up our backyard. We need to do it ourselves,” Kayereka notes.
“Once we clean up the world will see it and the sanctions will be removed.”
He said government’s hiring of a public relations firm to fight sanctions is a tried and failed method.
“It seems we never learn. We repeat the same things and expect different results. It does not happen that way,” Kayereka said.
The hiring of a public relations firm is a well-trodden path. During his leadership tenure, Mugabe hired New African magazine to write a profile on Zimbabwe in a bid to cleanse the government’s tainted image. However, it did little to change the global negative perception and the country remained isolated.