Nyathi said that in the meeting, Laing “sounded to be really forcing a line that Mnangagwa is the person to work with, and she wanted our opinions around that”.
Zanu PF’s opponents have alleged a years-long close relationship between Laing and Mnangagwa.
“When he was vice-president, Catriona Laing had already started working for Mnangagwa, if not working with him,” said Jealousy Mawarire, currently a spokesperson for the opposition National Patriotic Front party, in an interview with The Politic.
Mawarire said Laing requested to meet him in October 2016, when he was working for a different opposition party, Zimbabwe People First.
“She purported to want to understand how the Zimbabwe People First was faring as a political party,” Mawarire remembered. “But to my surprise, when she came, all the questions, everything that she wanted to know was whether Mnangagwa had chances of succeeding Mugabe.”
Guided by Laing, the British were “arguing that Zimbabwe needs a strongman”, said Tendai Biti, a senior opposition figure, when speaking with South Africa’s Daily Maverick newspaper in 2016. “By that they mean a man called Emmerson Mnangagwa, who suddenly is a reformer.”
British journalist Martin Fletcher reported from Zimbabwe in 2016.
“Almost anyone you spoke to in the opposition camp told you as a matter of course that the British were well-disposed towards Mnangagwa. It was a sort of conventional wisdom,” he said.
Britain changes course
After the MDC was founded in 1999, Mugabe accused Western countries, and especially Britain, of backing the opposition party as part of a regime-change plot.
In 2004, when then-British prime minister Tony Blair told the UK parliament: “We work closely with the MDC on the measures that we should take in respect of Zimbabwe”; Mugabe’s allies seized on the slip to attack the MDC as a “British puppet”.
But the MDC, then led by Morgan Tsvangirai, failed to unseat Mugabe in three consecutive unfair elections.
“It became clear that Zanu PF was so entrenched that they would probably not give up power,” said Alex Magaisa, a former advisor to Tsvangirai, in an interview. “And I think that in about 2013 or 2014 or thereabouts, or maybe earlier, [Britain] decided to change course and decided to work with a faction of Zanu PF which they thought would be progressive or pragmatic.”
Laing arrived in Harare in 2014.
“I don’t think that any ambassador works in a vacuum,” former MDC senator Coltart said, explaining that he thought Laing received “broad instructions” from London on how to approach Zimbabwe’s political scene.
According to Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at SOAS University of London said he maintained “good relations” with Laing, the rivalry in Zanu PF between Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe was a crucial factor in the ambassador’s thinking.
According to Chan, Laing believed “a very great deal more pragmatism was likely to come out of Mnangagwa’s camp than out of Grace Mugabe’s camp”.
But the coup would have taken place regardless of Laing’s opinion, and in Chan’s view, once Mnangagwa was president, the Foreign Office simply sought to work constructively with him as a national leader.
MDC supporters accusing Laing of helping Mnangagwa win re-election were “just searching for things that don’t really exist”, Chan said.
Open for business
Blessing-Miles Tendi, a professor of African politics at the University of Oxford, believes that preferring Mnangagwa over Grace Mugabe — as most foreign diplomats in Zimbabwe did — was not logical.
“You want to think in terms of lesser evils,” Tendi told The Politic. And for Tendi, the lesser evil was Grace Mugabe.
Tendi pointed to Mnangagwa’s role in Gukurahundi, in the 2008 election violence, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war at the turn of the century. The Zimbabwean military intervened in the war and worked with Zanu PF-linked businessmen to illegally mine and sell Congolese diamonds. A 2002 United Nations report identified Mnangagwa as a key figure in the Zimbabwean “elite network” responsible for the plunder.
“(In) the darkest episodes in Zimbabwe’s history, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s name is central,” Tendi said. “Not Grace.”
But Mnangagwa was perceived, both domestically and internationally, as a pro-business pragmatist potentially capable of reviving the economy that Mugabe had run into the ground.
Magaisa, the advisor to Tsvangirai, found it plausible that the UK was eyeing business opportunities in mineral-rich Zimbabwe. (Magaisa did not have a “firm opinion” as to whether Britain favoured Mnangagwa in the 2018 election.)
In March 2018, Mnangagwa’s government relaxed a Mugabe-era law that limited foreign ownership in multiple sectors.
“Investment opportunities in Gold, platinum, coal, chrome, nickel, copper, lithium, tin, tantalinte (sic), iron ore, coal bed methane, natural gas, and more,” advertises the website of the Zimbabwe Mining Investment Conference 2019, scheduled for August, where Mnangagwa will be the guest of honour.
“Britain is also facing its own crisis with Brexit, and if they leave the EU, they are going to have to chart their own course,” Magaisa said. “And I think that Zimbabwe and other countries around the world will become more and more important in terms of business.”
But Cross and Tendi reasoned that for the UK, any benefits of post-Brexit trade with Zimbabwe would be negligible. Though vast, Zimbabwe’s mineral reserves are largely undeveloped, and the current cash crisis makes the country an especially risky bet for foreign firms.
“You can get this stuff anywhere else for less hassle,” Tendi said of Zimbabwe’s natural resources.
If not economic benefits, Britain may have sought influence in its former colony — but with Mugabe reviled across the British political spectrum, improved relations with Zimbabwe were off the table until Mugabe was out of office.
Julia Gallagher, a professor of African politics at SOAS University of London, explained the British government’s logic: “If we get anyone other than Mugabe, we can then begin to explain how we are justified in re-engaging.”
Tendi added that, in his view, Brexit did encourage Britain to embrace Mnangagwa after the 2017 coup, just not in the most obvious way.
“It’s not so much about trade, markets, or anything like that,” Tendi said. “If you bring Zimbabwe in out of the cold, and Britain is seen as facilitating that … the symbolism that Britain still has a role outside the EU has significance.”
But Britain has been accused of supporting Mnangagwa’s ambitions once before: in 2002, long before Zimbabwe’s coup, and when Brexit was still a fringe idea.
A British-backed succession plan?
In 2002, Zimbabwe faced inflation and impending famine, and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai lost his first unfair election to Mugabe, although the opposition did not recognize the result, and Western countries condemned the election as severely flawed.
Retired Zimbabwean army Colonel Lionel Dyke and then-commander of the Zimbabwean military General Vitalis Zvinavashe drew up a plan under which Mugabe could cede power — to Mnangagwa.
In December 2002, Dyke approached Tsvangirai and Geoffrey Nyarota, the then-editor of the independent Daily News, which was strongly critical of Zanu PF. Tsvangirai and Nyarota received different stories about the succession plan from Dyke, but both involved Britain.
According to Tsvangirai’s version of events, published in a February 2003 article by South African journalist Allister Sparks, Dyke wanted to discuss Mugabe’s potential retirement and he also told Tsvangirai that an officer of the British intelligence service, MI6, had asked Dyke to make his initial approach to Zvinavashe, before the plan to put Mnangagwa in charge had been laid out.
Dyke, who now lives in South Africa, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Tendi, who said he has known Dyke for seven or eight years, believes Dyke was not acting on behalf of British intelligence.
“He detests everything British,” Tendi said, explaining that working for MI6 would involve too much politics for a professional soldier like Dyke. “He doesn’t like dealing with the Brits at all.”
In Tendi’s view, Dyke, motivated in part by his business interests — at the time, he ran a landmine-clearing company called MineTech — approached Zvinavashe with hopes of finding a peaceful solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis.
“I was not planning to kill Mugabe,” Dyke explained in a 2012 interview with Tendi. “I wanted to arrange a safe retirement plan for him and stop the country’s economic decline.”
Also in December 2002, South African MP Patrick Moseke, claiming to negotiate on Mnangagwa’s behalf, requested to meet with Coltart of the MDC in Johannesburg. There, Moseke proposed to Coltart that the MDC could get token representation in a unity government led by Mnangagwa.
The opposition refused to play along.
“The feeling within the MDC was that the approaches were designed to co-opt the MDC as a minority player in a process to sanitise the Zanu PF regime and leave it in power,” Coltart later wrote in his autobiography, The Struggle Continues. On December 18, 2002, Tsvangirai released a statement condemning “this dirty plan … endorsed by Zanu PF, the British, and the South Africans”.
In 2008, Nyarota wrote that Dyke told him of talks with Tsvangirai’s rivals in the MDC, Welshman Ncube and Paul Themba Nyathi, about a plan that would “sideline both Mugabe and Tsvangirai”.
Dyke wanted the Daily News to support the plan, but an unimpressed Nyarota exposed it in the paper instead, with a hint of a British connection.
“It is understood Dyke (sic) has also established contacts with … politicians in London in a bid to canvass support for a new Zanu PF-military driven political agenda,” the Daily News reported on December 19, 2002.
In his interview with Tendi, Dyke said that he had sought support for the succession plan — it remains unclear which version — from both the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department.
“It was interesting, talking to the Brits and Americans, that they were quite happy for Zanu PF to continue in power as long as Mugabe was not there,” Dyke recalled.
Dyke “didn’t say that there was anything close to universal support for Mnangagwa” in the Foreign Office, Tendi noted.
But Ibbo Mandaza, who was the editor and publisher of Harare’s Sunday Mirror newspaper when it reported the succession plan story in January 2003, is convinced of a link between suggestions of British backing for Mnangagwa in 2002 and the allegations that dogged Laing last year.
In a 2014 editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent, Mandaza argued that Mnangagwa’s rise in Zanu PF was a victory for Zimbabwe’s “securocratic state” — the country’s military elite.
“Our army was trained by the British,” Mandaza told The Politic.
British advisors trained the Zimbabwean army between 1980 and 2001. In 2017, Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, conducted an analysis of Foreign Office cables from the period of the worst Gukurahundi massacres, in early 1983. She concluded that both British diplomats and military advisors were well aware of the Zimbabwean army’s atrocities yet chose to downplay them, believing Mugabe’s government was an important strategic partner for the UK
Coltart, who defended dissidents during Gukurahundi as a human rights lawyer, does not think Britain’s current policy toward Zimbabwe is motivated by cold political calculus.
While acknowledging Britain’s economic interests, Coltart took care to note the historical, artistic and sporting ties between his country and the UK
“It’s a multifaceted relationship between Britain and Zimbabwe,” Coltart said, “and I think both sides would like to restore that relationship.”
But for some in Zimbabwe’s opposition, civil society and independent media, trust in the UK is already gone. An editorial comment published on February 7, 2019 in the independent daily NewsDay — no friend of Mnangagwa — denounced the British government’s “self-serving” condemnation of the January crackdown.
When Zimbabweans wanted a free and fair election, NewsDay’s editors reminded readers: “The British told anybody who cared to listen that Mnangagwa was the man of the moment and required international support.”
The editorial called for dialogue in Zimbabwe and, from Mnangagwa, reform. “To the British, please leave us alone,” it concluded. “You have already failed us when we needed you most.” — The Politic.
Nagvekar is studying towards a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology at Yale University. He has also sought to use bisulfite sequencing to determine patterns of human papillomavirus DNA methylation in Zimbabwean patient samples.