BY TENDAI DUMBUTSHENA
WHEN President Emmerson Mnangagwa was installed as President of Zimbabwe in November 2017 following a military coup and his predecessor Robert Mugabe’s enforced resignation, he boldly announced to the world that “Zimbabwe is Open for Business”.
Faced with an economy in free-fall, he realised that he had to convince sceptics in important capitals of the world that the end of Mugabe’s rule signalled a break with the past. He met with white commercial farmers and undertook to pay financial compensation for improvements they made on their expropriated farms. This was intended to send a message that property rights would be protected.
He promised to effect economic reforms that would attract foreign direct investment to Zimbabwe. The appointment of a technocrat Mthuli Ncube as finance minister was intended to underscore this message of economic renewal.
President Mnangagwa knew that the real test of whether his government was willing to turn a new leaf lay in the political sphere. For his so-called Second Republic to be able to convince those world powers that had imposed sanctions against the Mugabe regime, it had to demonstrate a genuine commitment to transform Zimbabwe into a genuine constitutional democracy.
He had to convince Zimbabweans that the politics of violence, rigged elections, human rights abuses and a highly partisan security sector would be abandoned.
It is only a package of fundamental and irreversible economic and political reforms that would justify the lifting of the limited sanctions imposed principally by the United States of America, the European Union and recently by a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
The sanctions were imposed in response to the land invasions in 2000 and the violent and rigged 2000 and 2002 elections.
They imposed financial and visa sanctions on designated individuals and entities thought to be instrumental in undermining democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe. They also included a ban on the sale of military hardware, technology and spare parts. The United States’ Zimbabwe Democracy Recovery Act (Zidera) of 2001 cited economic mismanagement as one of the reasons for its sanctions package.
The Act instructs US executives in international financial institutions to oppose loan credit or guarantees to Zimbabwe and to ensure that it fully meets its debt obligations. The EU sanctions have over the years been whittled down with a handful of individuals and entities still on the designated list. An arms embargo still remains.
The USA, EU and UK have made it clear that there has to be political and economic reforms before sanctions can be lifted. The administration in Harare has never accepted that its record on governance, human rights, violent and rigged elections and corruption were what triggered the sanctions. It maintains that sanctions were imposed in response to its land redistribution programme. There is therefore no common baseline of facts.
Furthermore, the government in Harare believes that it has already implemented the reforms that are being called for.
Mnangagwa recently lamented: “Despite opening up the political space, strengthening the rule of law, transparency, accountability and ramping up the war against corruption, crippling sanctions remain. Zimbabwe is simply held to disproportionate standards like no other country.”
The President had an opportunity to convince the world that under his leadership the (Zanu PF) leopard would change its spots. He could have, after the coup, opted for a genuine transitional government mandated to enact all necessary reforms to ensure a free and fair election a year later.
This would have established his bona fides and created confidence that Zanu PF was serious about creating a new political order supported by all Zimbabweans. The transitional period would have given Zimbabweans an opportunity to agree on what kind of country they wanted to live in beyond the politics.
But old habits die hard. There were no confidence building measures taken as the country headed for elections in July 2018. Even a visible and impactful gesture like allowing the ZBC to give fair coverage to all contesting parties could not be done. This was at a time when there was domestic and international goodwill towards Mnangagwa, flowing from the relief of Mugabe’s departure.
Any hope that Zimbabwe was on the cusp of new beginnings was shattered on August 1, 2018 when soldiers deployed to quell a demonstration against a “delay” in announcing results of the presidential election killed six unarmed civilians. This was done in the presence of major international media networks covering the election. That Harare perpetrated such brazen brutality in the plain view of the world was conclusive evidence of its incorrigibility.
There were more killings by the state apparatus. In January 2019, the state security forces killed 17 unarmed civilians — their crime was protesting against a steep hike in the price of fuel.
The killings demonstrated that Zanu PF had not changed an iota. The only change was that it now had a new leader. The killings illustrated that it had no interest in fundamentally reforming the political and economic system to meet internationally acceptable standards of constitutional democracy and human rights.
What the coup did, by putting the military into the heart of government, was to add Zimbabwe to the list of countries where the army is dominant in the politics and economy. Countries like Egypt, Venezuela, Cuba, Myanmar and Sudan, even after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019, come to mind. To make matters worse the military in these countries have big stakes in their economies providing a huge incentive to use force to preserve the regimes.
The British, who had initially welcomed the elevation of Mnangagwa to the presidency and were open to working with him, have now taken a hard line.
The Zanu PF government, while inconvenienced by sanctions targeted at certain individuals and entities, can live with them. It will not go down a path of reforms that carry political risks for the party. There is no incentive for Zanu PF to depart from a script that has served it well for the last 40 years. It will continue to govern without being constrained by any inconvenient laws.
Its power is well entrenched while the main opposition MDC party is in tatters. Civil society is exhausted and underfunded. It has a vast majority in Parliament. An all-powerful presidency solidly buttressed by the military sees no reason to change course. The Zanu PF government, with the military at its core, has morphed into a fully-fledged kleptocracy ruthlessly determined to protect its power and wealth. Why should it tinker at the margins with reforms that might bring the whole edifice crashing down?
There is also no incentive for the US, EU and UK to go beyond the limited measures they have taken against Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is of no strategic value to their interests. If it was, these powers would use their leverage to effect change in Zimbabwe. It is common knowledge that Sadc is heavily dependent on funding from Western countries for its programmes. When the Zimbabwe crisis drew the attention of the world in the 2000s, Sadc raised issues of concern with the Mugabe administration at the behest of its benefactors.
Without that pressure, Sadc remains a passive onlooker as Zimbabwe races to the bottom. The only thing that would provoke a more muscular response from the West would be if the Mnangagwa administration were to commit atrocities on a scale that warrants external intervention.
So the impasse will persist. The ruling elite in Zimbabwe will, in the absence of strong internal or external pressure, continue to govern in a manner to which it has become accustomed. The US and UK will go through the annual ritual of extending sanctions with minor modifications and forget about Zimbabwe until the next extension is due.
With the UK out of the EU, Brussels may have no incentive to renew its limited measures against Zimbabwe.
It only requires one of the 27 EU member states to object to the continuation of sanctions against Zimbabwe for them to fall away.
Tendai Dumbutshena is a journalist who worked for The Zimbabwe Times, BBC Focus On Africa and Times Media Group( now Tiso Blackstar) in South Africa. He is based in Johannesburg.