By Nevanji Madanhire
ON February 5, 2018 United States President Donald Trump wrote to the US Congress that he was extending sanctions on Zimbabwe by another year. This year President Joe Biden did the same.
The gist of Trump’s letter was that Zimbabwe “continue(s) to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States”.
“The actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.”
But what is the US foreign policy and how is Zimbabwe a threat to it?
“American foreign policy should serve the interests of the American people and our values,” says a member of The Heritage Foundation, which is described as the US’s foremost conservative think-tank that has shaped American foreign policy since its founding in 1973.
The US has been engaged in mortal combat with Russia and China since the Cold War years or even earlier. It has maintained sanctions on Russia since the rise of the Bolsheviks a century ago. The new battlefield is now Africa wherein China and Russia are making major strides.
“Both Russia and China are keen to play a future role in Africa. The difference between these two major powers is that China forms part of the Asian regional economy. This will surpass North America and Europe combined, in terms of global power — based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment,” writes Theo Neethling professor and head of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa, for The Conversation website.
Russia leads the Eurasian bloc, which is becoming increasingly powerful. Russia is the second largest exporter of arms to Africa and its ally Belarus (also sanctioned by the US and the European Union) has entered the fray as one of the 18 biggest exporters of weapons.
Zimbabwe’s close relations with the Asian regional economy led by China and the Eurasian bloc led by Russia are at the heart of the falling-out with the US.
Addressing the Heritage Foundation on December 6, 2018, Trump’s then national security adviser John Bolton said: “Great-power competitors — namely, China and Russia — are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”
In his remarks, Bolton emphasised that a free, growing, and self-sufficient Africa is of the utmost importance to the United States’ national security interests — a belief that he said previous administrations did not share.
Criticism of the New Africa Strategy says its primary purpose is counter Chinese influence on the continent.
Zhang Chao, an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences posits that the strategy seems to be more about competing with China than benefiting African countries.
Bolton confirmed this by declaring that the overriding target of the US strategy is to counter Chinese influence across the continent.
The relationship between Zimbabwe and three countries that influence the United States’ policies towards it, namely China, Russia and Belarus seem to determine US-Zimbabwe relations.
Chinese influence in Zimbabwe
China has been the single largest foreign direct investment source for Zimbabwe in nearly two decades.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to invest US$60 billion in Africa. Zimbabwe in the last few years got about US$3 billion of this.
Several prospective Chinese investors have already been to Zimbabwe, according to top Chinese diplomat Zhao Baogang.
In Zimbabwe, the Chinese have interests in mining, manufacturing and steel and hospitality sectors.
Two Chinese companies have shown interest in Kamative lithium. Lithium can potentially generate US$3 billion in yearly revenue.
A Chinese businessman has shown interest in steelmaker Ziscosteel, once the biggest consolidated steelworks in Africa south of the Sahara.
Zimbabwe has signed a memorandum of agreement with a Chinese firm Tsingshan Holdings for the construction of a US$1 billion stainless steel plant in the Midlands town of Mvuma, which could create 3 000 jobs.
Chinese shoemaker Huajian Group is set to set up a US$2 billion shoe factory in Zimbabwe, which could create 15 000 jobs.
A Chinese light truck maker has pledged to partner Quest in Mutare and other organisations wish to invest in agriculture, especially the production of citrus fruits.
The Chinese also want to go into rail and furniture manufacturing.
China Aid is building the new Zimbabwe parliament in Mt Hampden at a cost of US$300 million and a new capital, which will serve at least 1,2 million people.
A five star hotel in Mt Hampden will also be built. The expansion of the Robert Mugabe International Airport and Hwange Thermal Power Station are already work in progress.
Zimbabwe’s relationship with China makes it therefore a “threat to the foreign policy of the United States”.
Russia and Zimbabwe
Russia-Zimbabwe relations are also of concern to the US. In October 2014, local media reported that the Obama administration warned Zimbabwe about its growing economic dealings with Russia and threatened further sanctions against Zimbabwe in the wake of the platinum deal the two countries had entered.
According to the Carnegie Moscow Centre (CMC), Moscow is now seeking to establish cooperation with Harare not only in the traditional commodities sector but also in new areas.
Russians played a significant role in the July 2018 presidential election that saw the ruling party’s Emmerson Mnangagwa officially elected. This localised success could be the start of more systemic Russian participation in political processes across the African continent according to the CMC.
The 2018 election in Zimbabwe was seemingly the first time in post-Soviet history that Russian political consultants played an active role in an election campaign in an African nation.
In March 2018 Zimbabwe Electoral Commission head Priscilla Chigumba and then-presidential advisor Christopher Mutsvangwa visited Moscow.
“Chigumba and Nikolai Levichev, a member of Russia’s central election commission, discussed suspicious-sounding topics such as ‘issues of electoral sovereignty’ during their meeting.”
On August 10, 2018, when the Zimbabwean opposition protested the election results, the first vice-president and shadow leader of the country Constantino Chiwenga flew to Russia with a “special message” for President Vladimir Putin. Tellingly, Chiwenga took part in the closing ceremony of the International Army Games and met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
From July 25-27, 2018, President Mnangagwa visited the BRICS summit in South Africa and met with Putin at the height of his election campaign.
“The West can count on virtually no one in Zimbabwe. The UK and the United States have long lost control of the situation there, and now China and South Africa, as Zimbabwe’s main partners, are interested in the political and economic stabilisation of the country,” says the CMC.
In mid-January 2018 Mnangagwa paid an official working visit to Moscow. According to a Herald report, he told Sputnik News Agency (SNA) in an interview: “We have always had cooperation in the field of defence and security with Russia. This we are not abandoning. At the moment, we don’t have much economic muscle to buy such things which we would want to buy from the Russian Federation.
“But down the line, as Zimbabwe becomes stronger in terms of its economic muscle, we should be able to buy the type of military hardware, which we know the Russian Federation has and the state-of-the-art type of equipment that they have, so we are not in a hurry.”
According to Neethling, Russia is gradually increasing its influence in Africa through strategic investment in energy and minerals. It is also using military muscle and soft power.
Russia is the second largest exporter of arms globally, and a major supplier to African states. Over the past two decades it has pursued military ties with various African countries, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Russia has also been actively supporting Zimbabwe. Shortly after it was reported in 2018 that China had placed new generation surface-to-air missiles in Zimbabwe, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that his country was pursuing military cooperation.
Belarus and Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has good relations with Belarus, a country on the European Union and US sanctions lists which raises a red flag in Washington and worsens its relationship with the US.
Zimbabwe has taken delivery recently of farm equipment from the Eurasian country. But Belarus is now among the top arms traders in the world. It earned over US$1 billion from the arms trade in 2017, and has entered the Top 18 of the world’s largest arms exporters.
Former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon once accused Belarus of being “arms dealer to the world’s pariahs”.
Belarus manufactures state-of-the-art advanced military systems. The sale of radar and electronic warfare systems, drones, and the upgrade of the Soviet systems, including air defence systems and radars, account for the largest arms trade revenues.
Russia and Belarus are close allies. A nuclear power plant is being built with Russian assistance in Belarus.
Like Zimbabwe, Belarus is considered an international pariah.
The continued extension of sanctions against Zimbabwe should therefore be seen in the context of Trump’s New Africa Strategy which according to Foreign Policy magazine “has apparently become official US policy”.
“Under our New African Strategy we will target US funding towards key countries and particular strategic objectives. All US aid on the continent will advance US interests and help African nations move towards self-reliance.”
In its Human Rights Report for 2018 the US government pointed to values it said the harmonised elections of that year violated:
“Human rights issues included arbitrary killings, government-targeted abductions, and arbitrary arrests; torture; harsh prison conditions; criminal libel; censorship; restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; government corruption; ineffective government response towards violence against women; and criminalisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct.”
Any country that goes against these values contradicts US strategic objectives which mainly include countering China’s and Russia’s “competitive advantage over the United States.”
- Madanhire is a journalist and the Associate Editor at the Zimbabwe Independent.