While President Emmerson Mnangagwa is relishing his forthcoming visit to the United Kingdom for COP26 — the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference — the Zimbabwean leader will fly into Glasgow at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries have deteriorated again after briefly thawing in 2017 following a military coup which propelled him to power.
COP26 is scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November, under the co-presidency of the United Kingdom and Italy.
Mnangagwa will be attending. His visit is significant because Britain supported his rise to power despite the current frosty relations. Significantly, no Zimbabwean leader has visited the UK in 25 years notwithstanding the countries’ close colonial history.
Although the Zimbabwean government spokesman Nick Mangwana claims that Mnangagwa’s first visit to the UK is as a result of a successful re-engagement drive, it is apparent that relations between Zimbabwe and her former colonial mas-ter are still frosty, showing no signs of thawing.
“No Zimbabwean leader has officially visited the United Kingdom in 25 years. The effort to make Zimbabwe a normal member of the community of nations is bearing fruit,” Mangwana said.
In a desperate bid to end its pariah status, the government has been running the #EnemyTo-NoneFriendToAll campaign.
“I am eagerly looking forward to my first visit to the United Kingdom. @COP26 meeting of nations comes at an extraordinary time in world history. Many countries are still battling the pandemic, whilst having to undertake immense changes to our economies to meet climate goals,” Mnangagwa wrote on Twitter.
In another tweet, Mnangagwa said: “Zimbabwe has come a long way over the past three years, I hope our presence @COP26 and our commitment to the global fight against climate change will be recognised as part of our ongoing re-engagement campaign”.
Mnangagwa will be among many heads of state, ministers and climate change activists in Glasgow to discuss the world’s mounting climate crisis.
This week, the UK maintained that sanctions on Zimbabwe were targeted and did not affect trade between the two countries. An online battle between the UK embassy and the Zimbabwean government revealed deep-seated hostilities and narrative contestations, further widening fissures between the two states.
“Good to have a chance to make this clear again. The UK has imposed sanctions on 5 Zimbabweans for well-documented serious human rights abuses & corruption. We work to encourage exports from Zimbabwe to the UK: UK-Zim trade was 244m last financial year! #itsnotsanctions,” the embassy wrote on Twitter.
“Zimbabwe’s economy has serious challenges, but #itsnotsanctions Investors say there are steps Zimbabwe could take to improve its business climate & grow FDI — enacting currency re-forms, guaranteeing property rights & investors’ ability to obtain legal redress via the courts.”
Relations between Harare and London remain strained. Zimbabwe is still no longer in the Commonwealth, although it wants to return amid British resistance. Harare quit the Commonwealth in dramatic fashion in December 2003 after the 54-nation political grouping re-solved to extend sanctions against Robert Mugabe’s regime for violating the bloc’s democratic values.
Britain, which has troubled relations with Zimbabwe dating back to colonial times, is struggling to get it right on how to relate to the southern African nation. The UK has a long history of making mistakes on Zimbabwe, from the colonial times to the present, revealing its protracted and deep misunderstanding of Zimbabwean politics, societal dynamics and history.
It mishandled relations with Ian Smith leading to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965; backed Bishop Abel Muzorewa during Lancaster House Talks in 1979; and even tried to secretly nudge Joshua Nkomo to support that doomed plan — which he rejected as he preferred a Patriotic Front arrangement — in the vain hope of a coalition of moderates, supported by apartheid South Africa. Some in the British establishment did not want Nkomo, as he was Soviet-backed and due to Zipra’s downing of Rhodesian Viscount aircraft during the war.
UDI was a major challenge to the UK’s liberal and democratic approach to decolonisation. It led to British and then United Nations sanctions against Rhodesia. British prime minister Harold Wilson was compelled by contradictory pressures to adopt an equivocal policy towards UDI. While this avoided potential serious consequences for the British economy and diplomacy, it left unresolved the question of Rhodesia’s future, which was decided by Zimbabwe’s liberation war in the 1970s that London lost control of.
Despite being sceptical of Mugabe due to his Marxist posture during the 1979 Lancaster House Conference, Britain, after the 1980 elections, sup-ported him to the hilt until he started seizing land in 2000. Before that, Mugabe wined and dined with British royalty, getting all sorts of awards and tributes, including an honorary knighthood and PhD that were later withdrawn after serious clashes with the Tony Blair government and its successors.
Since the 1980s, Mnangagwa was a critical link in the Mugabe regime between Harare and London. He fancied himself and was seen as the potential successor to Mugabe, believing he was shrewd, technocratic and business friendly.
Over the years, Britain nurtured its relations with Mnangagwa. Even when it was trying to broker a pact between Mnangagwa, the late military commander retired
General Vitalis Zvinavashe and the late founding opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in 2002, he was their pivot to the plan.
After their dalliance with Tsvangirai and the MDC had failed, British diplomats in the UK embassy in Harare and some in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) began to see Mnangagwa as the candidate they could best work with and the alternative to spearhead Mugabe’s removal and implement urgently-needed economic reforms. From 2014 to 2018, former British ambassador to Harare Catriona Laing sought to reset relations between Zimbabwe and the UK. She moved away from supporting the MDC to seeking change from within Zanu PF.
Mnangagwa was their front and point man.
Although the British embassy has always denied supporting any particular candidate, Laing met a number of politicians, civil society leaders and journalists, among other Zimbabweans, in meetings which hinted the UK was supporting Mnangagwa.
Laing supported the Lima process of re-engagement with international financial institutions that was agreed at the end of 2015, laying some groundwork, especially around international expectations regarding both economic and governance reform — the substance of which was analysed in a 2016 Chatham House paper.
Behind the scenes, Britain supported the coup. This became evident after Mugabe was toppled. Its officials were the first on the crime scene and set the agenda and narrative for the world to support Mnangagwa despite scepticism given that he was Mugabe’s enforcer.
UK minister for Africa Harriett Baldwin visited Harare in February 2018. That was the second UK ministerial visit to Zimbabwe since Mnangagwa took over in November 2017.
The UK had even teamed up with Standard Chartered Bank and advanced a US$100 million facility to Zimbabwean companies, the first such direct commercial loan to the southern African nation’s private sector in more than 20 years. The loan was seen as the biggest gesture of cordial diplomatic relations after UK-Zimbabwe relationship soured in the early 2000s.
Throughout the period leading to the July 2018 elections, the UK supported Mnangagwa. Things, however, changed after the 1 August killing of civilians by the military in the streets of Harare. Yet the UK remained hopeful until January 2019 when Mnangagwa’s regime went on a rampage, killing 17 citizens, brutalising dozens, while many were displaced during widespread riots over rising fuel prices. After that the British and international community goodwill evaporated.
Baldwin declared that the UK would no longer support Zimbabwe’s bid to rejoin the Commonwealth and the country’s attempt to attract foreign funders. Lack of political and economic reforms made the situation worse. Baldwin had earlier promised to support Harare’s return to the Commonwealth.
“As of today, the UK would not be able to support this application because we don’t believe that the kinds of human rights violations that we are seeing from security forces in Zimbabwe are the kind of behaviour that you would expect to see from a Commonwealth country,” she said in 2019. Since then, Britain has slapped Zimbabwe with some sanctions, with the latest being in July this year. On the list are four Zimbabwean security sector chiefs implicated in serious human rights violations — including the deaths of 23 Zimbabwean protestors between August 2018 and January 2019.
Following the departure of the UK from the European Union, the country can impose autonomous sanctions. In July, British Foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced new UK sanctions against five individuals, including a top Zimbabwean businessman Kuda Tagwirei, said to be involved in serious corruption.
The UK has made repeated flawed approaches and miscalculations on Zimbabwe over the years. At the centre of its diplomatic blunders has been a failure to apply history and context to diplomacy. That was evident during the 1979 Lancaster House Talks, during Gukurahundi — the UK supported Mugabe during the massacres — and farm seizures in 2000 when the old colonial power refused to engage with the land redistribution question, wallowed in denialism and openly sided with dispossessed white commercial farmers, giving Mugabe hostage to fortune as he framed the fallout and UK intervention as neo-colonial. And this has also been more evident in Britain’s opportunistic and misguided strategy of seeking to re-engage Mugabe after the 2013 elections and Whitehall’s costly miscalculations over Mnangagwa.
In its re-engagement strategy and diplomatic calculations, the British government needs to put on its thinking cap and ensure a deeper understanding of Zimbabwean history, attendant dynamics and its role to deal effectively with its current problems with Harare. Myopic and opportunistic self-interest, just like what Mnangagwa is doing as he drools over @COP26 to end his pariah status, is unhelpful.— CITE/The NewsHawks