There was a certain irony to events in London yesterday, where an official delegation of the Zimbabwean government, led by Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa was in the British capital to attend a specially organised investment conference. Inside the airy conference room of a top tier city law firm, Chinamasa and government officials smiled, joked and laughed as they tried to make a case for a “politically stable” and “open” Zimbabwe. Outside, however, the usually calm environment of this district of London was interrupted by songs and chants of protest by a group of Zimbabwean protestors. As Chinamasa spoke of “political stability” in Zimbabwe, the protestors denounced the Zimbabwean government for human rights violations, corruption and destroying the country’s economy.
The contrast was palpable, made all the more visible by the huge glass panels of the building which stood between conference delegates on one side and protestors on the other side down below. Sitting on the far side of the conference room, you could watch the speaker on the podium in the middle, but if you turned slightly to the left, you had a good view of the protestors below.
It was little wonder that there was a burst of laughter in the room when Chinamasa claimed “political stability” as one of Zimbabwe’s greatest strengths. Many in the audience had seen horrific images of police brutality against citizens in response to protests in Harare the previous day. It made the Chinamasa’s claim not only implausible but quite embarrassing, too.
But Chinamasa’s job is by no means an easy one. It seems each time he is on one of his relationship-building missions in the West, something else is brewing back home to cause him embarrassment and frustrate his efforts. Last year, in April he made an announcement before the cameras, cancelling bonus payments for civil servants. But this announcement was also intended for the ears of the IMF who were insisting on greater fiscal discipline and cuts in public spending. However, while he was negotiating with the IMF in Washington DC, his boss, President Mugabe unilaterally and publicly reversed that decision, chiding Chinamasa in the process and declaring that he would have to find the money from somewhere. 7 months into 2016, Chinamasa is still struggling to complete the bonus payments. He is even struggling to find money for regular wages to civil servants.
Now here he was yesterday, in London, trying to mend a broken relationship with the former colonial power and to lure investors, but just as he waxing lyrical about how “stable” Zimbabwe is, the picture back home looked grim. Just the day before the conference, citizens were demonstrating in Harare and the state responded with typically excessive force and brutality. It made his claims, sound utterly ridiculous to an enlightened audience. It was quite an embarrassing sight, because it was clear that the audience could see through the sugar-coated statements. It’s one thing to promise the impossible to a traumatised rural electorate which doesn’t ask questions, but a completely different ball-game trying to persuade a sophisticated and well-read group of investors who have already done some preliminary research into your country. They are not stupid and they know when someone is telling a lie and avoiding reality.
What was worse for Chinamasa, however, was that these contradictions between what he was saying and what is going on back home paints a picture of a man who is claiming more power and control than he actually wields. Zimbabwean writer and international trade lawyer, Petina Gappah pointed out that one of the government’s biggest weaknesses is policy inconsistency. Policies are made one day, but can be reversed by the President in a speech at the burial of the next hero, she said. She made reference to the indigenisation policy where Chinamasa had a public fight with fellow Minister Patrick Zhuwao. Chinamasa admitted to this incident but claimed that the matter had been settled by President Mugabe. Yet having said that he still admitted the President had only made policy pronouncements which are yet to be backed by legislation. All this makes his claim that the matter if final hollow. It’s not a position that gives confidence to investors, who look to the law, not to policy statements announced at public gatherings. Chinamasa said he is the key authority on all economic matters, forgetting he had just said his own dispute with Zhuwao had to be resolved by Mugabe. By the time the conference ended, investors were still asking what the actual position is in respect of indigenisation – there being a conflict between the legislation and the policy pronouncement.
Further, despite declarations that he was open to questions, Chinamasa skirted around key questions, which he wasn’t prepared to answer. I raised a question on corruption and the fact that the Auditor-General, Mildred Chiri had produced an audit report which showed that government ministries were unlawfully feeding off their parastatals and that this was fuelling rent-seeking behaviour and the creation of little fiefdoms in ministries. I gave the example of ICT Minister Supa Mandiwanzira and his deputy, Win Mlambo who bought vehicles worth a combined total of nearly $300,000 using public funds from PORTRAZ, the telecommunications regulator. I also referred to Energy Minister Samuel Undenge buying a £120,000 vehicle using funds from the energy utility, ZESA.
Does he, as Finance Minister, approve of that arrangement where individual ministries retain and use their revenues outside the Consolidated Revenue Fund as required by the Constitution, I asked. Instead of answering this question, Chinamasa pontificated about corruption. He also admitted, rather incredibly, that the Auditor-General’s report had never been taken seriously in the past. He claimed to have now set up a unit in his ministry to study the Auditor-General’s report and to make recommendations and another unit to study the financial statements of state enterprises. But he steered clear of the issue of individual ministries collecting revenues and spending them without the authority of the law or control of the Treasury.
On a broader note, the tango between the ZANU PF regime and the Western countries is quite intriguing. It partly speaks to the futility of the Look East policy, under which the Zimbabwean government has announced mega-deal after mega-deal with no real end product to talk of. It is also clear that the Chinese are not prepared to offer Zimbabwe the financial package it needs to rescue a decaying economy. Chinamasa needs a rescue package very fast and he knows the Western countries hold the key to unlocking support from the international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which appear to have been receptive in recent years. You can detect a level of desperation in the pleas for investment and support. All this is interesting because of the hostilities in the relationship with the West for past 15 years.
But if the policy shift by the ZANU PF regime signals desperation, it is also because there is a willing suitor. The state daily, The Herald, has described yesterday’s conference as an “historic” event and it was. It was the first time in 15 years that a senior Zimbabwean government minister has been invited to the UK, although the toxic legacy of the EU travel bans was still evident when he was detained at Heathrow Airport upon arrival. Apart from the conference, he would have held formal engagements with officials of the British government. This conference signalled a fundamental shift in relationship between Zimbabwe and the UK. This is consistent with the post-2013 climate in relations, in which most of the Western countries, bar the US, have shifted course in their relationship with the ZANU PF government. It has moved from a relationship characterised by open hostility and belligerence to one of accommodation.
The splits in the opposition parties, traditionally enjoyed the sympathy and support of the West have further reduced Western countries’ confidence in their ability to dislodge ZANU PF. They are no longer seen, in the West, as providing a viable alternative especially if they remain splintered. Instead, sentiment in the Western political community seems to have shifted towards a reformed ZANU PF. It’s also a shift in focus from democracy and regime change towards stability and regime reform.
Past errors repeating?
Yet in doing so, the Western countries risk repeating old mistakes or simply failing to learn from them. Western countries’ criticism of the Gukurahundi atrocities has often sounded hollow and opportunistic because they did nothing to stop or condemn the atrocities when Mugabe unleashed the Fifth Brigade on the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. There was a conspiracy of silence and accommodation of a regime which was brutalising black Africans. Only when Mugabe launched the violent land reform programme which affected the white commercial landowners did the issue of the Gukurahundi atrocities gain prominence. The Honorary Knighthood which Mugabe had received in 1994 was withdrawn, as was the honorary degree he had received from Edinburgh University.
The criticism is that in the 1980s, Western countries had played along with Mugabe as long as their interests were being served and protected. Now, after years of a serious relationship breakdown, both Mugabe and some Western countries seem to be finding common ground again. This is why it was rather ironic that the “historic” London conference took place against the background of renewed skirmishes between the Zimbabwean government and its citizens, with the state responding to protests in typically aggressive fashion. Some of the Western countries might be as keen as ZANU PF on re-engagement, for their own interests, but they must not delude themselves into thinking they are dealing with a different creature or that it is in the interests of ordinary Zimbabweans.
Tendai Biti who was also at the conference provided an important alternative voice, warning of the futility of a non-inclusive re-engagement process and insisting, as he has done in recent times, on the need to establish a national transitional authority. But by then both Chinamasa and Mangundya had departed for “official” engagements, leaving their subordinates to provide a less authoritative and weaker counterpoint. In the end, investors were left none the wiser. If Chinamasa is serious about convincing investors, then he needs to raise his game, be honest about Zimbabwe’s weaknesses and avoid sugar-coating reality to investors who are well-read and can see through woolly statements.
Chinamasa might be more successful in getting the debt arrears clearance deal with the IFIs. And in this regard, Mugabe and ZANU PF cannot possibly believe their fortune. Just when they seem to be heading for economic Armageddon, someone comes up with a rescue package. In 2008, with the country experiencing record levels of hyperinflation and economic decay, it was South African President, Thabo Mbeki who delivered the Global Political Agreement, the political deal under which the Inclusive Government was constituted. The economy stabilised and grew and ZANU PF found time to regroup and recover. Now, just as the regime is facing another economic and possibly political nadir, the Western countries and IFIs are playing the re-engagement game, and providing a package which might yet again be the parachute Mugabe and ZANU PF need as citizen dissent and protests increase and as the 2018 election looms.
Probably, the most dramatic and symbolic moment of the day came just after midday as Chinamasa was leaving the conference venue for his official meetings. He came face to face with the angry crowd of protesters. As he got into one of London’s famous Black Cabs, some of the singing and chanting protesters sat or stood in the driveway, blocking its path. Others surged from either side singing, shouting and screaming at a bemused Chinamasa, who sat inside, unsure of what to do. He sat there for nearly an hour, the protesters forming a human barrier, showing their displeasure at the government which he represents.
One can only imagine what Chinamasa felt as he sat in that cab, helpless and without power to control events as he is used to doing back home. He was probably angry at all this, and might have wished he was back in Harare, where members of the anti-riot squad of the Zimbabwe Republic Police would have swiftly arrived and used all means available, including violence, to remove protesters. His hosts, waiting for him at their offices might also have been annoyed by the delay, too but there was not much they could do. In the end, Chinamasa was allowed to leave, but before the cab was hit with an egg. He met his hosts and they probably laughed it off as a minor “inconvenience” in the bigger scheme of re-engagement process.