Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Lt General (Rtd) SB Moyo, is in to London as part of his international re-engagement brief. He will, among other engagements, address an audience at Chatham House in central London, an event dubbed "Zimbabwe's International Reengagement". He will also meet with members of the British government, including the Minister for Africa, Harriet Baldwin. Also on his itinerary is a meeting with Baroness Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, which the country is still desperate to rejoin.
The retired soldier who lent his image as the face of the military coup that toppled long-serving ruler Robert Mugabe in November 2017 has his work cut out. As the regime’s top diplomat, it is his job to sell the country and convince the international community that it has turned a corner. Unfortunately for him, his tenure has been blighted by chronic illness, which took him out of action for long time after the 2018 elections.
How quickly things changed
It’s a long way since the early days of the Mnangagwa regime, which was warmly welcomed by Britain in November 2017. The former colonial power was quick to despatch Rory Stewart, the then Minister for Africa to attend Mnangagwa’s inauguration shortly after the coup. The prospects seemed bright and there was an air of optimism. The then British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing was widely seen as big supporter of the fledgling Mnangagwa regime.
But not for the first time, the former colonial power had miscalculated on matters regarding its former colony. They had overestimated Mnangagwa’s capabilities and readiness to transform Zimbabwe from its hideous past.
Sections of the British media were also optimistic. Influential papers such as the Financial Times gave Mnangagwa acres of space. Mnangagwa was sold as a pragmatist who understood business. Negotiations to rejoin the Commonwealth were initiated. Zimbabwe was invited to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting as an observer. The path to reinstatement was open and promising.
But all this hope was based on unfounded faith in a man who had been an integral member of the Mugabe regime. The thought that he represented change or that he could transform the style of governance in Zimbabwe was both absurd and naive. Warnings to this effect were dismissed as negativity.
It didn’t take long, however, before the regime’s true colours emerged and all the goodwill disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. The idea of change was limited to rhetoric. The regime’s conduct pointed in another direction. The continuities from the Mugabe regime outweighed the changes. In some cases it was worse. For example, the deployment of soldiers to shoot and kill demonstrators in August 2018 and January 2019.
Those in the international community who had been partial to the Mnangagwa regime recoiled after the murderous crackdown in August 2018, which caused irreparable damage to the credibility of the election and the government’s moral legitimacy. The pronouncement of Mnangagwa and ZANU PF as winners of the general election was soaked in blood of victims slain by soldiers. A repeat crackdown of similar intensity and brutality during the January riots sparked by a fuel price increase sealed the regime’s image in the eyes of the world . For many, it was no different from the Mugabe regime it had replaced in November 2017.
So SB Moyo comes to London with most of the credit of the early days now almost completely dissipated. He faces awkward questions from an increasingly skeptical audience.
SB Moyo will certainly face questions over the two epodes of brutal crackdown on demonstrators in August 2018 and January 2019. His hosts will ask what the government has done to ensure that members of the military who killed civilians are held to account. In response, SB Moyo might make reference to the Motlanthe Commission which was set up to carry out investigations into the August riots. But the lack of real and visible action through the criminal justice system will leave him exposed. Furthermore, the lack of action after the January killings is a yawning gap.
The Mnangagwa regime doesn’t seem to realise the enormous damage that those two crackdowns have inflicted upon its reputation. The failure to take the concerns seriously has made it worse. The regime’s readiness to use excessive force is a cause for concern.
Political activists and human rights defenders
The second issue for Moyo will be the treatment of opposition political politicians, activists and human rights defenders. There is a perception fed by the brutal treatment of activists and human rights defenders that the government is still averse to human rights and freedoms. The recent abduction and torture of Obert Masaraure, a teachers’ union leader has been featured in British media. SB Moyo will also face awkward questions over the treatment of Job Sikhala, currently detained on politically-related charges for rhetorical statements made at a political rally.
The harassment, beatings and torture of demonstrators have been covered by international media in the past year. The arbitrary arrest and detention of opposition MPs and activists, often on spurious charges, feeds into the narrative of persecution. No fewer than fifteen people are currently facing charges of attempting to subvert/overthrow the government, more a sign of a paranoid regime which is averse to opposition than a government facing any real and significant threat. These are the types of cases that represent an enduring continuity from the Mugabe days.
The third issue is progress over political reforms, particularly electoral reforms, which were recommended by EU and Commonwealth observers. This is because disputed elections have been at the centre of Zimbabwe’s challenges for the past two decades. The independence and credibility of electoral referees like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is a key issue that has been raised by international election observers. Yet barely a year after the disputed election, the regime has appointed Utoile Silaigwana a controversial former member of the security establishment as head of the executive arm of ZEC. This is interpreted by the opposition as a sign that the regime is not only stubborn and arrogant but that it is not ready to implement real political reforms. A ZEC with a severely compromised human factor is not fit for purpose.
The investors that SB Moyo will be trying to woo will probably ask about the protection of property rights, particularly in light of the on-going currency woes. Investors are struggling to repatriate their profits due to severe foreign currency shortages and this is raising the country risk profile. This is beyond his province and might have benefited from having a senior member of the treasury or central bank to handle these issues.
SB Moyo will no doubt raise the issue of political dialogue. He will argue that Mnangagwa has initiated political dialogue with various political parties under the auspices of POLAD (Political Actors Dialogue). But POLAD is conspicuous by the absence of the biggest opposition party the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa which raised objections to the process. They prefer dialogue convened and mediated by a neutral third party.
In any event, SB Moyo’s hosts are realistic enough to know that political dialogue with small amenable parties but without the most credible opposition with which the ruling party has a real dispute is not serious. They are will be more careful after the mistakes of the recent past when they dived in too soon. They will probably urge SB Moyo to tell his boss to swallow his pride and find common ground with Chamisa and the MDC in order to unlock the current political logjam. That may open up new opportunities for reengagement.
It’s going to be very difficult for SB Moyo to convince his hosts that the regime represents change when media narratives are dominated by images of mistreatment of political activists and human rights defenders. The country’s parlours economic situation places him at a disadvantage. It is the Mnangagwa regime which is desperate for reengagement and acceptance by the international community. The regime does not have the leverage to set conditions.
The British will not embarrass SB Moyo but he will face some awkward and uncomfortable questions over the regime’s record to date. It has earned a reputation of using flattering words which bear no relation to actual behaviour. And if he has a one-on-one interview on BBC Hardtalk or similar program he may discover that the suit is far less comfortable than the military fatigues he wore when he famously announced the coup in November 2017.
As he navigates the corridors of the British establishment, SB Moyo will do well to heed the words of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame a couple of weeks ago: first convince your own before you seek to convince foreigners. A foreign policy of reengagement premised on satisfaction of the home constituency is an easier sell.
Minister SB Moyo will be speaking at Chatham House on Friday 12 July 2019