ZIMBABWE has been reeling under a multifaceted economic and political crisis since 2000, and it appears there is no end in sight. Amid chronic high inflation, Zimbabwe is confronted with a crucial general election in 2023, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa as the main protagonists.
Analysts describe next year’s poll as a watershed moment, with the deteriorating economy likely to decide the outcome. In Harare, The NewsHawks reporter, Nyasha Chingono (NC), spoke to a professor of world politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Stephen Chan (SC), on Zimbabwe’s diplomatic re-engagement drive as well as the state of the economy in the context of next year’s general election. Chan has been in the country since last week. He predicted a Zanu PF loss in the presidential vote, but also cast doubt on the Citizens’ Coalition for Change’s ability to win a majority in Parliament. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NC: You have been interested in the affairs of Zimbabwe pre-independence and after 1980. What is your assessment of the situation in this country?
SC: Well, the country was beautiful and remains one of the most beautiful countries in this part of the world. So, people should be proud of the country in which they live. But there’s absolutely no doubt that you had to go back to 1980, (and look at) a white regime that looked down on black people. So, liberation accomplished in the genuine uplifting of black people to accomplish genuine equality. Whether or not it was able to fulfil the other ambitions of independence is another question, of course; things to do with freedom, things to do with prosperity, the big question marks over all those things right now. And I think, especially over prosperity, I think the economic situation here now is such that you’ve got the highest inflation rate in the entire world. And this is the second time you’ve done it, in 2007-2008, It was by far the highest and broke every single record in modern history. We won’t get as bad as that now, but one would have hoped that people would have learned from history not to make the same mistakes, but the same mistakes have been made again. So, when I look at this country, I look at the progress that has been made, and look with disappointment that the whole idea of economic planning and public administration has not improved as much as it should have.
NC: Zimbabwe has been battling to return to the Commonwealth and the recently held Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda did not accede to its re-admission. What do you think is preventing Zimbabwe’s re-admission to the Commonwealth?
SC: Basically, there are certain criteria that you’ve got to meet to be a member of Commonwealth. And this was made clear by the Commonwealth observers at the last elections, because they wrote a separate report to the one on how the elections were conducted, with a separate report to the Commonwealth secretary-general about whether this country could be readmitted and a number of criteria were laid down, which basically centred around electoral reform, so there that would be a fair playing field when the next elections come. Generally speaking, I think that not just the Commonwealth; the world at large thinks that not enough progress has been made in electoral reform.
And the Commonwealth observers were very much mindful of that because they themselves experienced violence during the election. At this very hotel, for instance, at the Bronte Hotel [in Harare], just after the election, observers were staying here, the riot police armed with 41 teargas launchers came and tried to break up a meeting that Mr Chamisa was wanting to hold. Basically, he wanted to announce that he was conceding the election in a dignified fashion, which he went on to do but the police were obviously prepared to break up this meeting violently. Many of these observers were very elderly, it would have caused a huge international controversy if the teargas had been launched. But that very evening, that very evening, observers rewrote their reports, because they then realised that all of the stories that they had heard about electoral violence were true, that they’re prepared to launch an attack against even the most distinguished visitors. I’m actually staying in the very suite where President Mahama of Ghana stayed and, at that time, you had one of the most distinguished former African presidents here. Can you just imagine what would have happened if they had launched the teargas canisters, and these very, very distinguished people were here. Just the threat of doing that was enough to make them reconsider their reports, saying that the threat of violence was real in these elections, that therefore if they’re going to be re-admitted to the Commonwealth this whole playing field has got to be levelled in a way as transparently as possible.
NC: President Emmerson Mnangagwa sent two government representatives to the United Kingdom to negotiate trade and investment. Is this a viable route?
SC: Well, you can send as many emissaries as you’d like, but when you’re ‘open for business’, to use the President mantra now, you’ve actually got to provide real evidence that you are open for business, which means you’ve got to have a regulatory framework here, in Zimbabwe, which is transparent, which allows repatriation of profits, and provides infrastructure for what you want your investment to do.
Basically, if I was going to advise any corporation right now about whether to invest in some way, I would say — point blank — that your investment will not have enough infrastructural support. And even the Chinese are finding this. For instance, there’s a lot of fuss about a big Chinese corporation coming in to do lithium mining, but they’re not going to be able to do battery-grade lithium, which is what makes them money because there’s not enough infrastructure here to support that. And they’re basically saying, do you want us to build the infrastructure; you cannot expect any investor to build a national infrastructure for you, so what’s happened is that there’s either no national infrastructure or the national infrastructure for industry has decayed, just like the infrastructure of agriculture has decayed.
The reason why you’re having bad harvests every time there are poor rains, is because you’ve not maintained the nationwide network of small dams. That’s not rocket science. That’s just a bit of planning, and a bit of hard work, and a bit of care. So, all of that’s lacking. So, no big investor is going really to risk coming into Zimbabwe, if their sector does not have clear infrastructure already in place.
NC: Then recently, some UK legislators blasted former British ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Liang over what I would describe as call diplomatic deception over the 2017 military coup that ousted Robert Mugabe. Do you do think that the British were misled into supporting this regime?
SC: The British and other governments, in fact, were prepared to give some benefit of the doubt in 2017. They thought there might be a chance for a new start. And, in fact, I would advise the British minister for Africa, Rory Stewart, to come here. I helped him write a speech that he gave, which is supposed to give a gesture of guarded welcome but also to lay down again the same conditions the Commonwealth has laid down, particularly in terms of the electoral reform issues that everyone was concerned about.
So, without those, you can talk about deception. You can talk about being open for business, blah, blah, blah. Nothing happens as bedrock. In other words, unless there’s a fair playing field here, the investors won’t come, the Chinese might come, but even they won’t build your infrastructure for you.
NC: The 2018 general elections were disputed. Do you think Zimbabwe is going down that road again in 2023?
SC: Well, it might be harder to fix the elections this coming time. I mean, obviously, the bad real violence and things like that. But the economy is doing so badly. It’s not so much the possibility of the CCC and Mr Chamisa winning the elections.
But I’m looking at very much Zanu PF losing the elections because they’ve performed so poorly, in terms of the economy. Even people who are favourably disposed towards the government are suffering very, very greatly because of economic downturns. And everyone understands it’s going to get worse.
And what people are coming to understand is not that it’s going to get worse before it gets better; people are coming to understand it’s not going to get better under the current economic policies. If they change economic policies, of course, I think that the poor people will benefit after a short period of great difficulty. Of course the oligarchs will suffer, but there aren’t enough oligarchies to win an election. So, I’m thinking that Zanu PF has got to re-strategise if it wants to have a sure chance of winning the elections. Because I don’t see the CCC as being as well-organised as the old MDC under Morgan Tsvangirai.
That was a bit of a shambolic ship but sometimes, by and large, it was a tight electoral machine. Mr Chamisa doesn’t have that kind of machine. He doesn’t have a front bench; he doesn’t have a top leadership around him. And he seems reluctant to try to form that kind of leadership cadre around him. And he can’t do it by himself. So he might do well personally as the presidential candidate, but I doubt very much whether his party will win enough seats to gain a parliamentary majority, for instance.
NC: During the by-elections, you confessed that Chamisa is a strong candidate ahead of next year’s elections. Does he stand a chance of getting a good result in 2023?
SC: Yes, but he won the seats that he should have won and, even then, Zanu PF picked up a couple of seats. What I’m looking at when you look at, say, the Afrobarometer new data, he’s only got a 2% lead, now that’s not enough.
In the Zambia elections before recent ones, which saw Mr [Hakainde] Hichilema win those elections, that was a change of government. Before the elections, which in fact I was attending, he only had on paper a 2% lead that, in fact, the government also was projecting for itself a 2% lead. At last, the 2% went to government, but 2% is 2%; you can massage to use a certain interesting word in this last election, whichever one, get a 10% only, you can massage down 10%.
So, if Mr Chamisa is leading now, according to Afrobarometer, that’s not a reliable figure. I think there’s something not quite exact about their polling, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. They’ve easily divided 2% and you look at the distribution of his voting support, he’s still not penetrated the countryside sufficiently, or 2% is not enough to overcome these interesting adjustments that can easily be made to the accounting process.
NC: The British government over the past two years has drastically decreased aid to Africa. What do you think is the impact of that move vis-à-vis how China is gaining a foothold in Africa?
SC: The world has reduced aid, not only to Africa, but everywhere, because we’re having a financial crisis ourselves. So, the aid budget has been cut and China, of course, although it seems to be increasing aid for certain projects, is also having a financial difficulty right now — although not as big as Western countries.
The Chinese have so many reserves, they can weather any storm. But even so, they’re not being reckless anymore. So, what you’re seeing is they want their loans repaid. We see that in Zambia, for instance, one of the big problems of the negotiations is that it’s hard to beat the Chinese debt environments. One-third of the external debt in Zambia is owed to the Chinese — it might even be more here [in Zimbabwe] — but your figures here are totally unreliable, so we can’t really make a judgement.
So, the Chinese want debts repaid, and sometimes willing to extend [repayment period], but they’re not going to reduce them [amounts owed] dramatically. And you’ve got a problem. Also, I’ve always said this with Chinese aid, which is a gift. So this beautiful new part of the pie, the Chinese parliament, it’s got nothing Zimbabwean about it.
They’ve got to pay back the money for the airport, but there’s nothing Zimbabwean about it. It’s the same as any airport building anywhere in Africa or any other parts of the world. It’s just straight off the shelf. The parliament building, is straight off a shelf. One would like to go out there and see something which is reminiscent of Zimbabwean history and Zimbabwean culture but there’s nothing like that, it’s just a circular standard Chinese-built parliament building.
Now you look at countries like Senegal, they prioritise their architects who are building new public works and new public buildings, or Zimbabwean architects don’t get a look at these prestige projects that should have a Zimbabwean mark on them. So, the Chinese do good things, but it’s at a certain cost, not just the money for their loans. There’s no local identity in these gifts anymore.
NC: Zimbabwe has lost billions of dollars’ worth of mineral resources. Is this all-weather friendship costly?
SC: Almost every country has got foreign interests mining, but there is a problem when you concentrate most of these interests just in one provider — Chinese companies — then you’ve not diversified your risk. There’s always a risk involved when you’re looking at foreign partnerships. There’s no diversification risk, which means that one country can hold you hostage. It is much harder for many corporations from different countries to do that. Also, mining has got certain problems attached to it.
First, you’ve got environmental costs, and then you’ve got labour issues. Are you going to treat your employees fairly, for instance? That’s not always the case. But the main difficulty is that I’m not sure the government has got enough experts, or the novelistic experts don’t seem to understand the chain of processing the raw material needs before we can learn proper money on the export markets. Africa should have grown out of the stage where they’re just providing raw materials for everyone else, that was the colonial model. They should process it.
Everyone’s now talking about the new steel works that is meant to produce high-grade steel, and that all the raw materials are within a few 100 kilometres. But if you look at the map in terms of the road linkages, you think about the trucks, bringing all those raw materials over these bad roads, you’ve got a problem.
NC: Zimbabwe is reeling under heavy foreign debt. What is the sentiment around the world on the country’s prospects of settling the debt?
SC: The feeling is that no one’s going to get their money back. Because the country doesn’t have the capacity to do that. So, the lenders that are coming in right now, of course, the Chinese, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] want to manage the situation. They do not want the country to go bankrupt because then nothing gets repaid. No one has an interest in the country going bankrupt. In other words, the IMF is prepared to drip-feed the country, so it maintains enough solvency for future recovery.
But you owe money to everyone, even your neighbours like South Africa, for instance, whenever you buy electricity from a neighbour. I’m not sure who’s paying for that; South Africans actually paid a lot of the time, whether by way of grant or by way of loans, I’m not really sure. You owe the African Development Bank money.
You owe the IMF and the World Bank money. You owe many countries money and, of course, you owe China a lot of money. No one could function forever on debt, and I think that one of the very wise things that the Zambian new president who told me they just decided on day one that we’ve got to find a way to stop regularising and repaying this debt. Otherwise, there’s no future, we just keep going downhill and being held to ransom by other people.
NC: What is your assessment of President Mnangagwa’s rule since 2017?
SC: Well, compared with the hopes, this is a disappointment. He’s not listening to technocratic advice. Like president Mugabe, he has tried to manage the factions in the party and ensuring that their bricks and mortar stay rich. In other words, the party comes first, and the nation comes second. And you can’t be a national president with that kind of outlook. So you’ve got to look beyond the party, you’ve got to look beyond the key section, the rich oligarchy. That’s the intention of doing that, everyone just wants to maintain power. And no one’s satisfied with the money they’ve got, whether it was gotten honestly or dishonestly, or a combination of both.
NC: What are the factors that are likely to help restart the Zimbabwe’s international diplomatic re-engagement drive?
SC: If there’s a split when election results say that Zanu PF commands Parliament and Chamisa somehow manages to become the president, then they must come up with cohabitation. That might be enough of a signal for people to start thinking, well, maybe we can re-engage.
NC: What is your assessment of the efforts of the country’s Foreign Affairs minister Frederick Shava, in light of his re-engagement drive?
SC: It is not very effective, and he’s not helped by the fact that, by and large, ambassadors are not doing much. I mean, I live in London, I was invited often to diplomatic receptions and cocktail parties. I look around for the Zimbabwean ambassador who should be working the room, making friends. At least the other African ambassadors are very, very active. He’s supposed to make good speeches that are important, then use that. It just can’t be the President speaking at that boss or whatever. The foreign minister has got to be seen at these places.