Connect with us

Support The NewsHawks


Epic naivete of British policy on Zim



A NEW autobiography by Rory Stewart—who was Britain’s minister for Africa and became the first foreign dignitary to be received by Emmerson Mnangagwa in the aftermath of the dramatic military coup which toppled Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler Robert Mugabe—is providing fresh insights into London’s futile policy of appeasement which has failed to bear fruit in Harare.

In his remarkable 464-page book, Politics On the Edge—A Memoir From Within, Stewart recounts the frenetic moments surrounding Mugabe’s ouster, at least through the eyes of the British.

Stewart’s account essentially confirms that, ahead of the November 2017 coup and the 2018 general elections, the then British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, misled her government into believing that Mnangagwa was a pragmatist who would steer the country in a good direction.

As correctly reported by The NewsHawks for years, Laing made it her mission to nurse the former British colony back to international respectability. But the gamble did not pay off because Mnangagwa and his Zanu PF are incapable of reform.

 Laing was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2014 to 2018 and had a frontrow seat during the transition from the Mugabe administration to the Mnangagwa regime while naively backing Zanu PF and misleading London.

For decades, Britain had failed dismally in its efforts to either influence or dislodge Mugabe. As far as Laing was concerned, Mugabe’s ouster in November 2017 presented a glorious opportunity to reset London’s fraught relationship with Harare.

Despite the well-documented misgivings on Mnangagwa’s capacity to usher in a new era divorced from human rights violations, corruption and economic mismanagement, Laing — who would later become Britain’s top diplomat in Nigeria from 2018 to 2023 — allowed her enthusiasm for Mnangagwa to cloud her judgment.

In recent years, British lawmakers have accused her of failing to give objective reports on the real situation on the ground ahead of the coup and the 2018 elections.

Biggest cheerleader

Stewart sheds light into the behind-the-scenes discussions which shaped the British government’s stance towards the 2017 coup. London was accused by some political analysts of playing the role of a leading cheerleader to Mnangagwa’s ascendancy.

“When Mugabe was toppled in a coup d’état, I learned it in a tweet from the BBC in the early hours of the morning. No one from the Foreign Office had thought to inform me.”

He proceeds to recount Ambassador Laing’s appraisal of Britain’s Foreign Office via video link. She openly rooted for Mnangagwa’s, suggesting that the British government support him. To avoid alienating Mnangagwa — a politician she had cultivated ties with — she told her government to avoid describing Mugabe’s ouster as a coup.

“She described the military trucks in the streets, and ran through what the evacuation plans would be. She said that it seemed the veteran Zimbabwean powerbroker Emmerson
Mnangagwa would be taking over, and she implied we should endorse him, and above all not alienate him by describing what had happened as a coup d’état,” narrates Stewart.

He continues: “All this — although she was too polite quite to say it on the video conference — felt like a coup by her. The ambassador had made an immense effort to get to know Emmerson Mnangagwa. She had been criticised for doing so by White farmers, and human rights activists who associated him with land confiscations and torture. She had been criticised for it by the opposition who felt she was too close to the regime, and she had been criticised by me as well. But if, as seemed likely, Mnangagwa became president, she was the only ambassador who had really built a relationship with him.”

Stewart says he did not agree with the idea of supporting Mnangagwa unconditionally without extracting a raft of concessions from him, particularly on governance, human rights and democratic elections. But Laing was dismissive of the idea; she was convinced that the opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was now a spent force and a total waste of time.

Laing’s video link presentation to the Foreign Office on Zimbabwe’s coup quickly degenerated into a back-and-forth session with Stewart. He was not in concurrence with her unmitigated support for Mnangagwa. Stewart felt that this was an opportunity for the British government to spell out its expectations for the post-Mugabe era.

“Even I knew that this was a bad moment to start a debate about Emmerson ‘the crocodile’ Mnangagwa. But then in the Foreign Office it never seemed to be the right moment to start a debate. So I asked what conditions we were setting Mnangagwa before supporting him. She paused. Everyone around the table stared at me as though they could not quite work out what I was suggesting.

‘For example,’ I said, ‘it seems important the opposition are given a fair shot at the elections’. ‘The opposition cannot win the elections,’ interrupted the ambassador. ‘Even more reason why Mnangagwa should be willing to give them a fair shot.’ ‘Morgan Tsvangirai is finished — he cannot win the elections.’ For a moment, I was tempted to start an argument about that too — and try to make the case for the old man, whom I liked — but I let that go. Instead, I repeated that the very weakness of the opposition meant that Mnangagwa had no reason to avoid fair elections. ‘We should set clear requirements — a dozen requirements? Does that seem right?’ Someone nodded, and then looking at the other immobile faces, stopped nodding. ‘I don’t know how many. But conditions anyway.’ ‘What kind of conditions?’ asked the ambassador.”

Stewart adds: “The meeting seemed increasingly to consist simply of me and her.

‘First, letting expatriate Zimbabweans vote …’ ‘Mnangagwa will never allow that …’ ‘Second, clearing up the voter registration. Third, international observers. Look, could someone try to work up a list? And then in return we need carrots and sticks — the carrots I think are using our position at the IMF to authorise an emergency loan to stabilise the economy; we could bring investment, and we could increase development aid. Could someone reach out to our director at the IMF and see whether that is plausible? And perhaps to the US’.”

The permanent secretary in Britain’s Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, did not consider Zimbabwe a foreign policy priority, Stewart says.

Laing’s stance prevailed, after she managed to convince London that Stewart’s approach could undermine a glorious opportunity for Britain to reset its troubled relationship with Zimbabwe.

“This encounter was reported back to Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary in the Foreign Office. Zimbabwe was not something he spent much time thinking about. But insofar as he did, he did not think it was a priority — certainly not compared to getting the Treasury to invest more in our embassies in Asia and for that matter the Middle East. (He was an Arabist.) He told his friends, who then told me, that I was an idealist, and that he didn’t like junior ministers trying to create policy. The ambassador followed up with her own messages to London, formal and informal, arguing that I was undermining the opportunity to reset a more positive relationship between Britain and Zimbabwe through Mnangagwa.”

Can a “crocodile” reform?

Stewart was not done, though. He figured out that the best way of tackling the Zimbabwe issue was for him to travel to Harare and see for himself the situation on the ground. This explains how he became the first foreign minister to be received by Mnangagwa in the post-coup period.

Britain’s minister for Africa was so sceptical of Mnangagwa’s so-called transformative potential that he even placed a bet against the envisaged rebirth of the man nicknamed “the crocodile”. Mnangagwa would not hold democratic elections, he argued, much to the chagrin of Ambassador Laing who continued asking the British establishment to give the Zimbabwean strongman a chance.

“My first night in Harare began with a dinner. The ambassador had invited a group of Zimbabwean civil society activists who were so positive about Mnangagwa that I ended up, in a coarse breach of diplomatic protocol, betting a pastor $50 that Mnangagwa would not hold fair elections. After dinner, the ambassador said I risked wrecking the relationship she had built with Mnangagwa.

She did not like my emphasising, even in private, that he had been imprisoned for murder as a child, or that he had run Mugabe’s secret service. She did not think there was much point in pushing him to reform. I replied that I felt she was prizing our access, more than our influence. She looked, however, at my first draft of election conditions, and accompanied me to present them to the US and EU ambassadors in Harare and then to my meeting with the new president.”

Stewart says that in his meeting with President Mnangagwa, he spoke about the importance of credible elections, including allowing foreign-based Zimbabweans to vote in the 2018 general elections. Mnangagwa simply smiled. It was a telling reaction; Zimbabwe would not only proceed to hold yet another discredited election but also continue resisting calls for the diaspora vote.

“I was the first foreign minister from any country to meet Mnangagwa after his inauguration. This great hope of new civilian government strode in surrounded by generals in uniform…I tried to be as clear and specific as I could about improvements to the elections — including allowing expatriate Zimbabweans to vote. And he — thirty years older than me, and a veteran of forty years of liberation politics — simply smiled.”

It was not long before Mnangagwa spectacularly squandered the immense international goodwill and soon returned to his default settings. On 1 August 2018, he deployed soldiers who murdered unarmed civilians on the streets of Harare. The mask had fallen. Looking back, Stewart laments the failure of “the British system” to make a difference in Zimbabwe.

“A few weeks later, I was reshuffled out of the Foreign Office, and Mnangagwa was able to secure international financial support without implementing any fundamental economic or democratic reforms. He ran an election on his own terms and won. Zimbabwe collapsed back into inflation, instability and oneparty brutality. Our ambassador was promoted. It was difficult to know whether my attempts to push for improvements in the elections had simply been, as Simon McDonald continued to say, ‘idealistic and naïve’. Or whether the problem was that the British system hadn’t wanted to try.”

Elections in Zimbabwe — viewed from the twin perspectives of a constitutional imperative and an instrument of foreign policy — have been a massive flop. Mnangagwa’s international diplomatic re-engagement project is in tatters. Economic crisis and the subversion of the will of the masses are continuing unabated.

Seven years later, Ambassador Catriona Laing has still not admitted that she was dead wrong on Mnangagwa’s willingness to reform. But she does not have to; Rory Stewart has already exposed her monumental miscalculation in his remarkable book.

Book title: Politics On the Edge—A Memoir From Within.
Author: Rory Stewart.
Publisher: Jonathan Cape.
Reviewer: The NewsHawks.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *