LAST week’s heated British House of Lords debate on Zimbabwe in which parliamentarians and a government minister said the southern African country should not be readmitted into the Commonwealth until it implements political reforms is a slap in the face of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who two weeks ago boasted of normalisation of relations.
The Zimbabwean situation was once again on the House of Lords agenda, with issues of human rights abuses, lack of political reforms and general mismanagement of the country under the spotlight.
This comes nearly three weeks after Mnangagwa travelled to Scotland, returning under pomp and fanfare, with claims that the United Kingdom had received him with open arms. Government communications teams had already made a propaganda feast of Mnangagwa’s invite to Glasgow, the first time a Zimbabwean leader had stepped on UK soil.
State propaganda reduced the United Nations event to an opportunity for cheap optics and grandstanding on the issue of re-engagement with the West. While neighbouring South Africa scored big, getting billions of dollars in funding for climate change mitigation, Mnangagwa was relishing photo opportunities with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United States President Joe Biden.
When he arrived back home, Mnangagwa told scores of his supporters that the UK trip was a major boost for Zimbabwe’s international re-engagement drive as the country sought to mend relations with the rest of the world.
But last week the mask fell off in dramatic fashion, when British MPs took turns to bash Mnangagwa’s government. Zimbabwe has — since Mnangagwa’s ascendancy to power in 2017 — made no secret of its desire for readmission back into the Commonwealth, but last week the UK parliamentarians made it clear they did not support readmission.
Lack of political reforms was cited as the major reason Zimbabwe should not be part of a group of mostly former British colonies. Getting back to the Commonwealth will be beneficial for a government which has been struggling to access debt financing from multilateral funders.
The continued detention of political activist Makomborero Haruzivishe was also discussed during the session.
Lord Purvis of Tweed said despite the Zimbabwe media promoting the meeting that took place between Mnangagwa and the British Africa minister, pre-conditions for re-joining the Commonwealth should be made clear.
House of Lords reprimand leaves Mnangagwa propaganda in tatters “Zimbabwean Press promoted the fact that President Mnangagwa met our Prime Minister and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in Glasgow at COP 26.
As the minister is also the minister for the Commonwealth, can he say whether we are making clear that, while we want the Commonwealth to be inclusive and open to Zimbabwe being a member, the conditions of a free and fair political system and the restoration of the 2013 constitution and the rule of law are essential criteria for membership and re-joining the Commonwealth?” he said.
In response, the minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, said the British government was making that clear to the Mnangagwa administration.
“My lords, I totally agree with the noble lord; those points are being made. On the COP engagement, it was the minister for Africa, my honourable friend Vicky Ford, who met with the President of Zimbabwe,” he said.
“My lords, the UK remains concerned about the political situation in Zimbabwe. We regularly urge the Zimbabwean government to live up to their own constitution by ensuring that the opposition, civil society and journalists are allowed to operate without harassment, and that due legal process is respected. The minister for Africa reinforced these messages when she met President Mnangagwa on 1 November. Our embassy is also in touch with Mr Haruzivishe’s lawyers as we await the outcome of his appeal.”
The British lords also called upon neighbouring countries Zambia and South Africa to rachet up political pressure on Zimbabwe to ensure political reforms.
“My lords, I pay tribute to the noble lord’s role on the APPG (Ll-Party Parliamentary Group). He is of course right that it is important that regional governments have a role to play. In this regard, we have engaged directly at the highest level with the South African government and we continue to engage with other regional partners, as well as regional associations, including the African Union, on this priority, ” Lord Ahmad added.
The ghost of 1 August 2018 and January 2019 which saw security forces kill dozens of civilians when they opened fire in Harare continues to hang over Mnangagwa as the international community, including the British, demand political reforms and an end to human rights abuses.
“My lords, I agree with the noble baroness: she is quite right to say that. Sadc and other organisations — including, more broadly, the AU — have a key role to play and must lead on these discussions, as people want to see an inclusive, progressive Zimbabwe. Within Zimbabwe, we must see rights restored, constitutions respected and human rights — which includes the rights of other political parties to participate fully in the democratic process — guaranteed. Those will form part of our current and future discussions with key partners,” Lord Ahmad said.
Analysts say the UK debates show that Mnangagwa’s re-engagement drive has fallen off the rails. They say the debate was a direct response to Mnangagwa’s claims that he had embarked on a successful re-engagement journey to Glasgow.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said: “This is partly to respond to Mnangagwa’s claims that he had a good meeting with Johnson in the UK. It also highlights that re-engagement has failed and it contradicts what Mnangagwa had said.”
“It is egg on their face,” Mandaza added.
The UK had remained Zimbabwe’s major cheerleader until January 2019 when Mnangagwa’s regime went on a rampage, killing 17 citizens, bruitalising dozens while many were displaced during unrest over rising fuel prices.
The then Africa minister, Harriet Baldwin, declared that the UK would no longer support Zimbabwe’s bid to rejoin the Commonwealth and the country’s attempt to woo back foreign investors.
She expressed dissatisfaction with Mnangagwa’s failure to act on badly needed political and economic reforms.
Former president Robert Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in 2003 after the bloc condemned human rights abuses and the chaotic land reform programme.
Since then, Britain has slapped Zimbabwe with sanctions, with the latest being in February this year.
Following the House of Lords debate, Mnangagwa came out guns blazing denouncing the UK for meddling in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, as his previous promises to cultivate cordial relations with Britain unravelled.
It is now gloves off between the erstwhile partners. “Only last week, our country Zimbabwe became a subject of unmerited focus and debate in the British House of Lords,” Mnangagwa said in a televised address on Tuesday.
“In the ensuing debate by that foreign legislative body with no jurisdiction over our country, a junior minister of Her Majesty’s government in charge of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, one Mister Tariq Mahmood, revealed that her Majesty’s government has been meeting in Harare with various (trade) unions, including teaching unions, most recently in September 2021, on salaries and the impact of Covid-19.”