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Mnangagwa’s cocktail encounters and futility of summit diplomacy

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ZIMBABWEAN President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his publicists climbed Mount Everest celebrating inevitable chats with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and happenstance exchanges at a cocktail with United States President Joe Biden at the recent United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Mnangagwa excitedly bragged to journalists in Glasgow about his chats with Johnson — who as the host had no choice but to talk to him — and Biden whom he encountered during the summit’s cocktail function.

 “I had an opportunity to chat with President Joe Biden and the spirit which he has towards Zimbabwe is totally different from what we see from the US Embassy in Harare. In fact, he called a staffer and said ‘please make sure that I have a chat with the President (referring to President Mnangagwa)’,” he said.

Mnangagwa’s attempt to decipher Washington DC’s current position on targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe through a fortuitous and fleeting chat with Biden rather than from sustained engagements with diplomats in Harare is widely seen as amateurish and naïve.

“It is diplomatically disingenuous for President Mnangagwa to make such unfounded remarks on an important issue like this and try to drive a wedge between President Biden and his administration’s diplomats in Harare,” a Western diplomat said.

“Biden and other leaders of democratic states work through institutions, processes and advice; they are not arbitrary authoritarians. To say Biden’s attitude is different from that of American diplomats in Harare — on the basis of an encounter which lasted some seconds or a minute — is rather ill-advised and unhelpful.”

Biden was central to the targeted sanctions issue from the beginning. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act was passed by the US Congress imposing targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe and senior Zanu PF officials in 2001. Senate passed the Bill on 1 August and the House of representatives passed it on 4 December.

Former president George W Bush signed it into law on 21 December. Beyond rubbing shoulders with Biden, Mnangagwa said he also spoke with Johnson about three times, a reference to the short encounters during the summit. The President also engaged UK minister of State for Africa Vicky Ford.

He said Ford is scheduled to visit Zimbabwe on a date yet to be set. Mnangagwa said he also spoke with Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne as the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, who lowered the Union Jack at midnight on 18 April 1980 — Independence Day — for the last time and the new Zimbabwe flag was raised.

Mnangagwa also met with Prince William. He claimed the Prince told him to convey a message of goodwill to Marvellous Nakamba whom he follows ardently. Yet Nakamba, who plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, had already previously met the Prince as way back as May without Mnangagwa.

Other figures who chatted with Mnangagwa include European Council president Charles Michel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, secretary of State for the Holy See Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland.

Having gone to Glasgow without standing appointments, Mnangagwa resorted to capitalising on exchange of pleasantries, courtesy calls and ambush meetings, including chance encounters during the cocktail, to give the impression of a hectic schedule and serious engagements.

Summitry engagements sometimes yield desired results, but largely do not deliver the goods. Summits, a term first used by Winston Churchill in 1950 in a speech on the Soviet Union on 14 February 1950, are basically meetings involving representatives of the highest level of states or international organisations.

They have a high frequency involving heads of state or government in debates on global issues. But in some cases these meetings are criticised because presidents or prime ministers may lack expertise in certain areas or the preparation of career diplomats.

As Rwandan President Paul Kagame said, African leaders usually attend those summits for a photo opportunity. In addition, leaders who make decisions at summit without the expertise and consultation could be led by personal agendas.

The trouble with summitry — which may provide a platform for negotiations and image building or prove to be a public relations disaster depending on how they are handled — is that expectations tend to rise beyond what can reasonably be hoped for — just like the Mnangagwa adventure in Glasgow which has proved to be like a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

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