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President Emmerson Mnangagwa with Russian President Vladimir Putin


President fuels tensions with Zambia after Russia remarks



ZIMBABWEAN President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrived home from oveseas amid a diplomatic storm in which he fueled a simmering diplomatic crisis with Zambia by negatively branding it a Western puppet destabilising the region, while isolating Harare.


Mnangagwa’s statements in a private meeting with his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, which were leaked afterwards, characterised Zambia as an American client state wreaking havoc in the region.

In international relations, a client state is a country economically, politically and militarily dependent on a powerful controlling nation. Ironically, Mnangagwa saw nothing wrong with his actions rendering Zimbabwe Russia’s satellite state while complaining about Zambia and its ties to the United States.

In the meeting with Putin at Konstantinosky Palace in the Petrodvorets district of St Petersburg, Strelna village, on Friday, Mnangagwa — who grew up in Mumbwa north of the Zambezi — singled out Zambia and Malawi, insinuating they are Western puppets which Moscow must combat.

Mnangagwa, who has a strong Zambian background, said: “We are anxious to have more comprehensive and concentrated relations between ourselves. Yes, we are a very advanced country; but there is a lot that we can learn from you and there is a lot that will benefit from that relationship. And there is a lot that we can open for the Russian Federation to participate in our economy, especially in the mining sector and agriculture. There is a lot that we can afford for you to participate.

 “And in that process, the West will run away. You see, the West has just begun consolidating its power in Zambia, our next neighbour. You know, there was a time when Zambia and Zimbabwe were one; it was called Northern and Southern Rhodesia. It was made one by the British, but they are now separate. And the Americans are consolidating their power in that country, both in terms of security and in terms of financial support to Zambia to make sure that we feel lonely.”

 A Zambian diplomat based in Harare told The NewsHawks: “That was reckless by President Mnangagwa. Zimbabwe and Zambia are neighbours with a close history as he said himself, dating back to the federation days.

 “Besides, he grew up in Zambia; to all intents and purposes he is also Zambian. So how can he talk toxic stuff like that as if he is an irresponsible opposition leader? Moreover, in a foreign country, in farflung Russia. This will unnecessarily stoke diplomatic tensions between Harare and Lusaka, given the dispute over Zimbabwean elections last year and the coming Sadc summit.”

Given Mnangagwa is already at odds with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema over last year’s fraudulent and disputed elections in Zimbabwe, his remarks have fueled diplomatic tensions between the two countries ahead of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) summit scheduled for Harare in August.

As The NewsHawks has previously reported of late, Mnangagwa is secretly plotting to isolate Hichilema and trash the damning Sadc election observer mission report which rejected Zimbabwe’s poll outcome to sanitise his flawed re-election.

Zambian political activist Joseph Kalimbwe says Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s remarks on Lusaka’s foreign policy during his meeting with Putin are inflammatory and may create a diplomatic crisis, disturbing the peace that has existed between the two countries for a long time.

“Our two nations have lived side by side with each other for decades. The shared history goes back to the Rhodesia Federation. Our people know they will never be divided by any political remarks. Let’s continue to choose the path of peace. Nothing will ever break us apart!!!” he wrote. Another Zambian, Emmanuel Mwamba, opposition Patriotic Front presidential aspirant and diplomat, said:

“The recent appeal by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to Russia’s Vladimir Putin for security support and other cooperation, especially and in light of the support the US government, its allies and institutions are giving Zambia, appears to be legitimate, in the face of geopolitics and security threats playing out in the region.

“This recent development has to be handled with diplomatic care as the tensions have been brewing for the last three years.”

Ordinary Zambians and Zimbabweans also expressed views on the issue, mainly saying it should be handled with care and not the irresponsible way that Mnangagwa did.

 Mnangagwa’s statements could also stoke the already hostile relations between Russia and the West, particularly the US, in southern Africa where countries are divided in their foreign policies and geopolitical interests.

Harare is uncomfortable with Lusaka’s foreign policy, although it also has its own relations which its neighbour may not like.

 Last year, United States Vice-President Kamala Harris embarked on a whirlwind diplomatic swing through Africa, including Zambia: A visit to the site of her maternal grandfather’s home in Lusaka, where he lived as an Indian public servant in the 1960s.

In April last year, the US Africa Command (Africom) announced it was setting up an office in Zambia, provoking an uproar at home and in the region. Africom has bases across Africa.

 On the video, the manner Mnangagwa framed his narrative and told his story, he delivered it like a child reporting a bully and his puppet to a father or another elder to take stern action. It was clear Mnangagwa felt personally aggrieved.

 In March, the US imposed new sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Programme on 11 Zimbabweans, including Mnangagwa and his wife, and other officials, as well as three entities, citing corruption and human rights abuses Mnangagwa’s government reacted angrily to that.

 Putin and his country are also under Western sanctions over Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. Zambia and many other African countries, for instance Botswana, are close to the US, while some states like Zimbabwe and South Africa are allies of China and Russia.

Moscow’s first visible attempts to re-engage with the continent started in the mid-2000s. In 2006, Putin visited South Africa, followed by his successor Dmitry Medvedev’s trips to Egypt, Angola, Nigeria, and Namibia in 2009.

The Kremlin doubled down on its diplomatic efforts following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when the first round of Western sanctions against Russia forced Moscow to actively seek new geopolitical partners and business opportunities.

Since 2014, various high-ranking Russian state officials — including Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and Dldeputy Foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov — have frequented different African states and signed multiple bilateral economic, and security cooperation agreements, as well as written off billions of dollars in African debts.

 Only this week, Lavrov arrived Monday in Guinea on his latest visit to West Africa, where coups and growing discontent with traditional allies like France and the US have contributed to some countries’ shift toward Moscow.

Lavrov has visited the African continent several times in the past couple of years as Russia seeks support — or at least neutrality — from many of its 54 countries amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin has since visited Libya (2008) and Egypt (2015 and 2017).

But the only country in sub-Saharan Africa the Russian president has visited is South Africa. In January, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken toured four African countries on the Atlantic coast — Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Angola — as security deteriorated in the Sahel and doubts grow about a key US base in neighbouring couphit Niger.

Last year, Blinken visited three African states, South Africa, Rwanda and Congo Brazzaville, soon after Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron’s trips.

The scramble for Africa is intensifying and now involves the US, China, Russia, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, South Korea and the European Union states, among other countries or power blocs, who all have bilateral summits with the continent.

Mnangagwa in fact arrived in Russia on 6 June coming from Seoul for a South Korea-Africa summit. African countries have different positions on how they relate to the West and the East.

After coming to Zimbabwe recently to officially open the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo, for instance, Kenyan President William Ruto visited Washington DC and signed a pact with President Joe Biden to make his country a non-Nato ally, the first sub-Saharan country to gain that status, positioning Nairobi as a rising military power in Africa.

 The non-Nato ally status has already remarkably upgraded the armies of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, close American allies.

Yet other African governments have increasingly welcomed economic, diplomatic, and security ties with Russia — leading Western countries to denounce what they see as Moscow’s destabilising influence and sought their own arrangements to counter the Kremlin.

The US has come up with a law to counter “malign” Russian activities in Africa, now a battleground for big powers scrambling for resources and geopolitical strategic and security influence. The law divided African countries, which are also split over the Ukraine-Russian war.

Across Africa, Russia is recommitting to power projection through military assistance programmes and coup protection schemes, taking up the mantle of the Wagner Group, now replaced by a new entity called Russia’s Africa Corps.

 The infamous mercenary organisation’s founders, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, were killed in a plane crash in August 2023, two months after leading Wagner fighters in a march on Moscow to attempt a mutiny against the country’s defence forces.

Russia is offering governments across Africa a “regime survival package” in exchange for access to strategically important natural resources and influence. The Kremlin is now squarely in competition with the West in Africa through deployments as seen in Libya, Sudan, and Burkina Faso.

 While the Wagner Group was plausibly deniable, direct Kremlin confrontation with the West appears to be eliciting a stronger reaction from Western actors. Unlike their halting and limited responses to the Wagner Group, Nato countries have a long history of confrontation with the Russian state to draw upon, including in Africa during the Cold War.

 This direct style of competition necessarily puts both parties in an increasingly dangerous escalatory position, particularly if direct kinetic engagements occur between Russian and Nato forces. African leaders have been receptive to Russian overtures as a result of increasing concerns about growing Chinese dominance, retrenchment of US and their interest in diversifying trading and security partners.

Russia cultivates relationships by relying on the legacy of the Soviet Union’s support for anti-colonial and liberation movements, while focusing on strengthening diplomatic, military and economic collaborations.

 Mnangagwa referred to those historic ties while briefing Putin. South Africa’s relations with Russia is also based on that. Russia’s strategy in Africa appears to involve a mix of arms sales, political support to authoritarian leaders and security collaborations — in exchange for mining rights, business opportunities and diplomatic support for its foreign policy positions.

The offers of military assistance and political support, especially for authoritarian leaders, have opened doors to Russian firms and strengthened diplomatic relationships.

The support of African allies has been especially important to Russia at the United Nations where African countries account for a quarter of all votes in the General Assembly.