SWEEDISH ambassador to Zimbabwe Her Excellency Ms Asa Pehrson (AP) will soon be completing her tour of duty to Zimbabwe after a four-year stint which was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ahead of her departure Ambassador Pearson, who is in Stockholm, had an online interview with The NewsHawks news editor Owen Gagare (OG) about her stay in Zimbabwe as well as bilateral relations between Harare and Stockholm among other things.
She also revealed the role that Sweden played to ensure the liberation struggle was a success and had contributed about SEK6 billion (krona) (about US$600 million) in aid to Zimbabwe over the years. She said trade and relations between the two nations can be improved with further dialogue. Find excerpts of the interview below:
OG: We understand you are no longer in Harare, where have you been posted?
AP: Formally, I’m still Ambassador to Zimbabwe until August. Currently I’m in Stockholm and I will be posted to Stockholm. I have been in Zimbabwe since 2019.
OG: What was your greatest achievement as ambassador?
AP: I would like to believe that I was creative to create safe space for dialogue with various stakeholders. The dialogue included average Zimbabweans not only in Harare but also outside… These were very valuable, particularly with the youths.
OG: What would you consider the biggest failure or regret of your tenure?
AP: I don’t have a personal regret, but I have a global regret because of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were parts we were not able to travel and have the interactions that we wanted to have…. The pandemic effectively cut my tour of duty by almost half.
OG: What are the most important programs happening between Sweden and Zimbabwe currently?
AP: Currently going on, we have a lot. We are working on a development strategy that was adopted -by the Swedish government more than a year ago. And it is a five-year strategy, and we have three main areas of priority; the first being human rights, democracy, rule or law and gender equality. That is one, the second one is environment, climate and sustainable development. And then the third one is inclusive economic development.
As you can already understand from the priorities, it covers a broad range of different activities, and I would say around half of the support, which is approximately SEK350 million (Swedish krona), roughly, it matches US$35 million/yr. But, half of it is funded through different organisations and half of it through civic society partners.
I would say it is difficult to single out the important, or the most important programmes that we are running because we have also continued from previous development strategies since we have been a donor for so long to Zimbabwe. It is also continuous work.
I think what we have tried to do with the previous strategies is to put more focus on the inclusive economic development, and also target a bit more environment and climate. But you will recognise the first priority, the human rights, democracy, rule or law and gender equality. Those are priorities that I think very much characterize the Swedish support throughout the years in Zimbabwe.
OG: What has your intervention achieved. Do you think Zimbabwe is on the right path?
AP: I think definitely Zimbabwe is on the right path. It would even more so if we strengthen the dialogue and again going back what you will hear me say many times during this interview, the importance of dialogue and to listen to one another and also contextualize and try to create mutual understanding for how we define some concepts and what we mean by different traits.
You cannot be lost in translation when discussing such important issues. I think what we have during the past months is an increased engagement and willingness from Zimbabwe’s government which can also be appreciated, and of course, during the pandemic, it was very difficult to interact at all. And so, I see this as a step from before the pandemic to move on to more strengths in dialogue, finally we have the possibility to meet in person, to interact.
I think the process of preparing for an arrears clearance, for example with the African Development Bank (AfDB) it also allowed us to sit down with the international community together with representatives from the government of Zimbabwe and have that frank conversation, for example on democracy, human rights and rule of law and looking at trends and indicators in looking at how we as the international community can best support that the government of Zimbabwe wants to make. So I think there is that opportunity now which is now welcome.
OG: Many people believe that Zimbabwe has not moved that much in terms of human rights citing maybe the arrest of activists like Job Sikhala who has been in jail for over a year without trial; the non-implementation of the Motlanthe Commission recommendations; arrests of civil society leaders etc. What is your view on that?
AP: So, I would like to refrain from commenting on individual cases as that will regard legal analysis. But I am quite aware of the case of Job Sikhala, and also follow-up to the Motlanthe Commission. Again, I think it is going back to what I just said on preparing for that arrears clearance process; that dialogue platform. I think it goes back to have that sit down and create a mutual understanding of what is a follow-up to the Motlanthe Commission. What does it take? What does it mean?
Do we understand each other? And I think there is that opportunity now to have that proper stock-taking. And yes, there are a lot of things to be done but again the international community is willing to support any progress the government wants to make. So, I think there is willingness from both sides, and hopefully, the opportunity with creating this dialogue platform for arrears clearance is one opportunity where this can actually happen.
So, I think it takes this frank approach where you have to sit down at the table and layout and make sure that you have the same understanding of the concepts. Otherwise we will be lost in the translation moving on. So, I think the key is dialogue and also the opportunity to have a frank dialogue.
OG: As one of the major donors to Zimbabwe, how much has Sweden donated to Zimbabwe since 1980?
AP: Thank you for that question. I think my estimate is around SEK6 billion (krona), (about US$600 million). That is just the bi-lateral from the government to Sweden. But then also, this is important today, but even more so supporting the liberation process, and moving on supporting it as an independent nation in the early 80s. I think it is the whole Team Sweden. We like to call it Team Sweden. That would technically include Swedish companies. That would also include collaborations between churches, collaborations between companies, not necessarily related to traditional aid.
So, you have companies, agencies and churches, but also individuals, there is still examples like the Dentist Without Borders that having activities like supporting dentists in Zimbabwe. But, they have also started other projects on the sides, for example supporting schools and clinic and so on. But from the traditional aid, it is 6 billion. But there is a lot more engagement in the broader Team Sweden concept.
OG: In Zimbabwe, we do not usually highlight the role of European Nations played in the liberation struggle. It would be on interest to our readers to know what role Sweden played in the liberation struggle as you had highlighted.
AP: I think the role that we played was for Zimbabwe obviously, but for the region as a whole. Again, it goes back to our strong belief in human rights, democracy, rule of law, freedom of rights and the freedom to exercise your human rights. And also political support, but it was also, speaking of the broader Team Sweden’s concept so to speak – it also had connections through collaborations through churches and individuals that were engaged at the time of the liberation struggle.
It also meant that there were strong ties with Sweden, and that we also had a lot of collaborations with those fighting for independence in Zimbabwe at the time. And also the ones that then picked off the independent Zimbabwe in 1980 and we tried to be supportive as we could. And so, you mentioned aid, and of course that is one way of supporting. But, there are also broader ways of supporting through political support, and putting Zimbabwe on the agenda and also of course companies and again churches and individuals through people to people collaborations.
OG: What is the level of trade between Zimbabwe and Sweden right now?
AP: So, the level of trade between Zimbabwe and Sweden is not very significant. So the best reply to that is that it has a lot of potential. We do have Swedish companies based in Zimbabwe. We have in the mining industry for example. We have a couple of companies that are doing quite well. We also have representatives of the Swedish brand selling garden equipment that is also doing quite well in Zimbabwe.
So there is a lot of potential. Going back again to engagement, about Zimbabwe and Sweden, there is an opportunity to further develop and dig a bit further into opportunities and going ahead. In my tenure I had one visit by the Chamber of Commerce. I think again, the pandemic cut that short, but surely, there are opportunities to be followed up.
OG: What are the opportunities, and why hasn’t the potential been harnessed in your view? How do Swedish companies view Zimbabwe and its operating environment?
AP: It is a good question. One of the reasons is that Zimbabwe is very far away from Sweden. But then, Sweden is not shying away from trade. But, I think there is a curiosity and questions asked about Zimbabwe’s business climate, I think a lot can be done, putting facts to the business community and industry and point to opportunities in Zimbabwe. I do not think there is a specific reason as to why we do not have significant trade with Zimbabwe. Like I said, I think there is definitely a lot of potential and there are players working on that. So, I think we have to give it some time, but I do not see any obstacles.
OG: What do you think about the investment climate in Zimbabwe?
AP: There are lots of opportunities in Zimbabwe. I think when you also travel the country, you see a variety. You see the different sectors and the opportunities, and the biggest opportunity you find is the people – well educated population, which is also interested in the national relations. So, I think there is a lot of opportunities. Sweden for example has got lots of technology on sustainable development, sustainable solutions – just to mention a few.
Again, it is connecting the different actors and have fruitful conversations leading into opportunities I think.
OG: In your view, what is the state of democracy, rule of law and human right rights. You touched a bit about that, but, what is your assessment?
AP: My assessment is that there are challenges, but again I think, going back, the key is dialogue, and to have an honest dialogue about that. And, through that dialogue again, find ways in which the international community can best support Zimbabwe’s own ambition. At the end of the day, it is a sovereign country and it has it has its own vision for the future.
And I think the only way to do that is have a frank dialogue, have a sit down and make sure we do not misunderstand each other and then we can also target our support in the best way possible for Zimbabwe to achieve its goals.
I think stressing the level of human rights and democracy. Zimbabwe is a democracy as an independent nation. I think what we in all humbleness learnt as a democracy on the other side of the globe is that it takes constant work. You cannot tick a box and then go the rest of the time, but you have to continuously work on democracy in pointing at different right that cannot be exercised fully, or different parts of your rule of law – because also, time changes and people also. And, there is constant development. I think we can share the experiences that we have had.
From Sweden, we discuss a lot, we also scrutinize our legislators. We hold them to account. In our society for example, opposition plays a key role, and sometimes even more important than the sitting government, in a sense that as a constructive opposition, you point out issues that need to be resolved and present your alternative viable alternative to the government’s agenda so to speak.
So, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. It is constant work.
OG: In your engagements with the government of Zimbabwe. Have you been frank in your engagements?
AP: Yes, I have been frank.
OG: How do you describe the relations between Stockholm and Harare right now, in the context of the EU, or Brussels diplomatic standoff with Harare.
AP: I think starting from the EU, Sweden is currently the chair of EU for a few more days until the end of June. I think what the EU is seeking, as also is Sweden bilaterally, is an increased dialogue with Zimbabwe. We would like Zimbabwe to make progress and we want Zimbabwe to flourish.
That is why we are present in Zimbabwe with an embassy and delegation. The two actors, the EU and Sweden, we have a lot of support to Zimbabwe. So there is lot of goodwill and lots of support going in from the EU and from Sweden bilaterally. And I think you mentioned face-offs, I think again, the only way to resolve any misunderstandings or disagreements is that we have to have a sit down and to have a frank conversation.
From the EU side, we also place great importance on the regular political dialogues that we have together with the Zimbabwean government. So it is again on the theme of dialogue and to be able to interact as a player in Zimbabwe.
OG: What targeted sanctions remain on Zimbabwe, and in your view, did they work or not?
AP: So, we call them restrictive measures. The only one left is the arms embargo on the Zimbabwe Defense Industry. On the second question on whether sanctions have worked or not. Sanctions or restrictive measures is an instrument from a tool box that has to be seen from its diversity.
We have political engagements from the EU. There is also development co-operation and there is trade, just to mention a few. The relation is broad and sanctions is part of that, but it does not define the relation. I think, initially the regime was adopted in a different context. What they needed to do was highlight where change was needed and also the need for dialogue.
And, if you compare to when they were imposed to today, definitely the dialogue and interactions have improved. So again, we go back to my favorite theme of dialogue and a need to have a certain space where we can be very frank with one another and how we can best support Zimbabwe.
OG: What is the status of e-engagement between Zimbabwe and Sweden?
AP: I think the status is good. I think we have explored in the past couple of years how to strengthen our bilateral relations. So, the relations are good. That is my view.
OG: Who is being posted to Zimbabwe after you what advice would you give to your successor?
AP: His name is Mr Per Lindgarde. He will take this posting in August…My advice in all humbleness is to continue interactions, including with the brilliant youths.