THE United Kingdom’s unexpected move this week to impose sanctions on four Zimbabwean security chiefs for human rights violations — following a series of critical pronouncements in recent months — signifies a major policy shift, diplomatic sources say.
In a move seen in Harare as an unexpected kick in the teeth, the UK, now autonomous to make solo decisions on sanctions after breaking away from the European Union, announced new sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freeze, on State Security minister Owen Ncube, Central Intelligence Organisation director-general Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe Republic Police commissioner-general Godwin Matanga and retired Lieutenant-General Anselem Sanyatwe, former commander of the Presidential Guard, now Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Tanzania.
UK Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the security sector chiefs were responsible for serious human rights violations, including the deaths of 23 Zimbabwean protestors in August 2018 and January 2019.
“These sanctions send a clear message that we will hold to account those responsible for the most egregious human rights violations, including the deaths of innocent Zimbabweans,” Raab said.
“These sanctions target senior individuals in the government, and not ordinary Zimbabweans. We will continue to press for the necessary political and economic reforms that will benefit all Zimbabweans.”
UK Minister for Africa James Duddridge reinforced Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s message, saying investors were not coming to Zimbabwe due to three things: arbitrary violations of property rights; currency volatility and concerns over the legal system or judicial independence.
This was the first significant policy step by London not just to criticise Mnangagwa’s government, but also to boldly move to isolate it from the international community, restoring the pre-2017 coup pariah state status.
The move marked a 360-degree diplomatic somersault by London towards Harare.
Stephen Chan, a British-based professor of world politics who follows Zimbabwean issues closely, said London’s move was “very direct”, although “diplomatically clumsy” – marking a new policy shift. “Clumsy, but direct. Pointed,” he said.
Britain had through its ambassador to Harare Catriona Laing, before the November 2017 military coup which brought Mnangagwa to power, manoeuvred to secure change from within Zanu PF after its political dalliance with the main opposition MDC had not yield the desired results.
Laing worked frantically behind-the-scenes to support, profile and prop up Mnangagwa. She launched a daring campaign which included mobilising domestic, diplomatic, international and media support for him.
She even went to the extent of inviting mainstream media editors for luncheons at her Chisipite official residence to sell and buttress her campaign.
In off-the-record meetings with editors, Laing made it clear that Mnangagwa was the British horse in the race to succeed the late former president Robert Mugabe ahead of his preferred candidate, then Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, not his wife Grace as most pro-Mnangagwa media claimed at the time.
“Laing engaged political actors, captains of industry, diplomats, activists and media as well as diplomats, international financial institutions and the international community to push the subtle campaign for Mnangagwa to take over from Mugabe,” one editor who attended some of the briefings told The NewsHawks.
“Basically, she pivoted the plot and campaign to impose Mnangagwa. That is why after the coup, she even went to the unprecedented extent of putting on Mnangagwa’s scarf right in front of No. 10 Downing Street, Britain’s highest political office. Of course, Britain was not doing it for Mnangagwa, but for its own national interest; we were clear on all those issues.
“The meetings were off-the-record so we can’t really go into the details, but briefly the point is Laing sought to profile and promote Mnangagwa as a reformer, business friendly leader and efficient administrator — which of course some of us knew he wasn’t — who had liberation struggle credentials and military support; so for her he was shoo-in to take over from Mugabe.”
Mnangagwa was packaged as Zimbabwe’s own Deng Xiaoping in the whispering campaign.
Laing was even prepared to fight Mnangagwa critics to get her way. As a result, she had a nasty fallout with main opposition MDC Alliance deputy leader Tendai Biti, who was then People’s Democratic Party leader, over the issue.
Biti, with the support of some United States officials, was manoeuvring in the diplomatic shadows and international financial institution boardrooms to block a British-backed plan to help Zimbabwe clear its arrears and debts to create a conducive economic environment for Mnangagwa when he came in.
This was done through the Lima Plan which was fronted by former Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, a Mnangagwa ally.
“Biti and Laing had nasty exchanges over her moves to help install Mnangagwa as leader. Biti was opposed to it, saying it was wrong for Britain and even for Zimbabweans to push for the ‘Butcher of Bhalagwe’ (a reference to a Gukurahundi killing camp called Bhalagwe in Kezi, Matabeleland South province) to become president as that would keep the country locked in a cycle of political violence, impunity and failure,” a source said.
“Internationally, Liang was lobbying through embassies for Mnangagwa and international financial institutions, but Biti and others threw spanners in the works. Biti reached out and managed to scuttle the Lima Plan — of course helped by Zimbabwe’s bankruptcy and failure to pay its obligations, as well as its lack of creditworthiness — by going to Washington DC, London and Scandinavian capitals, as well as the Paris Club to explain why funding a Mnangagwa regime would not help reform and recovery.”
Informed diplomats said before and after the coup, London was the fulcrum of the Mnangagwa power bid in various ways.
Its institutions, state and non-state actors, pushed collaborative processes with the Zimbabwean government representatives, private sector, investors and business organisations, civil society and experts, drawing on best practice and senior-level insights to identify policy options for long-term economic revival and expansion, and pathways for the Mnangagwa project.
After the coup, the British government enthusiastically demonstrated its goodwill by dramatically changing its diplomatic stance towards Zimbabwe through a number of firsts in decades.
Former British Africa minister Rory Stewart was among the first on the coup crime scene, arriving in the country ahead of Mnangagwa’s inauguration in November 2017.
His visit was the first such high-profile visit in two decades. This was under former prime minister Theresa May’s government. May was replaced by current Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In a statement before the ceremony, Stewart described the change in leadership as “an absolutely critical moment” after Mugabe’s “ruinous rule”.
In February 2018, Stewart’s replacement Harriett Baldwin for her first visit came to Zimbabwe, marking the second UK ministerial visit to the country in a short time.
“The past few months have seen momentous change in Zimbabwe and it is a privilege to visit at such a pivotal time,” she said, adding that Britain was “committed to working with the government of Zimbabwe for a bright, prosperous and hopeful future for all Zimbabweans”.
In March 2018, Laing – who spearheaded the campaign – stirred controversy after being pictured wearing Mnangagwa’s trademark scarf during a visit to No. 10 Downing Street.
Also for the first time in 20 years, in May 2018, the British government in partnership with Standard Charted Bank extended a US$100 million direct commercial loan to Zimbabwe for the private sector.
Even influential British politicians like Lord Peter Hain – who was doing public relations for Africa Chrome Resources initially jointly owned by the Ministry of Defence and the President’s South African associates – flew to Harare to hold talks with Mnangagwa.
Hain famously described the coup as a “dramatic shift in power within the ruling Zanu PF elites” as the British and their Zimbabwean allies struggled to set a new narrative for Mnangagwa.
Thereafter, the branding of Mnangagwa was intensified under labels and refrains like “New Dispensation”, “Second Republic” and “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” – a narrative which has since collapsed.
British officials and their Zimbabwean allies always lurked in the propaganda echo chambers to help promote Mnangagwa who suddenly found himself featuring in the world’s most influential media outlets, including The Financial Times and The New York Times.
Mnangagwa was prominently paraded on international stages like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, while efforts were made to secure him the services of a Cambridge-trained and Oxford and London School of Economics visiting scholar, Professor Mthuli Ncube — a financial mathematician — as Finance minister.
The late Foreign and International Trade minister Sibusiso Moyo (pictured) led the re-engagement process; his hunting ground being London, not Washington DC, Brussels or Beijing.
A group of businesspersons, supposed technocrats and young techno-savvy individuals, including the Presidential Advisory Council (Pac) crew and individuals like the trade lawyer and novelist Petina Gappah, purported investment and trade experts, were roped in around him.
The co-option process also targeted business, civil society and media, as well as critics. Even private media — except a few publications — were roped in subtly.
They happily joined the bandwagon and even refused to acknowledge Mnangagwa was a coup leader at the time.
Harare had its ducks is a row. Regionally, the geo-economic power South Africa, Southern African Development Community and the African Union were lined up to support Mnangagwa.
These moves were considered as a sign of confidence in the “New Dispensation” and its policies.
Diplomats then revealed the UK wanted a Rwandan model in Zimbabwe, which blends authoritarian methods and homegrown solutions with international best practice from developmental states and the West, particularly the US, without emulating their democratic governance systems.
Mnangagwa later met Rwanda President Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the 10th extraordinary summit of the African Union in March 2018. Like Kagame, Mnangagwa in January 2019 appointed a 26-member Pac dominated by his cronies.
Rwanda’s Pac, a group of eminent experts who offer strategic advice to Kagame on strategic development, was established in 2007.
It has steered the East African country to relative economic prosperity, a model that Mnangagwa sought to emulate, while also pursuing his co-option strategy.
However, Mnangagwa’s Pac has turned out to be a disastrous public relations branding process.
Kagame’s panel is mainly composed of a variety of individuals with notable expertise in different spheres and also involves experts from other nations like the US, but Mnangagwa relied on local skills who are mainly his cheerleaders.
In a bid to replicate the Rwandan model, Mnangagwa was also set to establish an investment council in the mould of the highly regarded Rwanda Development Board.
Its chair Clare Akamanzi was in Zimbabwe in April 2018 to impart advice to the government on how to attract foreign direct investment.
However, human rights abuses, particularly the killing of six civilians by soldiers on 1 August 2018 and the killing of 17 persons in January 2019, as well as abductions, torture and arrests of political activists, have hardened Britain’s stance on Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa has also failed to introduce political and economic reforms he promised. After the August 2018 killings, the British government continued to support Mnangagwa, hoping the Kgalema Motlanthe-led commission of inquiry he instituted to investigate the killings would ensure the perpetrators were brought to book.
Duddridge this week said until the Zimbabwean government genuinely reforms, the UK will continue to criticise Mnangagwa’s regime.
“The UK is committed to supporting Zimbabwe’s long-term success. But the onus is on the Zimbabwean government to show it is willing to take steps to make critical political and economic reforms the country needs. This includes taking a different approach to upholding constitutional rights and tackling corruption than in the past. Until then, we will not shy away from defending human rights. We will continue to work alongside our international partners as a global force for good, dedicated to fostering more resilient and just societies,” Duddridge said in an opinion-editorial article published in a South African publication.
“A more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Zimbabwe is in all our interests. Sadly, the repercussions of an unstable, economically mismanaged Zimbabwe, beset by corruption, are being carried by ordinary Zimbabweans and are being felt across the border in South Africa and throughout the region.
“In 2017, President Emmerson Mnangagwa committed to reforms to bring legislation and practice in line with Zimbabwe’s constitution. This is encouraging. But sanctions will be retained as long as the human rights situation in Zimbabwe justifies them.”
In 2017, Britain had been willing to support Zimbabwe’s readmission to the club of mostly former British colonies, the Commonwealth.
But in February 2019 Baldwin made a dramatic change and said her country would no longer back Zimbabwe’s plan to return to the Commonwealth because of human rights violations.
The NewsHawks reached out to Laing who is now deployed in Nigeria for her thoughts on the course Zimbabwe has taken, considering the effort she made in propping up the Mnangagwa regime.
However, her team in Nigeria refused to comment, referring the publication to the British embassy in Harare.
Hain is also another official to change his tune on Zimbabwe after proclaiming the country would rise from the ashes.
Of late, he has been criticising the Mnangagwa government for “escalating human rights violations”. He is now calling for further sanctions on key Zimbabwean ministers and security chiefs.
International relations expert Tawanda Zinyama said the sanctions are an additional “stick” to try to “prod the administration to not only live up to its original promises, but to also institute a wider raft of confidence-inspiring reforms for both the overt and covert partners and supporters of the military action”.
“I think there is currently neither appetite nor indeed capacity to structure and implement reform policies and actions aimed at pacifying the West. This is because the administration is over-stretched and fighting intractable battles on too many fronts,” Zinyama said.
In fact, I foresee the country sinking further into autocratic terrain as the government will obviously have to rely more on coercive instruments to manage the ever-increasing pressures from internal political players.”
Zinyama said the objective of meaningful policy change had not been achieved through talks, so now it is being compelled through sanctions.
“It’s also possible that Britain considers these new additions to the sanctions list as the obstacles to the proposed and promised reforms. In other words, these are the specific individuals whom they see as obstacles to the implementation of the promised reforms. So, in that case Zimbabwe would be punished for failing to live up to its own word, as promised in the pre- and immediate post-transition period,” he said.