Despite President Robert Mugabe’s latest anti-Western proclamations at the UN General Assembly in September, it is hard to avoid the sense these days that a shift is taking place between Zimbabwe and the West. After more than a decade of frosty relations, there are some signs that things could be thawing. Some European sanctions have been lifted, rhetoric has been toned down on both sides, and there have been numerous diplomatic and commercial flirtations.
Both Zimbabwe and the West are treading carefully as of yet, careful not to rush things. But if these developments are signs of things to come, why does Zimbabwe today seem ready to forgive and forget? Why might the West be keen to rekindle old ties? And why is this happening now?
Old friends, old enemies
The groundwork for reconciliation was first laid by Zimbabwe’s coalition government, which ruled from 2009 to 2013. Under this unity agreement – whereby Morgan Tsvangirai was prime minister and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) party was in government alongside Mugabe’s ZANU-PF – the West was able to re-engage with Zimbabwe without dealing directly with the much demonised Mugabe. The fact that Tsvangirai and the MDC-T are now back to being part of the opposition, following their poor showing in the 2013 elections, does not seem to have changed much from either the Western or Zimbabwean perspective.
In fact, the post-coalition ZANU-PF government has already indicated that improving relations with western countries is high on its list of priorities. For instance, finance minister Patrick Chinamasa has already been in Washington DC in a bid to re-engage with international financial institutions, while tourism minister Walter Mzembi was in London earlier this month trying to sell the country as a tourist destination and conduct what he referred to as “commercial diplomacy.”
There are a number of reasons Zimbabwe may be keen to mend the relationship with the West that deteriorated in the late 1990s and was effectively destroyed following Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform programmes of the early 2000s.
ZANU-PF’s change of heart
Firstly, it seems that calculations amongst high-level ZANU-PF figures as to how they can best position themselves have changed. Until recently, powerful forces within the party, in particular hardliners and ex-securocrats, believed that they could better advance their narrow interests by maintaining the status quo, despite its downsides eg sanctions.
One reason for this is that amongst both domestic voters and non-Western counterparts, Mugabe has been able to make anti-West rhetoric an effective rallying call and source of legitimacy. However, with Mugabe likely to step down before the next election, his protégés are now conscious that sustaining an anti-Western stance in the medium-term is both a burdensome and risky strategy. Without Mugabe at the helm, making enmity with the West pay – in the face of sanctions and an international pariah status – could prove a far harder ploy to pull off. Party stalwarts therefore seem to be coming to the view that their longer-term attempts to hold onto power may be better served by improved relations.
One sign came earlier this month when Patrick Chinamasa, one of Mugabe’s closest aides, struck a highly conciliatory note with foreign investors in an address that contrasted sharply with his boss’ previously bellicose rhetoric. Not only does this reveal Chinamasa’s attitude, but, given that ZANU-PF policy still tends to be shaped by its leader’s positions, this move also likely reflects the view from above.
A second reason for Zimbabwe’s shift could be straightforward economic concerns. With local banks and state coffers running low, ZANU-PF – which is well aware that economic problems tend to increase support for the opposition – knows it will have to access international credit lines and investment to turn the economy around. This explains why soon after the elections Mugabe dispatched his finance minister to Washington for meetings with the IMF, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and World Bank.
Zimbabwe’s turn to the US and Europe for economic support is further necessitated by shortcomings in Mugabe’s “˜Look East’ policy. When Zimbabwe was snubbed by the West following the 2000 land reform, Mugabe tried to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia, in particular China, as well the likes of India and countries in the Middle East. Whilst China has played a crucial role in helping Mugabe maintain his power, the president’s Look East policy hasn’t led to as much aid and investment as had been hoped. From an economic perspective, looking west again makes sense.
While Zimbabwe has been recalibrating its stance towards the West, many Western countries’ positions have also been shifting. Whereas ten years ago it might have been seen as morally questionable and insensitive to local pro-democracy protestors to make any form of engagement with Mugabe’s administration, the July 2013 elections opened a new space for fresh foreign policy thinking on Zimbabwe. Although a number of countries claimed that the elections were fraught with irregularities, the endorsements of the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have helped provide cover for this policy shift. Since the elections there has been a quiet flurry of Western overtures towards Zimbabwe.
In the UK, for example, the Zimbabwean embassy in London not only celebrated Zimbabwe’s Independence Day for the first time in a decade, but counted a British representative amongst its attendees. Prime Minister David Cameron has also been determinedly quiet on the issue of Zimbabwe – in stark contrast to his predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – while the British media has started to question the futility of the UK government’s hard-line stance against Zimbabwe and started to present more positive coverage of the country, particularly its land reform.
Belgium meanwhile, the centre of the global diamond industry, successfully lobbied the EU this September to lift sanctions against the state-run Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC). French, German and Dutch ambassadors have also recently expressed a willingness to engage with Mugabe’s new government, with the new French ambassador reportedly telling Mugabe that, “More and more of us in the EU are beginning to share Zimbabwe’s analysis and we now need a new strategy for engaging Zimbabwe outside sanctions.”
In the US, despite some initial criticism of the election, Washington has expressed little more than a perfunctory concern with electoral irregularities and could be persuaded to climb down from its position in due course. Australia, which was initially the most vocally critical of the elections, has a new prime minister who advocates a trade-centred foreign policy and who seems comfortable with the idea of re-engaging with Zimbabwe.
A different legacy
These shifts in the Zimbabwe-West relationship are undoubtedly occurring slowly. From a Western perspective, this might partly be so that pro-democracy and human rights activists – still determined to see Mugabe defenestrated – are not too unnerved. While from a Zimbabwean viewpoint, the cautious speed of change may be derived from Mugabe’s reluctance to be seen to be striking a deal with the West after years of vehemently decrying its leaders, a stance that has made him a hero in many people’s eyes.
But though slow, there are no shortage of signs that a thaw is happening, and as surprising as they may seem when looking back over the past decade or so of Zimbabwean-Western relations, the longer view over three or four decades perhaps makes it seem less unexpected.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF have long been pragmatists. After all, in the 1970s, they were ‘communists’ reviled in the West, but throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his government became the trustee of Western commercial interests in Zimbabwe. Indeed, this tells us not only that Mugabe is a pragmatist, but also that when he starts using the language of rapprochement, we ought to pay attention.
People in both Zimbabwe and the West may be used to demonising or celebrating the supposedly anti-Western Mugabe, but the evidence increasingly suggests that he intends to leave a different legacy and that western countries may be ready to help.
Simukai Tinhu is a political analyst based in London. Follow him @STinhu