Zimbabwe: The UK’s misguided role in the rise and fall of Mnangagwa
The UK’s faith in the former VP taking over from Robert Mugabe revealed its deep misunderstanding of Zimbabwean politics and history.
There are several reasons why Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe fired his Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November. Many were likely to do with ZANU-PF infighting over who will eventually succeed the 93-year-old leader. But one external factor that contributed to Mugabe’s decision was Mnangagwa’s relationship with the UK.
Beginning in the 1980s, Mnangagwa has assured London that he would be a more effective and technocratic leader than Mugabe. More recently, this led British diplomats in the UK Embassy and some in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to see the decades-long ZANU-PF insider as the candidate they could best work with and the figure most likely to implement urgently-needed economic reforms.
Many UK officials – foremost among them Catriona Laing, the UK Ambassador in Harare – also thought Mnangagwa was the odds on favourite to emerge as Zimbabwe’s next president. This belief transmuted into thinly-disguised support for him. The British embassy always denied supporting any particular candidate, but in Zimbabwe, the UK’s perceived preference for the former VP was discussed by journalists, politicians and others as though it were public knowledge.
With Mnangagwa’s dismissal, the UK’s alleged strategy has not only clearly failed, but its perceived backing for Mnangagwa prompted outrage among many Zimbabweans, further weakening the UK’s image in the country. Moreover, its support for Mnangagwa may have even contributed to his downfall.
A calamitous strategy
Since 2000, President Mugabe’s most important international struggle has been against what he regards as British-led attempts at regime change in Zimbabwe. London has repeatedly demonised Mugabe for the violent seizure of white-owned commercial farms and human rights violations, while Mugabe has consistently hit back against the “imperialists”. There may be signs of this relationship thawing, but in many ways, the past two decades of the president’s political career have been defined by his fight with the UK.
This made Ambassador Laing’s perceived backing of Mnangagwa profoundly problematic. The perception among some in ZANU-PF and Zimbabwean intelligence community was that Mugabe’s long-time foe was attempting to influence the presidential succession. In February 2016, I warned in African Arguments that “the United Kingdom’s bias for Mnangagwa may prove a kiss of death for this long-time presidential aspirant”.
It was not just among the ruling party, however, that Laing’s approaches were heavily criticised. Zimbabwean opposition parties accused the Ambassador of openly backing Mnangagwa while propping up “the incorrigible regime in Zimbabwe”. Think tanks, the British media and public intellectuals also attacked the diplomat for allegedly helping the government secure an international financial bailout as part of a plan to re-engage the country and facilitate the rise of its preferred candidate.
The UK should have recognised that associating itself with Mnangagwa would provoke heated domestic opposition because the controversial Mnangagwa has a long history of human rights abuses and violence.
As Minister of State Security in the Prime Minister’s Office, he played a leading role in massacres committed by the state in southern Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Mnangagwa was instrumental in the violence around the June 2008 presidential runoff, a strategy of force which eventually led the opposition’s Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from the vote. And according to a UN-commissioned report, Mnangagwa was also involved in the massive illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo war (1998-2003).
The UK’s diplomatic mission in Harare attempted to address its public relations calamity by issuing statements playing up its humanitarian activities and commitment to human rights and democracy. But this did little to assuage its critics, as demonstrated by repeated critical analyses from an increasingly diverse range of commentators.
The approaches of the UK’s diplomatic mission in Harare have now completely unravelled. Mugabe’s government is reluctant to implement necessary reforms, as evinced by its lack of consistent economic policy and refusal to reduce expenditure on an oversized civil service. Moreover, contrary to London’s calculations, Mnangagwa will not be taking over from Mugabe. The nonagenarian president has so far outmanoeuvred all his internal challengers and intends to run for another term in 2018.
The UK has made repeated flawed approaches to Zimbabwe over the years. At the heart of these has been a failure to apply history to diplomacy. This was most evident after the farm seizures in 2000, when the old colonial power openly sided with beleaguered white farmers, allowing Mugabe to construct UK intervention as neo-colonial. And it has been a clear factor in its recent misguided strategy for re-engaging the Mugabe government and its costly miscalculations over Mnangagwa.
There have been some exceptions to this rule. Mark Canning, the UK’s Ambassador in Harare from 2009–2011, first engaged in Zimbabwean affairs in 1988 and applied his appreciation of the country’s historical and political dynamics to his actions. But his successors have lacked this depth of understanding.
Mnangagwa’s sudden dismissal from Zimbabwe’s political scene will require the UK to come up with a new strategy. This is necessary but also desirable. Ambassador Laing made a fatal mistake by openly siding with the subordinate of a president who is extremely sensitive to perceived colonial intrusion. Moreover, the UK’s support for Mnangagwa – a serial human rights violator – alienated domestic constituencies that seek to uphold the sanctity of human rights. In making its next calculations, a deeper understanding of Zimbabwean history and of the UK’s past role in it would go a long way towards alleviating London’s ongoing problems with Harare.