Predictably – and appropriately – the first British minister to set foot in Zimbabwe in 19 years stressed the need for constitutional propriety while also warning that “it will be impossible without clear resolve from the incoming government”. That message from Rory Stewart, Britain’s Minister of State for Africa, was an assurance of support provided Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president who has been sworn in as president, abandons his predecessor’s egregious policies.
Diplomacy not being philanthropy, there may be dividend in it too for Theresa May’s beleaguered government. Zimbabwe, which had been a member of the Commonwealth since independence in April 1980, was suspended from membership in March 2002, Robert Mugabe’s election as president being marred by a high level of politically motivated violence in conditions that did not adequately allow for a free expression. When the Commonwealth refused to lift the suspension in 2003, Mr Mugabe withdrew in high dudgeon. Since then, the Commonwealth has tried to end the impasse and return Zimbabwe to a state of normality.
As Alex Vines, who heads the Africa programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, put it, Mr Stewart’s “very significant” visit reflected Zimbabwe’s psychologically importance to Britain, and Mrs May’s attempt to assume a leadership role in responding to political change in Africa. It will be a feather in her cap if a liberal democratic Zimbabwe under Mr Mnangagwa can re-join the Commonwealth.
“As Zimbabwe’s oldest friend, we will do all we can to support a legitimate government to rebuild the country, working with international and regional partners” – Earl Howe, deputy leader of the House of Lords, simultaneously told peers. It is not yet clear how much leverage Britain has to persuade Mr Mnangagwa to make good on promises of reform, but Britain did rule Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, until independence in 1980 and it did more or less force the rebellious white minority to accept majority black rule. More than 112,000 Zimbabweans live in Britain, while about 20,000 British subjects still live in Zimbabwe.
British aid is about $114 million annually. London says it is putting together a package of support for Zimbabwe tied with political progress and economic reform. But Mr Stewart was quick to deny any supervisory or interventionist role. “What comes next must be driven by Zimbabweans – it must be in line with the Zimbabwean constitution”, he announced.
In the right hands, the mineral-rich country that deteriorated from the bread basket of Africa into a basket case can once again be a regional economic power. Zimbabwe’s temperate climate, fertile soil, national parks, majestic landscapes (including the grandeur of the Victoria Falls) and wildlife should attract hordes of tourists. It enjoyed a robust commercial tradition built on trade in commodities and cash crops like tobacco. Its neighbours are well-disposed. Properly run, Zimbabwe can export its goods and services rather than having to import everything.
The question is whether the 75-year-old president’s hands are the right ones. For now, he is certainly making all the right noises. Although he has announced that Mr Mugabe’s land reforms will not be reversed, he has agreed to compensate white farmers whose land was seized. “Acts of corruption must stop”, he announced, warning of “swift justice”.
He would be “the president of all citizens, regardless of colour, creed, religion, tribe, totem or political affiliation”. The elections scheduled for 2018 would go ahead as planned. On Zimbabwe’s economic future, he says “key choices will have to be made to attract foreign direct investment to tackle high-levels of unemployment while transforming our economy”. As for politics and diplomacy, he is “ready and willing for a steady re-engagement with all the nations of the world”.
It sounds good, but older Zimbabweans can recall Mr Mugabe making similar pledges, and being widely praised for them both at home and abroad, when he took power in 1980. They also know that Mr Mnangagwa has been part of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite for decades. The foundations of his authority and public appeal were laid during the 10 years that he languished in jail under colonial and white minority rule. Then came the 37 years when he served in the government or held parliamentary or party-political offices. He would probably have remained the vice-president if he hadn’t had the misfortune to fall foul of the ambitious first lady, Grace Mugabe.
Some 20,000 people are believed to have been killed in the decades when Mr Mugabe launched his brutal genocidal attacks on the Ndbele people. Mr Mnangagwa was then National Security Minister. Despite his pledges, he is still associated by many with some of the worst atrocities committed under the ruling Zanu-PF party since independence in 1980.
However, there is no question of the new president being driven by the strange mixture of Jesuitical and Marxist doctrines that may have explained some of Mr Mugabe’s more bizarre actions. Nor can he be as egotistical as the former president whose massive motorcades – half a dozen motorbikes, an ambulance, two truckloads of soldiers and a dozen other mainly luxury vehicles – became a talking point among Zimbabweans.
Mr Mugabe didn’t allow opposition. In 1990, Edgar Tekere, a founding member of Zanu, tried to contest the presidency for the Zimbabwe Unity Movement party. His party supporters were attacked and some, reportedly, murdered. The violent reprisals, when Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change won the first round of the presidential vote in 2008, forced him to pull out of the second round. Zimbabweans resigned themselves to believing that change could not be affected through the ballot box. No wonder the majority stopped bothering to vote.
Not that the fall of the once adored tyrant Zimbabweans had come to hate signified the triumph of democracy, it was the military, hitherto seen as Mr Mugabe’s staunchest supporter, that suddenly and inexplicably (so far as the world is concerned) pulled the rug out from under him. Zimbabweans never imagined the military would change sides so dramatically.
That explains why more than 100,000 Zimbabweans took to the streets to “show support for the war veterans and the military” and to call for Mr Mugabe to step down. They feted soldiers and tanks. Posters referring to the commander of the military who led the takeover read “Chiwenga, the people’s general”.
The roots of Mr Mnangagwa’s authority are far from impeccable. Everything will depend now on how he discharges the power he has been given. A young man in the celebratory crowd was quoted as saying, “Mnangagwa must learn a lesson. We have found out our voice and will not allow him to do what Mugabe did to us.” The president, who is known as “The Crocodile” because of his astuteness, must know that it is a more pertinent pointer to the future than anything any British minister utters.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnisters.