By Owen Gagare
There was some bittersweet news for President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration this week when the European Union (EU) decided not to extend existing sanctions against Harare despite a recommendation from the bloc’s parliament to take a firmer stance against the repressive regime.
EU foreign ministers maintained the existing embargo rather than introduce more punitive measures, a move diplomats revealed was a sign of goodwill and meant to nudge the government towards implementing economic and political reforms.
There was a real possibility that several government officials and securocrats could have been added onto the list following last month’s military-led crackdown on protestors which left 17 dead, several injured and some women raped.
Coming hot on the heels of the August 1 2018 incident — when soldiers shot dead seven people on the streets of Harare–the crackdown suggested that the government was not committed to respecting human rights.
The fact that the EU decided to maintain rather than extend the sanctions is therefore somewhat sweet news for Mnangagwa, given the gravity of human rights abuses which have occurred on his watch.
Significantly, however, the EU decision suggests that there is a small window of opportunity for the re-engagement programme to be hauled back on to the rails.
When Mnangagwa assumed power, there was a flood of goodwill internationally, largely because it was seen as an opportunity for Zimbabwe to adopt a progressive trajectory. His rhetoric that under his leadership Zimbabwe would be open for business and that democratic space would be broadened were good sound bites. Britain, in particular, was vociferous in its support at a time Mnangagwa was promising credible elections. He managed to consolidate power after marginally and controversially winning the presidential elections, but he dismally failed his first test after the election.
Hundreds of people took to the streets on August 1 to demand the prompt release of results at a time there were allegations that rigging was underway. Mnangagwa responded by deploying the military. Live ammunition was used to quell the demonstrations, sparking an international outcry.
Another test came last month when the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions called for a stayaway protesting the government’s decision to increase prices fuel by 150%.
The response was brutal. The army was deployed in residential areas, leading to killings, torture and rape. Britain, the EU and many international bodies condemned the crackdown, denting the government’s re-engagement drive. Despite these developments, some residual goodwill still remains. The government should spring to action and rescue the opportunity that is slipping away.
This can be done by going beyond empty rhetoric through implementing progressive political and economic reforms.
So far, Mnangagwa’s reform agenda has been all froth, but no beer.