Obliquity and politics of re-engagement

Tichaona Zindoga Acting Editor
A man called John Kay is one of Britain’s leading economists. His work — widely acclaimed — is centred on relationships between economics, finance and business while his career has spanned academic work and think tanks, business schools, company directorships, consultancies and investment companies.

His official biography, which we quote here, states that his main focus today is on writing and he is renowned for his ability to express complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

We are told that he was born and educated in Edinburgh and has been a member of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers and chaired the Review of Equity Markets and Long Term Decision Making which reported to the UK government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Following the outcome of the referendum on British membership of the European Union in June 2016, he was appointed a member of the Standing Council on Scotland and Europe appointed by the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.

Additionally, Kay is a director of several public and private companies.

The main interest of this piece relates to his writing — and one in particular: he is the author of many articles and has contributed regularly to the Financial Times (newspaper) for over 20 years. His books include Foundations of Corporate Success (1993), The Truth about Markets (2003) and Obliquity (2011).

This latter-named book presents an interesting thesis.

It is unconventional wisdom, and a proposition that has appealed to the writer in conceptualising Zimbabwe’s politics. Particularly so, the dicey, contested and uncertain field called diplomacy.

Zimbabwe is currently pursuing a construct called re-engagement, predicated on the desire to mend bridges with the Western world after a two-decade fallout.

Much ink has already been spewed on the subject.

As, indeed, many acres of space expended on the subject.

We will not belabour the point.

With slightly a year since the last election, and under two since the departure of Robert Mugabe from the scene, there has been a lot of introspection around the Zimbabwean polity.

The status of re-engagement is one of these pointers.

Flashback to events of the past fortnight.

Amid threats of nationwide demonstrations by the opposition MDC-Alliance — which carried an undertone of violence — the Government of Zimbabwe issued Prohibition Orders to proscribe the demonstrations.

For a good reason.

We are sure within the corridors of power, there was a dilemma between granting people their constitutional rights to protest and demonstrate, on one hand, and on the other, risking the security of the country and its people.

Security won at the end of the day, again for a good reason.

And when a small band of protesters illegally converged within the proscribed range — and actually decided to sit at a busy intersection in downtown Harare — they were duly dispersed.

Never mind the humpty-dumpty rationale of even some supposedly educated minds, that these were “peaceful” people.

The short one year prior had shown us the worst of these actions billed as peaceful.

August 1, 2018. January 16, 2019.

There is no question that the opposition in Zimbabwe wants some bloody drama to raise political stakes and attract global attention.

Yet, the peace that came with the due proscription of the demonstrations was at a heavy price for Zimbabwe’s diplomacy.

Not that it was unexpected.

On August 20, the Heads of Mission of the Delegation of the European Union, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom and the Heads of Mission of Australia, Canada and the United States of America issued a statement that all, but accused the Government of Zimbabwe of human rights abuses.

The statement said in part: “The Heads of Mission call on the authorities to respect the constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression as well as to peaceful protest, and urge all political party leaders and supporters to abstain from threats and incitement to violence as well as acts of violence or vandalism.

“The security forces must adhere to their Constitutional mandate and exercise restraint and proportionality while maintaining public order.

“Only by addressing concretely and rapidly these human rights violations will the Government of Zimbabwe give credibility to its commitments to address long-standing governance challenges.

“The Heads of Mission reiterate their calls for the implementation of the government’s political and economic reform agenda, underpinned by inclusive national dialogue and increased efforts to address the severe social situation.”

The message was clear enough.

Western countries had once again rallied against Zimbabwe on the old basis of accusing the southern African country of misbehaving — and worthy of punishment.

Already, the United States of America had upped the ante, clearly pinning its colours on the mast of the opposition and anti-Government movement.

At the beginning of the month of August, the US imposed sanctions on a former army general and new ambassador to Tanzania.

Said the US State Department in a notice: “The department has credible information that Anselem Nhamo Sanyatwe was involved in the violent crackdown against unarmed Zimbabweans during post-election protests on August 1 2018 that resulted in six civilian deaths.”

The Government of Zimbabwe took profuse and angry exception to both counts.

Someone accused especially the United States Embassy in Harare as behaving as an opposition cell. A stand-off ensued — at least publicly. Has the re-engagement drive reached its lowest point and not paid off two years after the fall of Robert Mugabe?

Phenomenon of obliquity
Here is John Kay.
He says: “Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

“If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim.”

He further explains: “Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them.

“There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate. When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved.

“Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.”

It is certainly true that during the last few weeks there have been fears and disappointment that rapprochement between Zimbabwe and the Western world has taken a turn for the worse.

The standoff around August 16 was an ugly spectacle.

However, it is by no means the whole picture. We are told that there is quite a lot that Harare agrees with the West within diplomatic corridors and over teas.

We are told that many Western ambassadors commend President Mnangagwa and his reforms and trajectory that he is taking the country on.

However, publicly, Western envoys like to posture a lot, and this is a source of disappointment.

The Zimbabwean side gets upset that Western envoys do not acknowledge or pay dividend for Zimbabwe’s reforms and “good behaviour”.

It makes no sense.

More progress than meets the eye…
But this does not mean that there is no progress: in fact, there is a lot that has been achieved and will be achieved under President Mnangagwa in terms of re-engagement.

For now, there will not be any public spectacles of the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe cosying up with Western leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron. No.

This does not mean that there are zero prospects, either.

Only there is a lot of work to be done — and being done — to ensure rapprochement.

And, demonstrably, in the most oblique way.

A useful pointer is in order.

The Transitional Stabilisation Programme, widely understood to be an economic roadmap, recognises political reforms and Zimbabwe’s observances of human rights and rule of law as central to its success.

The whole PART VII of the document, dealing with “governance reforms”.

“The Transitional Stabilisation Programme measures to underpin economic reforms, broad based Citizenry participation in national and socio-economic development programmes, and re-engagement with the global community will be complemented by governance reforms ushered in by the New Dispensation from November 2017,” reads the TSP document.

These entail:

Rule of Law.
Political Governance and Democratisation.
Respect for Human and Property Rights.
National Unity, Peace and Reconciliation.
Tolerance, Freedoms of Expression and Association.
To the good, the Minister of Finance is on record as saying he is watching closely what is happening on the political front.

It will pay off for the whole engagement process, ultimately. Meanwhile, there are other processes such as national dialogue among Zimbabweans across the political divide and civil society which, if executed clinically, may lead to a new culture and reconfiguration of the polity, with positive spin-offs.

That’s obliquity.

Source :

The Herald

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