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Reform or endure further isolation

LAST week, the United States Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy held a hearing on the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe.

guest column: Pearl Matibe

“The 2018 election was the first in decades in which the country’s longtime former President Robert Mugabe was not on the ballot, ushering in hope for Zimbabwe’s democratic prospects. While the new President Emmerson Mnangagwa has promised significant reforms, institutional change and foreign investment have been slow to take hold,” US Senator Jeff Flake said as he opened the hearing as chairperson in Washington, DC.

Flake expressed the view that Zimbabwe “showed signs of promise” and that the United States government wished “to play a constructive role to help Zimbabweans realise their dreams and realise their children’s dreams.”

The hearing to examine “Zimbabwe After the Elections” marked a milestone in Mnangagwa’s push to reform Zimbabwe, pay its world-debt and regain its rightful place globally. The US recognised Finance minister Mthuli Ncube who asked to testify.

Flake said, “it’s not the practice of the Senate to hear foreign dignitaries. He was asked to submit testimony for the record, which he did. They will maintain this as part of the record.”

Matthew Harrington, US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs acknowledged “Positives on the rhetoric and tone, but not a whole lot of action”, adding: “We have a way to go before coming to the table and making any recommendations for debt relief or new lending.”

What was clearly emphasised by Flake is, “Tendai Biti is certainly well known to this committee.” He said he wished the message to go back to the government of Zimbabwe via ambassador Nichols, saying unequivocally: “if they were not already listening to the hearing, that it would be difficult [for the US] to move forward in any type of relationship with Zimbabwe and progress on some of these issues while charges are still levelled against him, and he is not allowed to travel freely. His passport has been revoked, I believe. He is a friend of this committee, has been here a number of times and that would be a visible, outward sign that they are ready to move forward.”

For the long-suffering Zimbabwean, I hope “new dispensation” does not equal “new disfavour”. The “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra needs more than a name change; it needs a branding do-over.

sanctions remaining intact, Zimbabwe will be one of the most isolated states for the next five years. To avert this, what is needed is an overhaul, and quickly too. There’s just something about the old order and military-elite dominance in civilian life that irks not only the US, but also more importantly, the people of Zimbabwe.

The goal by the government of Zimbabwe to consult, converge and converse not only with diaspora, but with diaspora women in order to make extraordinary gains in international re-engagement is set too low, yet in the US and particularly in Washington, DC, an active pro-democracy, Zimbabwean diaspora exists.

In answer to US Senator Chris Coons’ question, Todd Moss, senior fellow with Center for Global Development, responded: “There is a lot of knowledge in the MDC that should be brought into a dialogue, particularly the diaspora. Until the diaspora starts moving back to Zimbabwe and investing back home, that is a sign that there is no confidence in the government.”

Faced with international isolation, above 90% unemployment following 38 years of misrule, the country has few choices. But, choices do exist. A sincere, strategic shake-up of how Zimbabwe conducts its international re-engagement is needed and must include diaspora women and align to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Make no mistake, the fifth pillar (after the Fourth Estate), is effective foreign relations. Reform, in the Zimbabwe context, means an overhaul that results in freeing the country’s people, economy and normalisation of relations with foreign governments.

Problem one: Lack of aggressive, rapid political reforms inextricably linked to economic reforms

Without one, Zimbabwe doesn’t get the other. It’s that simple.

The international community suspects Mnangagwa is insincere about his commitment to a break from his repressive predecessor and lack of a rapid, aggressive reform agenda. A missed opportunity for him to be the transformation trendsetter for Africa.

Instead, he’s casting himself as the by-product of the deeply rooted, unyielding autocratic reign of Mugabe. In a country with an egregious human rights record, where fear prevails, the military elites need to retreat from civilian life and State institutions. Along with reform, look at the jails and blacklists. Does Zimbabwe need to release any “political prisoners”, make public names it removes from its blacklists, drop charges of the political opposition? Such public actions would demonstrate decisive commitment to signal sincerity to form bilateral relations with the US.

Saying the right things alone isn’t going to cut it

US Senator Cory Booker said, “Zidera [passed in 2011 and amended in 2018] aims to address persistent key human rights violations and governance challenges by prohibiting US support of multi-lateral and bilateral debt relief and credit for Zimbabwe’s government. A key condition for lifting these prohibitions under Zidera is a free, fair and credible election”, adding, “it’s hard for me to see how these elections met that condition”.

Mnangagwa will need to resign to a clear, inclusive reform agenda that includes its diaspora in a transparent manner; and not be secretive about political and security sector reforms either. For success on the public policy front, Zimbabwe would need to be inclusive of the diversity contained in the diaspora; not quasi-monopolies in the domestic marketplace to find a committed partner in the US government.

Guaranteed, the hearing is a less encouraging sign for investors; increased individual freedoms are just some key steps to setting out on the right path. Pressing on with a successful political reform agenda would have huge gains on political stability and economic development.

As US investors often take their lead from the US State Department, Harrington did confirm they have “told their interlocutors that the “political reforms are just as important and are inextricably linked to the economic reforms”.

Problem two: An irrevocable trajectory

Here are just two examples why Zimbabweans should care:

 In the eyes of the international community, reform efforts actually implemented in the State legislatures must be immutable.

 Some actions that the government of Zimbabwe is taking will complicate things. Harrington explained: “We’re not anywhere close to debt forgiveness or new lending. About one third of Zimbabwe’s debt is owed to non-Paris club lenders; with the lack of transparency that comes with it. So that will complicate the way forward economically.”

 Zimbabwe will need to move in a different direction with regards to “predatory elites.” Moss clarified that, “a very small cabal of people around the President controls the vast majority of the economy. And if that is what we’re looking for, — it is not the kind of economy that’s going to do business with Americans.”
Simply, change the ship’s course, quickly, transparently with diaspora women on deck.

Problem three: Diaspora

If your own people; the diaspora, are not investing in and moving back to Zimbabwe, the US sees that as the priority indicator that there is no confidence in the Mnangagwa-led government. A Zimbabwean on Twitter explained it thus: “Until [Mnangagwa’s] government officials start sending their children to local universities and seek medical help in Zimbabwe it’s a sign of no confidence.”

Yet, another Zimbabwean diaspora said: “Why should I uproot my family from a place where food is plenty and petrol abounds (albeit expensive)? I’m waiting for the day Zimbabwe is ready to receive me and my family.”

The Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services gave opportunity to multi-stakeholders to contribute to debate on media reform. At least progress is being made. The unfortunate downside is that it’s not transparently inclusive. A rushed process without clear inclusive, consultation of the diaspora, most significantly, the women diaspora, will draw negative criticism international governments such as the US.

Still more to be done

A new, dynamic way to proving commitment to a reform drive is urgently needed. Political ideas and democratic movements have to not only be tolerated, but be included in governing Zimbabwe. The sincere emergence of an irrevocable trajectory that resolves the political impasse, and is a sure indicator that “new” is, indeed, real will win the day for Zimbabwe.

In the meantime, the southern Africa region, Africa and the international community should seize this window of opportunity, and gain momentum to catalyse improved internal and external relations for Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa has to take a hard look at the diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, experience, knowledge pool in the diaspora women, opposition and his own team and re-evaluate his tactics. Since Harrington states, “At this point, not a great deal of confidence”, the US posture in the meantime, while Zimbabwe journeys through austerity until international financial institution requirements are met, is an “extremely cautious” and strategic re-engagement.

Next move is on Mnangagwa. Will Zimbabweans enjoy reform or suffer isolation for the next five years?

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