Britain's policy on Zimbabwe has failed, needs a rethink

May 31, 2011

by Chido Makunike

Britain seems to have reluctantly accepted, along with many Zimbabweans, that its old nemesis Robert Mugabe will probably now only depart as ruler of Zimbabwe due to incapacitation or death. For many years until recently both the British political and media establishments fervently hoped that Mugabe would be deposed electorally or through some forced means, ushering into power an opposition party friendlier to Britain than the fiery Mugabe. An indication of the new thinking is reflected in the opinion piece ''Britain should start engaging Zimbabwe as Mugabe's time comes to an end'' by Michael Holman in the Financial Times.

It is a measured article bereft of the indignant hysterics that one so often hears from British writers commenting about the particularly-emotive-for-them subject of Mugabe, the man who unforgivably confiscated farms from mostly British-stock white farmers. Where others see a violent, overstaying dictator in the mould of many others in Africa and elsewhere, the British above and beyond that see a monster of unusual, special anti-British evilness who thus deserves a special place in hell.

Writes Holman, '...a nervous population seeks assurances about post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. If ever there were a time for constructive external advice, it is now. Yet rather than encouraging contact, London appears to have ordered its embassy in Harare to do little more than keep a diplomatic death watch, as if Mr Mugabe’s demise will mark the removal of the obstacle on the country’s road to peace and democracy. Maybe. But there is also a case for fearing that his death will be a catalyst for violence.'

Zimbabwe’s many problems have not been due to any shortage of 'advice' over the years. Zimbabweans and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) foreigners have said and written countless volumes about suggested solutions to its multi-faceted challenges. The lack of 'advice' is not the issue.

The resistance to advice of any sort from any quarter has been a hallmark of Mugabe's rule. Unsolicited 'advice' from Britain is not likely to change that because Mugabe is 87 and possibly contemplating the afterlife. It would likely be resented and resisted by him and his close clique as strongly as ever.

That aside, there is little evidence that Britain has any special insight into how the country can move on and solve its problems, even in the post-Mugabe era. Britain has consistently failed in its policy on Zimbabwe from before independence in 1980 to long after.

It is hard to imagine at this point what 'advice' might soften Mugabe's bitterness against the British. If anything, his awareness of his mortality may well have hardened his anti-British stance. He has nothing to gain at this stage of the game by warming up to Britain. In fact with little to no likelihood of any dramatic improvement in living conditions in Zimbabwe in the short term, being anti-British rhetorically and practically may actually be one of his main remaining motivations.

Holman may be right that the British embassy in Harare has been reduced to waiting for Mugabe's death, rather than trying to engage with his regime. But it could be just as true that the embassy's helplessness is the accumulated result of many years of an inept policy that has left Britain with a lingering humanitarian aid engagement, but without the accompanying influence that this usually accords the donor country over the government of the recipient country.

For example, the policy of channeling aid through so-called civil society organizations instead of through government is often stated to be because of concerns over corruption or favoritism in disbursement. But one side effect of this is that any leverage Britain might have had over the Mugabe government by threatening the withdrawal of that aid doesn't exist under the new arrangement of privatising aid. The Mugabe regime may no longer have the benefits of directly receiving the aid, but the flip side of that is that it also is more free of British influence over its words, policies and actions.

A big source of friction is what Britain and its EU and US partners call 'targeted personal sanctions' against Mugabe and members of his inner circle, but which those targeted refer to as broad-based economic 'illegal western sanctions.' By whatever name, they have clearly failed to bring about the expected result of either the hastened departure of Mugabe & Co, or of getting them to behave in ways more agreeable to Britain and its friends. They clearly cause Mugabe and his government at least reputational discomfort and sometimes practical inconvenience, but certainly nowhere near enough to change their ways in the manner the sanctions-imposers expected and would have liked.

There are at least two major problems for Britain in this. One is that it has a loudly enunciated policy that has failed miserably to achieve its intended result of taming or deposing Mugabe. But worse is how it now seems clear that so certain were Britain and its friends that the policy would make Mugabe and Co. capitulate that it did not occur to them to have a 'plan B' if it failed, as it has done. Not only has the policy failed, the wily old despot Mugabe has been able to use it as a propaganda tool; to say, 'You see, I wasn't paranoid when I told you that the main issue of the day is that the British are out to get me because they can't control me.'

It simply was never part of the projection of Britain that Mugabe could find a way to hang on in power after the economic 'collapse' that so much of the media reported with such glee, and that Zimbabwe could even experience a modicum of recovery. That was only supposed to begin to happen under the more British-friendly post-Mugabe dispensation which hasn't quite happened yet. As announced on the eve of the controversial 2008  elections, if the 'right' (for Britain) election result had been achieved, Britain would have gratefully chipped in with hundreds of millions of pounds of 'aid' to help the more agreeable government entrench itself (and coincidentally become more pliable.)

There is nothing unique to the Zimbabwe-Britain relationship, dysfunctional as it currently is, about this kind of sly influence-peddling between rich powerful nations wanting to exert influence over smaller weaker ones in a particular direction. It is employed so often because many times it works as it is supposed to.

Britain has grown accustomed to exerting its influence over its former African colonies by a combination of aid carrot and stick: if you behave yourself as we think you should we will turn on the aid taps; but if you don't, we will turn them off. Africa's mostly weak, chronically donor-dependent nation-states are usually easy to manipulate in this way.

So it was with great confidence that Britain and friends employed a modification of this tactic against the regime of Mugabe. He had been considered an alright despot until he became an anti-British despot, which is when he became a very, very bad boy indeed. Used to the usual efficacy of its aid carrot and stick policy in Africa, Britain failed to factor in Mugabe's unique hard-headedness.

Britain's failed policy of pressure on Mugabe's regime also coincided with a turning point in world history: the economic coming out of China and that rising giant's own version of influence-peddling on the world stage. China's historical-ideological closeness to Mugabe's government was now leveraged into an economic partnership. China needed Zimbabwe's resources and Mugabe's regime was desperately in need of an alternative economic mentor/protector after being spurned by the West.

Then diamonds were discovered at Marange.

As a result of a combination of these and other developments, including the tried and tested tactic of increasing repression, the regime was able to scrape through the toughest days of the crisis that Britain and partners thought/hoped would tip it over the edge in one way or another.

What to do now for Britain? Well, they're still trying to figure that one out. The 'targeted sanctions' are still in place, but no one any longer pretends that they will 'bring democracy to Zimbabwe,' or in a more limited sense even merely make Mugabe and Co. more amenable to British blandishments.

So on the one hand Britain has in place a failed policy, but on the other hand it can't be seen to give it up to try something else. Britain is just like Mugabe in the sense of both lacking the humility to admit it when a policy or an action have failed to achieve the intended result. They are both so convinced of their infallible 'rightness' and so used to getting their way that they don't have a clue what to do when things don't go according to their script. Come to think of it, maybe that's why Britain and Mugabe don't get along: they are too much alike in too many ways!

The trouble for Britain is that the Chinese connection didn't just give Mugabe's regime a badly needed lifeline at its most vulnerable time. After the worst of the 'Zimbabwe crisis' eased, the Chinese used their newly strengthened leverage to muscle in on economic sectors that the British had previously always considered theirs.

The British had to reluctantly accept that Mugabe and his party were likely to remain in power for a while longer, and that British business was being sidelined in the opportunities that were opening up with Zimbabwe's economic recovery. Suddenly for the British there loomed the prospect of the bloody Chinese 'taking over' their former colony not just for the duration of Mugabe's time on earth, but possibly for the long term. What bloody cheek! Zimbabwe was supposed to be under the influence of the British, not the #&*@ Chinese!

So Britain found itself in the awkward position of wanting to protect and strengthen its economic interests in Zimbabwe, but how do you do that with a government in place whose senior members you have loudly 'targeted-sanctioned;' whose departure you have openly called for and whose opposition you have openly backed? It's a messy, awkward situation.

The current British ambassador to Harare has cast himself as a champion of attracting British investment to Zimbabwe. That alone suggests a schizophrenic British view of its relations with Zimbabwe. When did the emphasis change from the country's government being so deplorable that it had to be targeted-sanctioned, to then encouraging investment under that same sanctioned regime? Awkward, confused.

Apart from that contradiction, those continuing sanctions, targeted or otherwise, meant that the Mugabe-led government was in no mood to positively respond to the tentative British attempts at rapprochement.

In November 2010 one of Mugabe's ministers openly, undiplomatically declared that in Zimbabwe's consideration of foreign investment proposals, those from Britain would be put at the bottom of the pile.

"You ask me why. They come here to invest and put you under sanctions again,” Empowerment minister Saviour Kasukuwere said.

The British ambassador who was present walked out of the conference where the minister said this, and expressed 'disappointment' at what he said was 'crude populism' that would ‘send shivers down the spines of investors.’ Yet it was arguably completely unrealistic for the British government to expect any warmer reaction from a government they have been so aggressively at such loggerheads with.

A subtle shift had occurred in the dynamics of relations between Britain and Zimbabwe. After being embattled and on the ropes from the international outrage at the stolen election of 2008 and the economic crisis that was at its worst then, Mugabe's regime was also at its most vulnerable then from western sanctions. But after the formation of the unity government with the former opposition party the MDC, and the China and diamond-backed economic stabilisation, any sense of panic in Mugabe's inner circle lifted. Agriculture also began to experience a slow recovery, led by the tobacco sector. The western sanctions continued, but with no longer any prospect of bringing Mugabe to heel.

From being commonly described as a 'collapsed basket case' in western media, Zimbabwe begun to be seen again from the point of view of its natural resources and its economic potential. Because this slow shift began to take place while the western censure measures against Mugabe & Co. were still in place, Britain and its friends found their companies effectively locked out of opportunities that at one time they would have expected to be first to be offered.

The British strategy of 'we want to invest in the country but we insist on continuing with the targeted sanctions against its government' on a practical, realpolitik level was never going to work. This policy was further undermined by the fact that elsewhere in Africa, in the Middle East and beyond, Britain and its friends have no trouble cozying up to regimes every bit as ruthless as Mugabe's, and many of them without any semblance of Zimbabwe's imperfect, strangled but existing democracy.

This strengthened the perception of Britain's stance on Mugabe's regime as not being motivated primarily by principled concerns for the much-abused concepts of "democracy and human rights" for the generality of Zimbabweans. Instead it entrenched the view that Britain had a particular score to settle with Mugabe's regime firstly and mainly because of its uppity treatment of white farmers of British stock. This was a stance that played well in Britain and some parts of the rest of the western world, but it compromised the political actors Britain supported in Zimbabwe as defenders of white privilege, also robbing them of street credibility in much of Africa and the rest of the non-western world.

Britain found itself in a no-win situation in Zimbabwe. The party political horse it had openly backed in Zimbabwe's last election was bludgeoned into accepting defeat at assuming effective power, even if it might well have won that last election. The old system that Britain had counted on being deposed remained in control, even if with reduced power in certain respects. Despite years of economic decline, the Mugabe regime refused to yield to western economic pressure and behave as they were told. Not only that, an economic stabilisation without the participation of British/western intervention which would also have given them considerable leverage was not part of any one's plan.

While Britain's sense of its interests in Zimbabwe has shifted, so have the realities on the ground. The white farming community in whose interests a lot of Britain's stance on Zimbabwe has been premised has been effectively decimated by Mugabe. There are not many who any more talk of it coming back in anything like its old form, even in a post-Mugabe government. The British kith and kin emotions on Zimbabwe and particularly against Mugabe may remain, but on the ground things have changed in ways that are irreversible, leaving British policy even more high and dry than before.

Meanwhile, Britain's political friends in Zimbabwe are quite comfortable with the perks of office in an uneasy coalition with Mugabe. But it is increasingly at the cost of their being compromised, of their no longer being able to cast themselves as the good young guys on the outside fighting against the entrenched bad old guys. As they become part of the system, it becomes increasingly difficult to view them as the new brooms that will sweep Zimbabwe clean in the post-Mugabe era.

So what a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will look has become increasingly uncertain. 'Mugabeism' may well continue after his demise, by military force or by the implosion of those who paint themselves as the country's best alternative-to-Mugabe-future. These uncertainties worry Zimbabweans, but in this context Britain also finds that its overall failures on Zimbabwe over many years presently leaves it with little access to the effective power brokers in Harare, and little to no influence over them. They also have less incentive to engage with Britain than they might have had three or four years ago.

The long-running diplomatic impasse between Britain and Zimbabwe is a wasted opportunity for two countries that each can derive much benefit from the kind of good, mutually respectful relationship that they perhaps have never had. That need not mean agreeing on everything, as both countries' relationships with many unlikely partners shows.

Mugabe's strengths and failures are well chronicled. Because of how especially mythified and demonised Mugabe has been by the British, they are no longer able to be calm and rational enough about Zimbabwe for them to see that their policy towards it has been overly personalised, emotional and consistently failed. Failed in terms of the 'democracy and human rights' which they claim to be concerned about for Zimbabweans, but also failed in terms of Britain's economic and other self-interests in Zimbabwe.

Holman talks about Britain giving advice in Harare. But what Britain itself needs is new advice on how to engage more effectively with Zimbabwe, even amongst sharp differences that may not go away any time soon, and that are not unusual between nations. For all the goodwill suggested by Holman's sentiments, they display a very olden British attitude of a 'right' to direct affairs in its former colonies, and of being quite surprised when this is not only resented, but unusually, robustly resisted as by Mugabe & Co.

There is need for many kinds of reform in Zimbabwe. But externally, countries like Britain who have chosen to make Zimbabwe their business also need to re-examine whether or not their attitudes are not old-fashioned in ways that are no longer tenable, and that also no longer serve their own interests.

Sadly, little is likely to change in the poor relations between the two countries in the near future. Too much negative water has gone under the bridge, and the two sides are too stubborn and implacable to admit to themselves that they have made mistakes in dealing with each other, and that it is time to open a new page.

But there may be a simple solution to the impasse after all. Britain threw away the opportunity of a diplomatic coup by failing to invite the pomp and ceremony-loving Mugabe to the recent British royal wedding, even though that might have caused a mutiny amongst the Mugabe-despising British public.

Instead of the British ambassador in Harare helplessly twiddling his thumbs waiting for Mugabe's death, all the Cameron regime in London has to do is arrange tea and biscuits for Mugabe at Buckingham Palace and all will be instantly forgiven.

British policy on Zimbabwe has failed and needs some fresh thinking.

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment