Zimbabwe: Re-Engagement Goes Off the Rails

opinion

Last week's damning statement by the United States, European Union and other members of the international community on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe after opposition protests scheduled for August 16 were banned has thrown President Emmerson Mnangagwa's international re-engagement agenda into disarray.

The international community is consistently insisting on the implementation of far-reaching political and economic reforms in line with a roadmap unveiled by the government.

While Mnangagwa's government insists that the re-engagement drive is on track, sentiments from foreign embassies point to a diplomatic rift.

Mnangagwa and his lieutenants are fighting tooth and nail to restore international goodwill lost during the August 1, 2018, January 2019 shootings and August 16, but the human rights situation has severely tested the diplomatic ties.

Government's decision to summon US ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols to express its dismay over Washington's decision to impose sanctions on ambassador-designate to Tanzania Anselem Sanyatwe and his wife Chido Machona worsened diplomatic relations that have been strained since the violent 2000 land reform programme and subsequently stolen elections.

Among a series of previous clashes, another diplomatic tiff was witnessed last week during a Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) campaign launch when EU head of delegation in Zimbabwe Timo Olkkonen publicly condemned human rights abuses which a flustered Mnangagwa openly rebuffed in a dramatic public row between a sitting head of state and a foreign diplomat.

Olkkonen did not mince his words, condemning government's banning of the MDC demonstrations, abductions and crackdown on civil liberties.

"Unfortunately, we are witnessing these days several developments that put constitutionalism and the respect for the rule of law in question. Zimbabwe should show that it genuinely has made a break from the past," Olkkonen said.

In a rant that echoed former president Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa retorted: "Your Excellency (Mr Olkkonen) you referred to human rights. However, this platform was for corruption. May I urge civil society to restrict themselves to their mandate. The rule of law observance is not needed for the purposes of pleasing other countries; we need it because it is proper for ourselves."

It has become apparent that Zimbabwe is now on the defensive following international outcry over the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, while the August 1, 2018 killings and the January incidents where 17 unarmed civilians were shot dead in Harare as well as August 16 still haunt Mnangagwa who took over power via a military coup in November 2017.

Analysts say the government's shrill anti-sanctions rhetoric -- now supported by Sadc -- in the face of strong condemnation for gross violation of human rights will not help Zimbabwe's international re-engagement effort.

The US government says it is concerned by gross human rights abuses occurring in Zimbabwe and has emphasised that any engagement between Harare and Washington would be based on the real implementation of political and economic reforms.

"As we said in our statement on August 15, we are deeply concerned over the abduction, assault and torture of civil society and opposition leaders in advance of the planned march on August 16," US embassy spokesperson Stacy Lomba said.

The US urged the government to ensure the safety of citizens as well as bring to book those responsible for human rights violations, including soldiers who shot and killed six protesters on August 1 last year.

Speaking to the Zimbabwe Independent this week, political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said Zimbabwe has fallen out of favour with the West, while the Chinese were closely watching the situation.

"It's a glaring disaster for obvious reasons, the politics, and the economy. The re-engagement drive was meant to assist the economic recovery, but now when you start shooting people in the streets, the European capitals will not have that," Mandaza said. "Following the August 2018 shootings, the January incidents and the recent abductions, we might as well forget about re-engagement. No Western capital would want to be associated with this government anymore. Even the Chinese are worried; they don't want anything to do with this situation."

University of London professor of world politics Stephen Chan said re-engagement had weakened due to increased human rights abuses. Chan urged the Zimbabwean government to institute genuine dialogue.

"The government has certainly initiated a dialogue agenda, which it says will lead to reform. However, the dialogue seems structured in such a way as to capture ground from the opposition, rather than genuinely engage with it.

Having said that, any dialogue is good - but it must be accompanied by a lessening of over-reaction against demonstrators on the streets. You don't have to beat, teargas, and shoot people," Chan said. "There are more sophisticated ways of crowd control. But the impression the West gets is that security personnel can't wait to get stuck in as violently as possible."

Analysts added that Zimbabwe's re-engagement strategy with the West and international financial institutions (IFIs) is now faltering as the situation deteriorates.

"It is not dead, but it is a very long way from where it could and should have been. The question is why? In short, the answer is a failure to deliver on multiple reform fronts and the resuscitation of repressive practices which reinforce the impression that this administration is essentially a further iteration of the old, and certainly not a 'new dispensation'. It would appear that those genuinely promoting reform are doing so against multiple interests within the state, ruling party and private sector who continue to benefit from predatory, corrupt and unaccountable practices," political analyst Piers Pigou said.

"In terms of re-engagement, Western countries and the IFIs on the whole remain publicly tight-lipped, but they are very disappointed and with good reason. As such, encouraging and supportive statements are increasingly thin. IFIs, such as the IMF, have little choice, but to keep promoting the government's own stated reforms, and will deliberately sidestep any commentary that might be deemed too political. In many ways they, along with Western countries, do not know what to do. They cannot ignore blatant violations, but are aware the typical Zanu PF response to sharpened criticism is to hunker down, present themselves as victims and attack everyone. In effect, this is what has happened in the wake of relatively muted criticism this year."

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