By John Kachembere
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government faces a herculean task to restore economic and political relations between Zimbabwe and its erstwhile coloniser, the United Kingdom.
Trade relations between the two countries are at an all-time low.
In the 10 months to October this year Zimbabwe imported goods worth $100 million from the UK and exported products valued at a paltry $1,175 million to the former world super power, according to figures from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency.
For a country that imports more than 50 percent of its food and spent about $625 billion in imports last year alone, Zimbabwe is barely scratching the surface on what it can gain by increasing trade with the UK.
The two countries enjoyed cordial relations in the two decades after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, but things came to a head at the turn of the millennium when the southern African country embarked on a controversial land reform programme to address colonial land imbalances.
The UK — together with the European Union — suspended direct financial aid to Zimbabwe citing human rights abuses by former president Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF-led government.
Several British companies such as Tesco, BP and Shell and Waitrose, among others, stopped trading with Zimbabwe — sparking a diplomatic tiff between London and Harare.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has, however, hinted that his country was ready to offer support to Zimbabwe’s new government as long as Mnangagwa lives up to his promises of crucial socio-economic reforms.
“Recent events in Zimbabwe offer a moment of hope for the country and its people. This is a time to look to the future and to make clear that Britain shares the common vision of a prosperous, peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe,” he said.
Nonetheless, market watchers said the southern African country has to prove itself before trade with Britain starts to grow again.
“If Zimbabwe had kept pace with African average growth since 1998, it would produce three times its current output,” economic analyst Francis Mukora opined.
“To realise its potential government needs to do more to improve the business environment. Investors are keen to support empowerment, but need assurances that their assets are secure, and that profits can be repatriated,” he said, adding that the promised clarification of the indigenisation policy is welcome and if handled properly it could help attract investment.
Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said Zimbabwe’s decision to engage the UK to be readmitted to the Commonwealth, as the new government attempts to burnish its international reputation, was a step in the right direction.
“It doesn’t involve them in any real commitments except agreeing to the principles of the Commonwealth. For a lot of States, it’s a kitemark of respectability,” he said.
Commonwealth membership brings both economic and political support.
For example, the Commonwealth secretariat assists member States with election monitoring, and there are immigration privileges to the UK.
Zimbabwe hopes that the membership would open the way to more trade and investment, especially loans.
Commonwealth countries — most but not all of which were once British colonies — each have an equal say at the heads of government meetings, which takes place every two to three years.
The 52 Commonwealth States would all have to endorse an application for Zimbabwe to be readmitted.
Three other members have re-entered in the past three decades— Pakistan in 1989, South Africa in 1994 and Fiji in 1997. The Financial Gazette