Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Hopewell Chin’ono: More woes for President Mnangagwa as Trump shuts the door to international engagement

By Hopewell Chin’ono

Donald trump has extended the targeted sanctions against Zimbabwean officials for another year after declaring that their behavior is still a foreign policy risk for the U.S. government.

Hopewell Chin'ono
Hopewell Chin’ono

The targeted sanctions should not be confused with Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) that hasn’t been used before, because it can only be used after Zimbabwe has paid its multilateral debts.

The road ahead will not be an easy one for Zimbabwe’s economy, and neither will it be a short leap into normalcy for its battered political and economic reputation that currently is lying on the floor.

The Finance Minister, Mthuli Ncube, must know this reality too well than anybody else in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s embattled ministerial cabinet that might be reshuffled soon according to rumours swirling around State House.

Reshuffling of cabinet ministers without resolving the civil service incompetence is totally pointless.

Civil service bureaucrats do the work in government and ministers only give policy direction.

We currently have the bulk of Mugabe’s senior civil service in place barking the same old hot air rhetoric, so how can things change?

Unfortunately nobody in the current cabinet is willing to publicly articulate that the nation’s leaders must rebuild trust with their citizens and the international community, before they can think of sleeping easy at night with the economy back on track

Like any relationship that is broken, it will be harder to rebuild than destroy and there will be more international checks and balances than ever before, especially after the disastrous false start to President Mnangagwa’s touted “New Dispensation” that Zimbabweans are now jokingly calling the “not so New Republic.”

The absence of a civil war or mass migration out of any country keeps it off the international radar of the rest of the world and Zimbabwe is no different, it is not high on any policy maker’s screen at the moment except for the usual annual sanction renewals.

The lack of international interest and immediate urgency towards Zimbabwe makes it difficult for Mthuli Ncube to motivate the required economic assistance, until the previously agreed plans of action are in place and trust and confidence is being regained.

Years ago Zimbabwe punched above its weight because it was a Frontline State and afterwards because so many policy makers around the world were heavily invested in its success, something that looked very real in the 1980s.

Zimbabwe also had a controversial, very loud and at times foul mouthed President whose stage stature was captivating to the rest of the world, but unfortunately mostly for the wrong things.

That controversy cost the country a lot in regards to its global standing, as former president Robert Mugabe had the ability to wickedly annoy with his empty fiery rhetoric that he used devastatingly in order to embarrass world powers at international gatherings, only for cheap entertainment value.

However after Mugabe’s demise, much was invested in wanting to see Zimbabwe succeed against all odds, but unfortunately his successors proved to be equally disappointing and dispiriting once their power assured.

Many watchers both home and abroad were greatly disappointed because they had chosen to give President Mnangagwa and his team a chance regardless of their messy past, a past that they invariably share with their former Commander in Chief, Robert Mugabe.

An otherwise quiet and orderly election turned into a bloody affair in August of 2018 when the Zimbabwean military gunned down innocent civilians.

This happened in the middle of an opposition demonstration against the country’s electoral management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

This was however resolved with the appointment of a commission of inquiry and a cabinet that was applauded by even President Mnangagwa’s well known critics.

Unfortunately for Zimbabwe, the mishandling of the currency situation turned into a pricing nightmare, resulting in large fuel queues and a sharp fuel price increase that motivated a massive stay away protest.

Similarly like what happened in August of 2018, the military was deployed during this stay away in January of 2019 and civilians were killed, some were violently beaten up and women gave untested testimonies of sexual abuse at the hands of the military.

The government also took the unprecedented action of switching off the internet, something that caused a major crisis for companies that are based in Harare and yet supplying services to the rest of the world.

A major Kenyan financial services company was greatly affected, and there is now talk that some companies that were also affected are now moving their internet based operations to other reliable African countries.

This is bad for Zimbabwe’s business reputation, and contrary to what the President’s spokesman George Charamba said when he argued that investors are not interested or worried about internet shutdowns, that has actually become a major headache for the Zimbabwean government.

If senior civil servants like George Charamba are not aware of it, it means that there is a catastrophic failure of intelligence or he was simply playing politics and propaganda.

When all this happened, the world turned off including Britain that had been closely involved in the ascendancy of President Mnangagwa through unprecedented support after his inauguration or at least lack of public remonstrations as what the British government did during Mugabe’s era.

Britain sent former Harvard professor and the then Minister for Africa Rory Stewart to meet President Mnangagwa on the day of his inauguration in November of 2017.

If anyone was ever in doubt of Britain’s position regarding President Mnangagwa’s ascendancy to power, the immediate dispatching of Rory Stewart to Harare settled those doubts and answered the question of Britain’s position.

The message to the rest of world was very clear, the former colonizer had blessed the military coup that brought President Mnangagwa into office.

That however is enough history to understand what happened in the first fourteen months of President Mnangagwa’s reign, but perhaps I must add that he also failed to implement any of his major promises that were meant to get the U.S. sanctions removed.

Where do we go from here now after this tumultuous start to Mnangagwa’s Presidency and after Donald Trump has extended the sanctions for another year?

Although many have correctly asserted the need to repeal repressive legislation such as Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) as a necessary step towards normalizing relations with the West, more now needs to be done after the chaotic and disappointing beginning and trump’s actions.

The removal of only these repressive laws will not help attract the much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) or the removal of sanctions.

It also won’t lead to the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to start lending Zimbabwe money for infrastructure projects or infuse cash for the painful and yet necessary monetary reform program.

Mthuli Ncube like Patrick Chinamasa before him has failed to implement the debt and arrears clearance plan, which was first adopted in Lima in 2015 in Peru.

The Lima agreement was intended to resolve the country’s foreign debt overhang and unlock fresh capital through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club.

It would have also signalled to other lenders that Zimbabwe was now credit worthy after almost two decades in the doghouse as a pariah state with zero credit rating and a bogus currency called The Bond Note later comically renamed the RTGS Dollar.

Implementation of the Lima agreement would have been a precursor to reform and assistance, but I doubt very much that ZANUPF is willing to hurt its murky cash cows and revenue streams that are mainly benefiting the political elites and their business surrogates.

This is because any reform agenda will involve cleaning up areas like the fuel sector that is currently central to Zimbabwe’s problems, and yet it is benefiting the most powerful state actors and business interests close to the seat of power.

Just after the removal of Robert Mugabe many were very confident that President Mnangagwa and his team were willing to reform and give their soiled reputations a thorough make over, allowing ZANUPF to be able to win elections again without deploying any form of coercion or brutal violence, and also more importantly getting the country’s economy back on track.

President Mnangagwa’s ardent supporters billed him as the President for business as they argued that he was more interested in the country’s economy than politics.

Unfortunately it all went pear shaped and the Robert Mugabe excuse script of sanctions and the legendary load mouthing reappeared again only without Mugabe’s linguistic sophistry.

It was quite clear that the President and his team had no cogent plan in place on how they would turn things around, this is because there are many interests to be appeased, otherwise how can one explain the total loss of direction?

The interests start with the military that assisted him to ascend to power, his immediate political surrogates, his business friends and interests, and somewhat ethnic base that saw him appointing folks from his ethnic group to lead other provinces, something that is talked about in hushed tones and has really upset many folks in his ZANUPF party.

This played out on the parliament pavement when the independent Member of Parliament for Norton, Temba Mliswa accused his Midlands based Karanga ethnic group of running the country like a mafia.

President Mnangagwa’s challenges are too many and varied to put down on a paper, what is needed is to look at what he has to do now to get his presidency back on track.

International investors and policy makers don’t believe that Zimbabwe’s political ruling class is serious about its commitments to reform that it preached to the rest of the world post Mugabe’s removal in the midst of the euphoria.

There maybe sympathy among Africans working in mid-level slots in International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, but none of them have the political juice to assist Zimbabwe if it doesn’t reform and implement previously agreed international commitments.

The laws that cause companies to be skittish about investing such as majority ownership need to be rethought and designed in a manner that leads to investment while ensuring that black ownership increases.

For example, most mines are running at under fifty percent capacity, and I don’t think that contracts for the lithium mines are in place yet.

The President and the government have to implement the Lima agreement which will require them to reform parastatals by either getting rid of them through privatization or by professionalizing them and removing the excess employee baggage on their books.

Will they be able to do this seeing that most of these folks in parastatals came through the ruling party structures and they are needed in government because of their desired level of loyalty?

The government needs to drastically cut its civil service bureaucracy that currently stands at about 500,000 workers, doing that is a hotly contested area because of the political ramifications if the cull goes ahead.

The government needs to reduce its spending to levels that are acceptable, levels that are economic and sustainable for the shivering economy that is currently in the intensive care unit.

Zimbabwe needs to attend to the American ZDERA sanctions that have the potential to stop it from accessing international loans, even if it pays its World Bank debt.

Currently the Zimbabwean government talks about the removal of sanctions without doing anything about the problem, sanctions are removed through engagement and not through empty rhetoric in state media or social media platforms.

They are also not removed through seeking solidarity with regional leaders that have NO power or influence in the American political corridors.

Lack of balance of payments and budget support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) has stalled economic growth and nobody has come to the table to fill that void because of Zimbabwe’s long standing reputation of breaking promises and agreements.

Without the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund debt clearance implementation, Zimbabwe’s credit rating will be junk status.

Zimbabwe last serviced its World Bank debt exactly twenty years from today, so with or without sanctions in place, it wouldn’t have been able to get lines of credit form the World Bank or the IMF or any other serious and reputable international creditor.

If Zimbabwe had followed up on implementing the Lima agreements, the multilateral debt would have been paid up by 2016 according to the agreements and structured roadmap plan.

The ten-point plan required Zimbabwe to strengthen its financial sector confidence, accelerate the re-engagement process with the international community that has currently stalled again because of the chaotic state of affairs.

It also requires Zimbabwe to revitalize its agriculture and the agro-processing value chain by advancing beneficiation and value addition to the agriculture and mining resource endowments

Zimbabwe also agreed to focus on infrastructure development and unlocking the potential of small to medium enterprises and improving the investment climate to attract foreign direct investment.

Lima also requires Zimbabwe to accelerate public enterprises (parastatals) reform and improving public finance management and modernizing labour laws and the aligning of national laws to the Constitution and adhering to the rule of law and finally pursuing an anti-corruption thrust drive.

Corruption and incompetence are central to Zimbabwe’s economic demise and as such, without genuinely tackling these evils, it would be tough for Zimbabwe to be taken seriously as a born again economy driven and underpinned by a positive and progressive political agenda.

Currently Zimbabwe has been mainly assisted with aid inflows from the European Union (EU), Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID that currently spend US$200Million of American tax money annually in Zimbabwe.

I have always argued that ordinarily Zimbabwe needs trade more than it needs aid, this will not happen until President Mnangagwa’s government sets its priorities right and remove the political and economic impediments currently choking the progressive side of government.

Post the 2018 general election the assistance sought by certain ministries to start reforming parastatals has been blocked through resistance from hardliners and saboteurs in President Mnangagwa’s government.

These folks fear losing relevance without control of these state owned companies and hence they bellow anti-Western rhetoric to mask their corrupt enterprises, rhetoric that goes against agreements that the government signed up to.

However without the required and agreed reforms, Zimbabwe will remain a pariah and broken state at war with its people, pursuing an illusive dream to reconstruct and succeed.

This dream will remain a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never to be attained without a complete political and economic point of departure.

The ball is now firmly in Zimbabwe’s own court after Trump’s actions today, we either chose to kick the ball wisely into goal or to throw it into the choppy deep sea.

Zimbabwe must now become like Cinderella and woo the princes and princesses of international capital through reforms before the US Sanctions clock strikes at midnight again in March 2020.

Mthuli Ncube will be in Washington DC to meet the International Financial Institutions and help lobby against sanctions, that trip is now pointless with today’s action by President Trump.

Unfortunately for Mthuli Ncube, he is in a corner outnumbered by the hawks and saboteurs who hold more power and sway on issues related to decision-making in the Zimbabwean government.

It is now up to President Mnangagwa to either continue forging ahead with his current futile direction, or to restructure his strategy if there ever was one.

There is no other way out of this mess for Zimbabwe’s famed crocodile, as for us and all those that gave him unprecedented goodwill, Winston Churchill once said that an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.

The broken promises are now making it extremely difficult for many folks that supported or gave a chance to President Mnangagwa’s Presidency to do it again, he has to be very dynamic and revolutionary to ever think of getting that international goodwill again!

*Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.

He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa Leadership Institute.

Hopewell has a new documentary film looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind, which was launched to critical acclaim.

The recently departed music superstar Oliver Mtukudzi wrote the sound track for State of Mind.

It was recently nominated for a big award at the Festival International du Film Pan-Africain de Cannes in France and in the UK at the Heart of England International Film Festival. You can watch the documentary trailer below.*