By Hopewell Chin’ono
When the news broke out that the Zimbabwean government had hired the services of a lobbying firm in the US called Ballard Partners, it could have been just another piece of news to be read and one moves on to the next story.
However it became interesting for me because today I am giving a lecture to Yale students on issues related to Zimbabwe and Africa in general.
I was invited to give this lecture to students who are taking the Global Crises Response course at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs today via Skype.
So when the news of the lobbyist contract broke when I was preparing myself for that lecture, I realized that I needed to pay attention because it might come up in the question and answer with the Yale students.
A lot of people around me also started asking what hiring a lobbying firm meant for Zimbabwe and its protracted issues with the U.S. government.
Lobbyists have existed for as long as government has been in place in the U.S. and their job is to act as advocates for foreign governments, corporations and special interest groups like the National Rifle Association in trying to influence policy in the U.S.
One story says that the name “lobbyist” originated at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where President Ulysses Grant coined the term in the 19th century to describe the political advocates who frequented the hotel’s LOBBY to access him.
President Grant frequented the hotel in the evenings to enjoy a cigar and brandy and unwind with his friends, that is when these lobbyists would come to talk to him away from his office.
The critical thinking question now is whether lobbyist solutions do work and whether it is money well spent or not and whether Zimbabwe’s issues with the U.S. require lobbying or a different approach.
That is where the real issue is and that is when you see whether a government knows what it is doing or not, it all depends with what is being lobbied for and why it is being lobbied for against other alternative routes.
These lobbying companies usually do their work in the legislative branches of the U.S. government, mainly with Congress.
The lobbying company Ballard Partners that has been hired by the Zimbabwean government is owned by one of President Donald Trump’s top fundraisers, Brian Ballard.
That relationship will have very little to zero effect, lobbyists can’t influence the executive branch of the U.S. government in the same way that folks here go and talk to President Emmerson Mnangagwa hoping to get things done in parliament using his influence, it doesn’t work like that in the U.S.
The first thing that the State Department will ask itself is WHY the Zimbabwean government is choosing to spend bucket loads of money, instead of attending to the reforms that will effectively do what the lobbyists will attempt to with very little success.
The State Department in America will more likely listen to their ambassador in Harare, Brian Nichols than a firm of lobbyists based in Washington DC who are making an argument after being paid to do so by the Zimbabwean government.
Zimbabwe does not have a bad relationship with the U.S. administration, except for the issues around sanctions, something that has a pathway to getting the sanctions removed.
The pathway to removing sanctions is the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) which clearly states what we need to do to get the sanctions removed.
The Zimbabwean Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube said that the things that are outlined in ZDERA are things that we are supposed to do as a country anyway without being asked to do them because they are good for Zimbabwe and its people.
So I assume that this money has been paid to address the central problem of sanctions, and to do so using what are considered to be insiders because as I said earlier, Brian Ballard is a top fundraiser for President Trump.
James Rubin who will be handling the Zimbabwean file on behalf of the lobbying firm is a former senior State Department official under President Bill Clinton, and he is also married to CNN broadcast journalist, Christiane Amanpour.
This move by the Zimbabwean government is not new at all, Robert Mugabe tried it and it spectacularly failed resulting in a Chicago man, Prince Asiel Ben Israel ending up in an American jail for breaking U.S. federal law.
The first thing that will rightly or wrongly come to the minds of American legislators and the U.S. State Department will be that the government of Zimbabwe would rather spend huge amounts of money, instead of executing the political and economic reforms that will get the sanctions removed.
It is easier to lobby the Congress to remove a trade law than a law like ZDERA that is rooted in the system and political values of the United States of America.
Doing so is the equivalent to asking the United States to ignore the virtues of democracy in exchange for nothing, I say so because they have ignored what happens in Saudi Arabia, but they have done so for national interest reasons, their security, oil and Israel.
Besides one can’t morally argue that others are being allowed to remove rights from their citizens therefore we should also be allowed to kill, violently beat up and rape our citizens too.
It is an embarrassingly morally bankrupt argument that is unfortunately constantly used by folks addressing this issue wearing partisan lenses.
As I have been at pains to explain here, Zimbabwe is very low in the global high stakes game for the U.S. and hence no American administration would want to create problems for itself with the U.S. Congress over a country that gives them nothing in return.
So this in my view is not money well spend at all and whoever advised the President to take this route doesn’t understand how the U.S. system of government works.
It won’t have much of an effect at all as long as the Zimbabwean government has not addressed the outstanding issues of reforms.
It worries me a lot that the Mnangagwa administration has been played by many people who are making money out of it, either through ignorance and incompetence in the government or outright corruption.
I am aware that some people working with officials inside the government have gone to the extent of lying that they had arranged interviews for the administration officials with news networks, and that these interviews needed to be paid for, something that is totally unethical in the news media.
It was basically a lie to siphon money out of government, and the government would do well to avoid associating itself with these type of crooks
I have a feeling that some people will also make money out of this arrangement, and that the President would have entered into this agreement in good faith but being misled non the less.
All Zimbabwe needs to do is repeal Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and replace them with progressive laws that are congruent to our constitution.
They need to reform the media by allowing new players, and this can be done in a very smart way that takes care of what the citizen wants to watch on television and the government’s fears.
They need to sort out the multi lateral debt issue and address the currency distortions that resulted in protests followed by military killings and the shutting down of the internet.
They need to get out of the fuel industry and remove the central bank foreign exchange allocation system, they also need to clean up the State owned companies (parastatals) by privatizing or professionalizing them.
They need to streamline the public service sector by reducing their wage bill that currently accounts for over 70 percent of expenditure.
This would work wonders at Capitol Hill instead of throwing good money into a hole as has been done, bookmark this article, Ballard Partners will change nothing without reforms!
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