After the 2013 elections, the European Union (EU) started relaxing its policies towards President Robert Mugabe’s government going to the extent of lifting targeted sanctions on certain institutions and officials.
the big interview BY RICHARD CHIDZA
The EU also pushed for re-engagement talks, citing a plethora of reforms that were enacted during the inclusive government era that included a new Constitution.
However, there is little on the ground to show that Mugabe’s regime has changed its ways and some Zimbabweans are now questioning the EU’s wisdom in changing tact in the way it deals with Harare. Our senior reporter Richard Chidza (RC) last week spoke to EU ambassador to Zimbabwe Philippe Van Damme (PVD) to get answers to some of these questions. Below are excerpts of the interview.
RC: You are halfway through your term. Are you happy with progress in efforts to build bridges between the EU and Zimbabwe after years of sour relations?
PVD: When one makes an assessment, things are always mixed. But I think we have made a lot of progress to the extent of signing a multi-annual programme with the government covering different areas, including agriculture, health and capacity building in government institutions.
Notably, in the latter component of our co-operation, we have made a lot of progress in terms of initiating programmes that can help in improving the global legal and institutional framework of the government.
It allowed us to engage in an increasingly intensified policy dialogue. When you speak about government issues, you unavoidably speak of policy issues.
We have moved from a point of suspicion when I arrived and managed to build bridges for a more consistent and coherent dialogue on a couple of issues. It does not mean we agree, but at least the platform for dialogue and exchange is there. That is on the positive side.
On the negative side, we have had frustrations that things are going too slowly.
The level of implementation of the reform agenda announced by government in Lima last October is limited; and so we have been missing on some opportunities …but of course aluta continua.
RC: Critics argue that the EU seemed to have changed its policy on Zimbabwe since the 2013 election to some form of appeasement based on an acceptance that Mugabe is going nowhere anytime soon, so you would rather work with him than follow an antagonistic policy. How true is this?
PVD: We have never defined our policies in terms of who is in government or who is not. We have never been part of a political or regime change agenda.
We have based our policies on a reform agenda. We think that this country needs social, economic and political reform to put it on a sustainable and inclusive growth path, and whoever is willing to engage on that basis, we will engage and explore ways of helping them.
One of the key areas of this enhanced engagement is not the elections but is the Constitution adopted after a referendum in 2013 and accepted by all across the board.
This Constitution provides a solid framework for engagement with the government in all the spheres I have just mentioned. It has a progressive and comprehensive Bill of Rights, which is a strong basis for engagement with government and other stakeholders.
That is why we are trying to work with the government to see how we can help them align the laws to the new constitution, strengthen Parliament, and the judiciary and how to assist in creating an environment conducive for the full respect for the rule of law and investment.
RC: After the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the EU in the so-called Brexit vote, will Brussels’ policy on Zimbabwe change?
PVD: The UK has not left the EU yet. As you know, there has been a referendum and as a result, the government of the UK will now have to trigger a mechanism to leave.
The mechanism is Article 50 of the EU Treaty, and according to the information we have, this will most likely not happen before March 2017 at the earliest.
After that, we will have a period of negotiation, which could last two years; this is the time necessary to arrange for the divorce, which is a complicated business. So we are with the UK at least for another three years.
Secondly, there is no fundamental divergence of views between the UK and other EU member states when it comes to relations with Zimbabwe. So whether the UK stays or not, there will not be much change in how the EU engages with Zimbabwe.
RC: The international community has been accused of propping up Mugabe’s regime by funding most of the social services budget, leaving the president with breathing space to entrench his rule, including paraphernalia to crush protests. Do you agree?
PVD: There are two issues here, since we signed our multi-annual programmes in 2015, we have made sure our funds are not channelled through the government, but through development partners and civil society organisations. So we are not injecting any funds directly into the government budget.
But there is also the issue of the fungibility of funds. What we do in agriculture, health and elsewhere may alleviate the pressure on government to spend money on these. However, this is not an operational question but an ethical one. I am putting it to you in the most brutal way. We have the response to the drought. We have a humanitarian emergency situation with some four million people who are food dependent. Should we stay away for political reasons and refuse to respond to this food crisis?
The position of the international community has always been consistent, that humanitarian aid should be provided regardless of any considerations of a political, religious or ethnic nature. It has to be given because we have to help the suffering people.
That is obvious, there is no debate on this position and those arguing that we could stay away are being irresponsible. They don’t take into account the interests of the people.
We provide humanitarian assistance without questions. I think to a certain extent the same can be said of all other sectors. Could we stay away from the health sector?
After the hyper-inflation era the health delivery system collapsed and the donor community collectively decided to help turn around the health sector and put together initially the Health Transition Fund and now the Health Development Fund. This has achieved very significant results and the health sector has moved back into more positive waters.
Child and maternal mortality rates have significantly gone down. Yes, to a certain extent we are substituting for the government, but on the other hand, we have saved the lives of thousands of mothers and children.
Those who plead for us to stay away should put that into consideration. Are they the ones who suffer from the absence of the donor community?
So our answer is, we have to remain and show our solidarity with the suffering and vulnerable people. But we need to move from that to a more structural level and this is where Lima comes in.
It is so important to have a medium-to-long-term perspective. At the moment, what we are doing is saving lives, helping people survive at a minimal level, but to bring the country back on a sustainable growth path, creating jobs we have to do more than that.
This medium-to-long-term strategy is the Lima agenda and we welcome that and we have now to find ways to help the authorities implement the Lima reform agenda, but the ball is in the government’s court.
We are not bailing out the government but we are trying to support initiatives to turn around the fortunes of the country.
RC: Do you think the Lima process is still alive?
PVD: I believe in the theology of hope. Without hope there is no action, there is no reform, no growth. I am not into speculative politics. We will try to help where we can.
Given a little bit of room, we will try and step in; and even where there is no room, we try to create through dialogue. There is no other solution than dialogue and to convince people of the necessity of their reform agenda for the benefit of the people of this country.
RC: But now, how do you try to convince a government of its own agenda? Are they genuine?
PVD: Well, the problem is that we have seen inconsistencies in the development agenda of the government. We have seen debates around different issues such as the financial policies of the government, around indigenisation and land reform, around the wage bill.
In all those issues, there is intense debate within government, which is a good thing, because it happens everywhere around the world. But at some point it has to come to a conclusion.
Sometimes the government gives the impression that the debate has been concluded, but then it is re-opened again, which creates question marks and investors hate uncertainty. It does not help the investment climate.
RC: Do you believe the government when it says the land reform programme is a closed chapter?
PVD: Well, it has not been closed yet because there are outstanding issues which have to be sorted out. We never questioned the need for land reform. Our questions were around the way it was implemented.
What we have to do now is to try and manage the land reform in a way that can sort out the contentious issues of the past, and at the same time build a model to revamp and re-dynamise the agricultural sector.
The major difference between the past and today is that we had a limited number of dominant huge commercial farms and a very limited number of small-holders, while now we have a huge number of small-holder farmers and a limited number of commercial farms and intermediaries with access to the necessary expertise and international markets.
The challenge we have now is how to coalesce the small-holder farmers so that they can reach the necessary expertise and economies of scale to compete on the domestic market and even so that they can re-access the regional and international markets.
A couple of things are needed for this, including access to finance, which means they have to have something to offer in terms of collateral to those who extend credit.
And that will require collateral. In the agricultural sector land is the biggest asset that can be accessed. What we need is to make land bankable, and we need to ensure security of tenure.
Since I arrived two years ago people have been promising that the 99-year leases will become bankable. We are not yet there; after two years of continuous talking and promising that it would happen, these 99 year-leases are still not bankable.
After two years of drought, the farmers no longer have anything to invest in the preparation of land for next season.
They do not have access to finance because they do not have any collateral which can be used by the banks to extend credit. So we are in a situation where in fact, next year might see a continuation of the crisis.
RC: You have thrown pot-shots at those accused of corruption. How sincere in your view, is government in fighting this scourge?
PVD: It is clear that you cannot fight corruption if people are not sanctioned for corruption. Impunity undermines the credibility of any fight against corruption. Impunity undermines the rule of law.
So the fight against corruption is pretty crucial in all situations, first from a budgetary perspective because corruption leads to leakages in the system.
You cannot prop-up the budget of any country if there are leakages in the system. Secondly, corruption undermines the rule of law in a fundamental way and creates a lot of inequalities and injustices.
So you have to address corruption in a transparent way — not only by exposing it, that is only the first step; but by prosecuting those who are supposed to have been involved in acts of corruption. That is the only way you can credibly fight corruption.
RC: You always exchange harsh words with Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo on Twitter. Do you have a personal problem with the minister?
PVD: I do not have a personal problem with anybody in this country, but if other people have a problem with me you have to ask them. I am on speaking terms with everybody and as I said I am a firm believer in the value of dialogue.
RC: Your last word, what is your agenda in the last half of your term?
PVD: To continue engaging in dialogue with all stakeholders, not only the political parties, but also with civil society and the private sector. And we hope through dialogue we can help this country grow again, in an inclusive and socially, environmentally, economically, politically sustainable way.