Will Zimbabwe rejoin the Commonwealth? Can the UK now start funding Zimbabwe? British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing (CL) last week spoke to The Standard (TS)
to answers some of the questions about UK-Zimbabwe relations under the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
TS: Ambassador, did you welcome the dramatic political events in Zimbabwe in November?
CL: The changes were welcomed, most importantly by Zimbabweans themselves. We think that the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa has made a good start in trying to set Zimbabwe back onto a positive trajectory. It’s still early days. Everyone has their eye on the elections later this year. They’ll have to be credible and transparent and free from intimidation for Zimbabwe to be fully welcomed back into the international community. But these first steps look positive.
TS: How much contact have you had so far with President Mnangagwa?
CL: I had actually only met him twice in the three years before the November transition: once in his role as Justice minister and then when we had a business delegation here. Less than an hour after his inauguration as president, I joined our Minister for Africa, the first UK minister to visit Zimbabwe for almost two decades for what felt like a historic meeting. We spoke about how we shared an objective to put this relationship back onto a better footing. We had a good and frank discussion about the challenges along the way — and there will be many challenges. Political and economic reforms are very much needed — and the authorities in Zimbabwe have committed to those. The UK and Zimbabwe share a clear common purpose: to improve the lives of Zimbabweans.
TS: Are you heartened by President Mnangagwa’s moves towards improving the economic climate in Zimbabwe?
CL: The president has been clear that jobs are going to be his top priority. He knows that will need substantial investment, both domestic and foreign and that will require a serious reform agenda. That will include stabilising the economy and sorting out the currency, reforming the public sector, robust protections for investors, making it easier to do business here, clearer guarantees on land and resolving the compensation issues. Another very important signal has been President Mnangagwa’s move to essentially abolish indigenisation apart from in parts of the mining sector. Once translated into law, that will be very important in building confidence in foreign investors. It’s an immensely challenging reform agenda that will take time and determination. No-one should expect an overnight cure to decades of economic decline.
TS: There’s been much speculation around the possibility of new funding coming from the UK and international financial institutions (IFIs). Is this a realistic hope?
CL: The UK already puts substantial funding into Zimbabwe, more than $100 million per year. Our programmes are in basic services, agriculture and livelihoods, wealth creation, governance and the rule of law. We keep all our programming under review and will obviously be checking to see if we need to adapt them if there are changes in how the government now approaches poverty reduction, economic development and the rule of law.
We also provide financing to institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and we expect these institutions will be closely involved in Zimbabwe’s comeback. I am hoping the Zimbabwe government’s own economic reform plan, as set out in Lima in October 2015, will now be revived. That plan faltered under the previous leadership but we’ve heard indications from the new government that they will restore and update that plan. The UK stands ready to support that process, as we always have.
TS: What have Zimbabweans been telling you about the changes that have taken place?
CL: The mood that I’m picking up on is a feeling of hope in the possibility of a better future. Zimbabweans are also saying to me that the jury is still out on the new government, and there is much unresolved conflict from the past that needs to be recognised and addressed. But many of the Zimbabweans I speak to want this thing to succeed and they understand they need to play a part in it.
TS: What do you think about President Mnangagwa’s Twitter and Facebook accounts?
CL: The previous government hadn’t really caught up with the social media. I’ve been watching some of the debates on President Mnangagwa’s new FB page. I think Zimbabweans are feeling slightly surprised at the possibility of directly entering a debate with their leader. He seems to be welcoming the challenge. Of course no president can sit there in front of Twitter all day.
TS: Can Zimbabwe now re-join the Commonwealth?
CL: The ball is in Zimbabwe’s court. The first step is for Zimbabwe’s new government to reach a decision to rejoin. Then Zimbabwe would have to write to the Commonwealth secretariat indicating that intention. It will have to show that it meets membership criteria, including respect for democracy, human rights, rule of law and much else. Fittingly, many of these principles were agreed by the Commonwealth at its meeting here in Harare in 1992.
The UK will be hosting a major Commonwealth meeting in April this year. That is too soon for Zimbabwe to have formally rejoined, but if all goes well, it is possible that Zimbabwe could be back by the next major meeting, in Malaysia in 2020. If Zimbabwe does decide it wants to rejoin, that meeting in London could be an important moment in the process of international re-engagement.
TS: How do you see the next few months in Zimbabwe?
CL: For me, the glass is definitely more than half full. Zimbabwe has always had huge potential. It’s got hard-working people, great natural resources and climate, there’s no terror threat and there are functioning institutions. What’s been holding Zimbabwe back until now, frankly, is the leadership. My feeling is that the new music in Zimbabwe is one of hope. But this is not blind optimism or indifference to the past. People understand it is going to be difficult to unravel many decades of problems and setbacks are inevitable.