European Union (EU) ambassador to Zimbabwe Timo Olkkkonen says Brussels is not happy with the pace of reforms in the country, especially the realignment of laws to the constitution.
Olkkonen (TO) told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that the EU was providing financial support to the government for the reform process.
In the wide-ranging interview, the EU envoy also spoke about sanctions, human rights violations and the block’s aid to Zimbabwe. Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: You have been in Zimbabwe now for over a year, what has been the experience like?
TO: Well it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. Zimbabwe is a wonderful country and we had previous African experiences and it was easy to settle in.
People have been extremely friendly, welcoming.
I have great staff at the EU Delegation, so coming in both professionally and from a personal level, family life perspective has been easy.
All the basic blocks of everyday life, I have been settling in nicely and what I have seen from the country, it has been wonderful and the people have been very welcoming.
But professionally things have been different from what I had expected.
When I was preparing for the job, the expectations were a little bit different and I was hoping that we would talk more about economic cooperation, private sector links and so forth, but the job has been more political than what I would have expected.
What has been happening around the country over the year has been somewhat more challenging from that perspective than I would have expected.
TN: Roller coaster, more challenging. Do you want to unpack that? What does that mean?
TO: Like I said, when I was coming into the country there was a build-up in the run up to the elections last year July.
There was a lot of optimism and good will.
The pre-electoral campaign went quite well and there was a lot of expectation that Zimbabwe would be taking off.
Then we had the August 1 (2018) events, that was before I came into the country.
So there was a little bit of saying, okay, let’s see how this is handled and how the country moves forward and there was the January events, which were a big disappointment I think for the international community after what transpired in January and then ensuing issues after that and that is on the political.
And obviously on the economic side, Zimbabwe has experienced a fair share of difficulties and then you have the humanitarian situation, which is quite dire and has become worse over the past year.
There has never been a boring moment. It has been quite challenging, extremely interesting but emotionally a little bit of a roller coaster.
TN: Have any of the postings that you have had before, you have spent a lot of time in Brussels and you have been to Kenya, Zambia and Malawi, had any of those experiences prepared you for what you are facing in Zimbabwe right now?
TO: I think so. From a professional experience, in my own service, I have the reputation of having an African stamp on my forehead.
So, wherever I have been working for the past 20 years or so, I have always dealt with issues related to Africa or development aid also in Brussels and also in Finland and indeed obviously during my stay in Kenya and Zambia.
Of course, it is a bigger advantage if you have experience from the region and we have gone through some historical moments previously. The 2002 elections in Kenya, they were a really big thing and we had two elections in Zambia during my tenure.
It has helped obviously but Zimbabwe is a very special country.
You cannot lump countries together and say they are all the same, not at all, Zimbabwe is very different.
TN: Explain that to us. Zimbabwe is a special country, what does that mean?
TO: Well, starting from the times of even the independence, which was reached only in 1980, and you had quite a traumatic history before that with the independence war, with Rhodesia, all the international issues around it, and you have had even more traumatic experiences post-independence and indeed for the past 20 years or so, troubled relationships with the international community and with the EU especially.
So, you come in a situation where there is a lot of history in the set up that you are entering and you have to be conscious about that.
There is a lot of, I am afraid to say, but also antagonism, and also vis-à-vis in what I would call misunderstandings that I hadn’t experienced previously in my career.
TN: Who is responsible for this misunderstanding? Is it the West or is it the Zimbabweans?
TO: Well, I would say it is partly deliberate.
TN: From which side?
TO: From the side of the people that have vested interests in keeping the system as it is at the moment.
I think it comes from their fuelling misconceptions about what the West or EU wants from Zimbabwe.
They will talk about neo-colonialism, wanting Zimbabwe to fail, issues around accusing me also personally, about racism, which I find completely unacceptable, are some of the issues.
They are vocal on social media, which off course is a very difficult environment to control but it is also a product of our tense relations in our history.
For example the whole debate about “sanctions” is a major part of that debate and how that is perceived.
TN: We will get to sanctions later on. I read in between the lines that for you the low moments have been the August shootings and the handling of the January protests. Have there been any highlights, memorable positive events that have struck you?
TO: I think there have been moments of achievement.
I think that when we had the relaunch of formal political dialogue with Zimbabwe and I think the first discussions went very well.
Recently, early October, we had the launch of the broadening of the free trade agreement to cover other areas such as services, competition, procurement and so forth.
That was a positive but I cannot take much credit for that because we had our trade specialists working on that. I think it was a very positive event. So yes, there are some uplifting moments as well.
TN: It’s good to hear. You have been very outspoken on the need for political reforms. Do you want to unpack for us your frustrations and whether you think you have made any progress in your call for political reforms?
TO: The progress has been slower than what we would have wanted or expected.
If you read the Transitional Stabilisation Programme, it is basically saying about re-alignment, in bringing the laws in tune with the constitution, and that process should have been done within 12 months and now that period has run past and we haven’t seen very many finished products in terms of new legislation.
Partly, we have particular interest because the EU is financially supporting that progress.
TN: So, you are funding the alignment of the laws to the constitution?
TO: We are funding technical assistance to the Attorney General’s Office and to the Ministry of Justice and it is to the tune of US$2 million.
TN: What is your biggest frustration there?
TO: I would say that the overall process itself has been frustrating but it is also the fact that there is some totemic pieces of legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act that you know many people were regarding somehow as symbolic.
For us they are not a specific trigger as such but I know that many people were focusing on those and we still haven’t seen those.
TN: What is a trigger for you?
TO: We do not have a trigger as such for anything specific.
I know that there are some expectations from the government side of what they are hoping that the EU, our member states and the international community in general would do but what we particularly want to see is that the government’s own reform programme, that the government itself has committed itself to do.
And there hasn’t been a lot of traction, not enough traction.
TN: So it is basically what the government has promised to do that they are not doing, which is frustrating.
TO: In a nutshell yes. We would see Zimbabwe moving forward with a faster speed if it will tackle political reforms and indeed structural economic reforms, but in addition we have these human rights issues that have come up especially since January.
TN: Let’s go a bit backwards and look at the Zimbabwe-EU relationship, which is predicated on the ACP-EU partnership agreement, the Cotonou Agreement. What are the main pillars of that partnership?
TO: Well that partnership is, first of all there is political cooperation, which is then enshrined in the political dialogue particularly, but involves other areas.
So, it is about dialogue, about human rights, democratisation and about good governance.
There is a financial pillar, which is particularly related to development cooperation but increasingly on also private sector support instruments and then what used to be very important under the Cotonou pillar was the trade cooperation that has then been completely renewed because of the World Trade Organisation requirements and like I said we now have a free trade agreement that is separate from the Cotonou set up but kind of like a follow up to what we had in the Cotonou Agreement.
TN: What would you say are the main benefits of being part of that relationship?
TO: Well it’s an international relationship and we have 79 African Caribbean Pacific states, then we have 28 EU member states and EU institutions.
It has proven to be a very important tool to foster a mutual understanding, to provide a forum where you discuss very pertinent issues within the national context through the national political dialogue we have had bilaterally with these African countries and then together in the global fora where issues like climate change have been discussed.
Very often people have really been concentrating on the financial side, on the development cooperation and I think it is a bit unfair, it has a bit much more to it.
TN: Let’s move on to February 2002, which I think is an important date because that represented the fracture of the relationship between Zimbabwe and the EU when the Council for the European Union decided that Zimbabwe had breached human rights issues, , freedom of opinion, association and assembly and came up with these restrictive measures. Unpack to us what those restrictive measures were all about.
TO: The restrictive measures consisted of basically three elements.
There was an arms embargo, there still is an arms embargo, basically a prohibition for European countries to export armaments to Zimbabwe and then there were restrictive measures on a number of individuals and entities, basically companies.
TN: Can I ask you to name the individuals and the entities?
TO: At the moment we have only two persons on the active lists of the restrictive measures, which are the former presidential couple, Robert Mugabe is still there and Grace Mugabe.
Then we have a suspended list and there we have three persons, army commander General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga and Lands minister Perence Shiri.
It means that, yes the list is still there but there is no active measures taken on them.
And then on the entity list we have the Zimbabwe Defence Industries.
There is a big reduction of what the list used to be earlier.
It is very restricted in its number.
So what it means for the individuals is that there is an asset freeze for their assets in Europe, in the European Union and a travel ban for them to travel into the EU.
For companies, there is a prohibition of EU companies to cooperate with the company.
TN: What are the prospects of the three individuals being removed from the suspended list or the list being increased?
TO: I cannot predict that because that is a decision that is taken within the Council of the European Union unanimously by the European Union member states, but clearly what is of interest to the EU and the member states is what is happening on the ground, particularly because the human rights situation was at the origin of the restrictive measures.
So, clearly it is the human rights situation, which is elementary when we are looking at what is going to happen with the restrictive measures.
There is an annual review and so it is a decision that needs to be taken.
TN: I ask this seeing as the Americans have added (State Security minister) Owen Ncube to their list. Is that a cue for the EU to relook at your list, either to reduce or to increase?
TO: I really wouldn’t be able to comment because it is something that will go through its due process and will be decided then within this framework.
TN: You have what you call appropriate measures, which have been in effect and which were rather in effect from 2002 to 2014, again what does it mean, appropriate measures, what do they look like?
TO: Appropriate measures mean that, from the EU side we are not at liberty to cooperate with the government through the Ministry of Development Cooperation and so indeed we had these appropriate measures put in place and they were then discontinued in 2014 but what that meant was that our aid then was channelled without consulting or without working with the government.
Since 2014 we have what we call the national indicative programme, which agreed with the government and so this is basically it in a nutshell.
TN: How do you characterise the relationship between the EU and Zimbabwe, to say is it a normal relationship, near normal relationship, you are estranged, how would you characterise the relationship?
TO: It’s hard to put it in one word. On one hand we had very positive movements on certain parts of our relationship such as in our trade agreements and arrangements.
Like I said earlier that we have quite a substantial aid programme in Zimbabwe, occasionally in the implementation of the programme we might not always see eye to eye and we might need to iron out some of the differences in implementing, but overall that has been proceeding quite well.
On the political side we have to admit that there are tensions.
We have heard about the campaign on sanctions and their removal and we indeed have been stressing the fact that these are, especially in their current state so limited, that they don’t have an economic influence on the country but we hear claims, all kind of claims also in the public media about our hidden motives, which is something we need to tackle and try to clarify our point and where we are coming from.
I have to say that we really have a good working relationship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and indeed the Zimbabwean embassy in Brussels has a good working relationship with our headquarters.
So it is very difficult to answer your question in one word.
TN: Why do you think you have very good relations with Foreign Affairs and not anybody else?
TO: You mean other authorities? I wasn’t saying that. As a diplomatic mission it is a given that the Foreign Affairs ministry is our first port of call.
We have cooperation with other ministries, particularly in the areas where we are working in development cooperation like Lands and Agriculture, Justice, Health and Child Care and also other interlocutors.
We have cooperation with the National Prosecuting Authority, we have had great discussions with the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission for example.
So, if you want to test the temperature of where we are, EU-Zimbabwe, then you know our practical arrangement with Foreign Affairs is actually important.
TN: Confirm to me that you do not have any trade sanctions against Zimbabwe.
TO: We don’t.
TN: Then is it a matter of principle that you haven’t imposed sanctions. I ask that question because of the disjuncture between your very loud position that you have taken vis-à-vis the American sanctions against Zimbabwe and if you juxtapose that to the fact that you do not have trade sanctions against Zimbabwe, one begins to wonder what is causing your very strong position on American sanctions when you as EU do not have trade sanctions against Zimbabwe. Are you hiding behind the Americans?
TO: No, no, no. Our strong position and why we have also been coming out in the public about these so-called sanctions is that we, just as the Americans, we are also framed as responsible for the economic situation that Zimbabwe finds itself in, and even the humanitarian situation and that was unacceptable because we haven’t seen any proof of that and that is why we needed to go out in public and go against that narrative, which we perceive as completely false.
It is not about our measures, but about years and years of mismanagement in the country and the corruption that has been undermining the economic performance of the country.
So why we went out in the open was to counter that narrative, which we saw was hurting our interests and could have been hurting our relationship with Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans if they would have thought that the EU is responsible for their problems, we would not be able to accept that.
TN: There was an impression that you, meaning the EU ambassadors had decided to gang up in a very organised manner against the Zimbabwean government and its call for the anti-sanctions march, is that an appropriate reading of what happened?
TO: No. It’s not.
TN: Is it coincidence?
TO: When we saw this, like Sadc coming up with these resolutions, which is also referring to economic issues and there was no differentiation about whose measures they were talking about, and then we saw this build up, television adverts ads, video clips billboards, cartoons and all those kind of things.
So, clearly we were wondering what was happening now and I have to say that at the headquarters people were raising their eyebrows, asking what this is about.
So, it was not a question of ganging up but clearly we all recognised that something was now cooking and something was now happening and if we let this go like this then people will have a completely wrong understanding about what our measures were about and I completely agree with how the US reacted to that.
They were even more in the limelight and I agree with my esteemed colleagues in this very programme.
TN: There is a school of thought that says sanctions are not hurting the majority of the people but the targeted individuals. There is a school of thought that says sanctions are hurting everybody, where do you stand?
TO: I haven’t seen any evidence to that effect explaining exactly how they would be hurting the ordinary people.
What I am hearing is that it is tarnishing Zimbabwe’s reputation.
I think there are other issues influencing Zimbabwe’s reputation.
I was once challenged by a Foreign Affairs ministry official, to say that Google up Zimbabwe and see if sanctions are the first to come up.
It was not the sanctions that came through but it was a story from the Zimbabwe Independent that day on the US$10 million that was claimed to have been stolen from the Chinese, that was the first thing, not EU restrictive measures.
So, yes I would contest that argument and I have also been saying in our discussions with the relevant people that please show us the mechanism.
It is also being said that it would be hurting investments, now I have heard it for myself from the European investors and I heard it from my European members as colleagues that European investors are not concerned about sanctions, they would be happy to come to Zimbabwe if the environment is conducive for them to come and operate.
Zimbabwe is losing a lot on investment, but not because of sanctions.
TN: Does that then say, from what you are saying, I am trying to read in between the lines that so sanctions are not having the desired results. So, why then do we have them if the biggest thing is corruption and not sanctions?
TO: Clearly sanctions are bugging someone as seen by the campaign for their removal and they have been, and this I heard from my predecessors as a way of us lifting up pertinent issues such a s human rights.
Now on sanctions not having a desired effect, well that’s a question you should ask the people at the entities that are on the list.
You know how they feel about it and if they have ever encountered issues, we have by the way had some legal challenges to the EU restrictive measures.
Then there is the arms embargo, but then that is influencing European exporters and it is not influencing Zimbabwe.
TN: We had the permanent secretary for Finance and Economic Development and he came up with clear negative impacts of sanctions on the financial sector, on banks, the loss of correspondence with other banks and the problem that Treasury has been having and the fact that the moment one says that there are sanctions over a country, it prejudices that country, what are your responses to that?
TO: Well on the financial transaction side and here I am entering into waters I do not know very well because they are not related to the EU restrictive measures, but I followed the discussion and indeed I have heard these claims.
Now the three words that I would use for this is transparency, transparency and transparency.
Zimbabwe was recently grey listed by the Financial Action Task Force in the listing of countries and that was preceded by a report on Zimbabwe in 2016 that there were some measures that were expected to be taken or were hoped to be taken in order to improve the financial transactions system and how it works but you know these measures did not bring Zimbabwe all the way and so the country was listed.
Along these there would be outside support coming under the auspices of this system that could help Zimbabwe to move forward.
And then there are questions of how the financial system works, the role of the central bank, how it is operating, some murky transactions and deals and these are having an influence.
So I understand why there is an issue of transparency.
Zimbabwe has been a dollarised economy and you were dependent on the dollar, so whatever happens in the dollar world and Zimbabwe has not been the only country to experience these.
Tight principles on all your customs and so forth, so I think that has been a problem that has been behind some of these stories we are hearing.
TN: So ambassador there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel and I say that because you have had what we call regular formal and informal dialogue with the government of Zimbabwe. Where are those conversations at the present moment? Are you making progress and where are you making progress?
TO: Like I said earlier, we had the first formal political dialogue with the Zimbabwean government for many years.
So, there is a good start and it’s an important forum from the point of view that the different European Union members’ ambassadors have their own regular contacts with the government.
We have our own but what is important is that we come together as the EU family to discuss pertinent issues with the government.
The Foreign Affairs ministry is our primary interlocutor but for June we had other line ministers that were also present.
I think the first meeting was a very good one as a starting point as we were a little bit on the learning again mode on how we should work and it is about building up that trust and as a group to discuss about pertinent issues including the difficult issues revolving around governance, democratisation and human rights.
So we were on the table, exchanged views and we also took notes out of it and so we are now looking into having a second round of discussions on what did we agree upon and what is going to happen after and we are expected to report from our own side.
TN: Where did you think you made progress?
TO: Like I said on the trade side, there is progress, on the political front and partly on the reform agenda side, there has been progress but not as much as we would have hoped for.
So, this is also an issue that we would want to discuss.
TN: But you are talking?
TO: Yes we are. And this is a good thing because closing doors or shouting at each other is not a solution because you have to keep talking.
You have to foster mutual understanding for instance. That is a way of coming closer to each other and so basically it’s a very important forum from that perspective.
TN: Tell me, are you convinced about government’s commitment to re-engagement?
TO: We trust the policy that was put forward a year ago and before the campaign (against sanctions) and so we really want to see progress happen.
Something has been holding progress in a number of areas and that is one of the things we want to discuss with the government on what is causing the hold-back, what can be done about it and like I said we have been providing financial support to a number of areas such as constitutional alignment, access to justice, public financial management also.
So, there has been good policy orientation and promises. The president has had a number of speeches that have gone strongly against corruption, about countering theculture of fear and intimidation, all these things which are very promising but we also want to see concrete results on the ground.
TN: You also have structured conversations with civil society but before we go further, explain to us what the progress has been like with the structured conversation with the civil society.
TO: With the civil society we have financial cooperation. We are partners in development cooperation and indeed we have periodic meetings with them where we discuss about our cooperation, on how they are delivering against the targets that have been set and also we are exchanging views about where we are in terms of how the country is moving ahead and we have heard some concerning news in terms of operating space and democratisation.
It is not restricted to civil society alone but some people are concerned even about their own safety and those are quite worrying signs, which are also issues that we definitely want to discuss with the government.
TN: Does these conversations involve the opposition for instance?
TO: With the opposition we have our own discussions and that’s clear that that is something that diplomatic missions do.
I have been attacked personally that I had been engaging with the opposition but that is clearly something that we have been quite open about.
We discuss with the government that as diplomatic missions we are involved with various stakeholders.
So, we very much hear from the opposition and that is quite important to have a balanced view of what the country is really like.
TN: So from what you have been saying there is a number of areas that you are unhappy with as far as government is concerned, are there areas where you are unhappy as far as the opposition is concerned?
TO: The government has the primary responsibility because they have the budget, they have control of the security forces and they are the ones elected and are supposed to deliver so I would not put the government and opposition at par.
TN: No you cannot but is there nothing that they have done that deserves your scrutiny?
TO: I had been very much, not only me but also my colleagues, encouraged the opposition and the government also to have a constructive approach to the issues concerning Zimbabwe and issues based around orientation and clearly renounce violence as a way of trying to achieve anything.
So, these are messages we pass on to the opposition.