the big interview:BY BLESSED MHLANGA
The European Union has been a strong critic of the Zimbabwean government, demanding that the President Emmerson Mnangagwa-led government should stamp out corruption and implement meaningful electoral, economic and political reforms. Our senior reporter Blessed Mhlanga (BM) had a wide-ranging interview with the head of the EU Delegation in Zimbabwe, Ambassador Timo Olkkonen (TO), and discussed the humanitarian crisis, corruption and reforms in the country.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
BM: You have announced an additional aid package to Zimbabwe of US$18,7 million, what do you think anchors this crisis in Zimbabwe?
TO: Obviously there is this link to the climate change phenomena and the drought that has been induced in southern Africa. But it has been shown also very clearly in the report by the UN rapporteur on the right to food that the situation that makes food insecurity such a grave issue in Zimbabwe is the mismanagement of the agricultural sector in the recent years. Large areas are lying fallow. There is not much investment coming into farming and this is related to the issues around governance and how the agricultural sector is performing; for example, the subsidy system in command agriculture which has caused a lot of problems. We have read issues about command agriculture and the mismanagement around it and these are compounding issues around it. We also have the current economic crisis which is also linked to previous mismanagement. Issues around inflation, the currency and lack of foreign currency and all of these issues are compounding the current crisis around the food crisis in Zimbabwe.
BM: There has been concern of politicisation of food aid, how are you going to deal with this as you disburse the food aid?
TO: Indeed this is an issue I know from the history of Zimbabwe. You have had cases of this, you read about this also, you see it coming up in the news. It’s an issue that we raised also in our discussion with the minister of local government that this is of concern and it would be quite serious if there will be proof of misuse of humanitarian aid. It’s also an issue that we raised in our political dialogue with the government. So my thinking is the government is well aware about our position of concerns that they could potentially be politicisation of humanitarian aid. This is also an issue that we raised with our implementing partners, to be vigilant about so that this kind of misuse of aid won’t take place.
BM: The former US ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry Thomas Jr, said humanitarian aid providers were worried about elements of corruption in Zimbabwe, especially over pricing of goods. Do you share this concern?
TO: Yes, we hear stories about importations at inflated prices which will obviously be very bad use of government resources. Of course, if this will be actually happening and we have evidence of, then that would be a cause of concern. Of course, bad deals can be made, but it’s quite important particularly for us that our humanitarian aid is used properly. We do expect that government will be using their own resources prudently because this will also aid confidence to the humanitarian and development community who also work together with Zimbabwe.
BM: Vice-President Kembo Mohadi said the Zimbabwean government is on top of the situation and will be able to feed its people. In your assessment, would that be a correct statement?
TO: This was an issue we also discussed with Honourable July Moyo yesterday. We were exchanging views and exchanging notes on how we perceive this situation. We are concerned about the effect of the economic crisis and how it influences the capability of Zimbabwe to respond to the situation. That’s why we are also there to perhaps come and help support with our humanitarian aid.
BM: I know recently you were in Mbire, where you have humanitarian work going on there, can you paint the current picture for us?
TO: Well, Mbire was a very interesting trip. I think one of the main takeaways there was we heard from the district officers there who said that unfortunately the crop has to an extent at least, failed; that the rains came too late and that the harvest at least to an extent has to be written off, which was a bit of an issue of concern. What was uplifting on that trip was that we are seeing the beneficiaries and the response was overwhelmingly positive. In that area there is Care International and Save the Children and it was quite heart-warming to see the beneficiaries. But the longer sustainability of aid is an issue that we have to be thinking about. Clearly humanitarian aid needs to be a stop-gap life-saving measure, and it’s not designed to be there forever.
BM: Otherwise without that aid from the EU what would have been the situation in Mbire?
TO: Well, many people said that is the only thing that they have, especially those whose crops had failed and those that were not able to farm. The problem is for them to look for alternatives if farming fails. I think from what I hear, many people’s fate would be quite difficult.
BM: You mention the dialogue between the EU and Zimbabwe, what do you discuss in those meetings?
TO: We talk about human rights, the reform agenda, but also economic issues, cooperation, investment, trade opportunities.
BM: The relationship between EU and Zimbabwe, how is it given the counter allegations where the government of Zimbabwe accuse you of dabbling in politics and regime change while you accuse them of violating human rights and corruption?
TO: I haven’t heard that the government of Zimbabwe has been accusing us of regime change agendas. That will be quite a serious allegation. We hear it sometimes on social media. Those are misinformed allegations obviously. It will simply be something we will not be doing. Some people refer to our support to the NGO community and claim that its subversive, but obviously that is not the question. That is not the case. We are quite transparent. We are coordinating our efforts with the government and also the ministry of finance. So there is no basis at all for those allegations. We are quite clear also that the foreign ministry says that criticism is welcome, that’s part of our relations.
BM: The EU has been funding certain aspects of the fight against corruption, are you happy so far with the response?
TO: Well, we have had very strong commitments at the political level. President (Mnangagwa) himself and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission have had very strong announcements about combating corruption. We would like to see that translated more into action, and see more cases coming out. For example, you have many issues such as the auditor-general’s report and one would expect a follow-up to those to make sure that use of public resources will be improved in the future. We will soon have the international transparency index on corruption which will be published soon and will be quite interesting to see how Zimbabwe is faring on it.
BM: Will you be committed to continue funding these efforts if you do not see concrete results?
TO: Indeed like you said we are funding the anti-corruption campaign and that is part of our support to governance. Governance is one of the main sectors we have in cooperation with Zimbabwe. The other two are agriculture and health, now everything will be discussed this year when we are planning for our next multi-annual financial framework, which is starting from Tuesday 21. For next year onwards, we will need to replan what the EU aid will look like in Zimbabwe and the question of if and how we will continue to support governance will be discussed. Evidence of effective use of development cooperation will be one of those things we look for. So yes, we hope to see progress.
BM: You have been concerned about political and economic reforms in Zimbabwe?
TO: Well, we will be very much willing to see progress. I think the economic situation is a cause for concern and we have been calling for structural reforms in order to address the causes of this. I have just mentioned agriculture which is then linked to the humanitarian situation. With a vibrant agriculture Zimbabwe would have been able to respond to the situation much better. We passed the anniversary of the report of the Motlanthe Commission and we still very much hope to see follow-ups on that account, for example, electoral reforms and recommendations from various observer groups. So we hope to see momentum on those issues in 2020.
BM: Recently government came up with the Constitutional Amendment Bill. In your view, is it any move towards being progressive?
TO: Obviously it’s for Zimbabweans to decide for themselves and the legal measures of how to go about it and the question is that is this now a priority. There are other reforms that we were also looking at and a heavy legal agenda for the parliament so the question is where are the priorities.