HARARE - The West and Zimbabwe have begun to re-engage on knotty issues ranging from diplomatic frictions to targeted sanctions on President Robert Mugabe’s regime following a 13-year-long hiatus.
Representatives from all three parties of the Government of National Unity (GNU) — Patrick Chinamasa of Mugabe’s Zanu PF, Elton Mangoma of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, and Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga of Welshman Ncube’s MDC — met late last month with a top level delegation representing 22 Western countries in the first high-level exchange between the sides in over a decade.
The ministerial visit marks the start of a series of meetings that will test the potential for cooperation between the world’s first and largest economies and Zimbabwe.
Although the relationship is coloured by mutual suspicion, the two sides now discuss an ever-broadening agenda, from development cooperation to food safety.
And their relatively swift resolution of a potentially crippling crisis over a range of sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his cronies in the wake of a credible March 16 referendum seemed to take the relationship to a more stable level.
Analysts say Western-Zimbabwean relations are entering a much more mature zone than they were before, but the atmosphere is still strained.
Last week’s meeting between Zimbabwe and Western countries came amid great misgivings in Harare over the West’s renewed focus on the resource-rich southern African country and increasing Western concerns over China’s rising foothold on Zimbabwe’s lucrative extractive sector, business watchers say.
However, both sides have stressed the importance of the renewed ties.
In his opening remarks at the London meeting held at Chatham House, Mark Simmonds, the United Kingdom minister for Africa, emphasised the seriousness with which his government was treating these meetings.
He underscored the need to move Zimbabwe forward, acknowledged both the good and the bad in the Zimbabwe-British history, but more importantly he warned those who would seek to use the occasion to further their own parochial interests.
While the two MDC representatives were seeking appeasement and propitiation, Zanu PF was combative.
“The Zanu PF position is that friends do not impose sanctions against each other,” Chinamasa told the meeting.
On the sidelines of the official meetings, Chinamasa met several Zimbabweans based in Britain, and also set up a campaign branch in London.
Back home, Zanu PF spin-doctors claimed victory for the invitation extended to Chinamasa by the so-called “Friends of Zimbabwe” after 13 years of travel bans at the invitation of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Patrick (Chinamasa) was the cynosure, the focus of all British attention, including the hosts,” wrote Nathaniel Manheru, a shadowy columnist in the State media.
London-based political analyst Clifford Mashiri said despite travelling to London as a single supposedly united Zimbabwe GNU delegation, “the unprecedented move by Chinamasa of issuing an arbitrary counter communiqué that does not represent the three parties to the talks vindicated widely-held beliefs of Zanu PF dominance and tendency to dictate every step amid accusations of operating a parallel regime.”
The Western countries said in the communiqué that they attached “great importance” to ties with Zimbabwe and looked forward to more fruitful cooperation.
The two sides have “some differences” but said they have enormous shared interests and should handle this relationship from a strategic and long-term perspective.
At the London meeting, Western countries asked to observe the forthcoming polls.
“A wide range of international observers would contribute to building confidence and help enhance the credibility of the poll and the strength of the government elected,” the communiqué said.
The Zimbabwean government rejected the request saying all countries that still maintain sanctions on the country cannot impartially observe the polls.
The London visit marks the highest-level of interaction between the sides and it is hoped the ongoing talks would lead to the normalisation of relations between Zimbabwe and former Western allies.
The Zimbabwe re-engagement team has been pressing for a complete removal of sanctions to level the playing field and enhance the prospects for full implementation of the Global Political Agreement.
Relations are expected to weather a potential storm with Zanu PF frantically trying to be seen as strong nationalists willing to defend what it considers Zimbabwe’s core interests whatever the cost to the country’s overseas reputation.
Engagement with Washington specifically is also dogged by skepticism over America’s new security sector re-alignment focus that has fuelled fears of encirclement, as well as the ages-old ideological battles over human rights and democracy.
In an interview on BBC’s Hard TALK last week, Chinamasa expressed exasperation at talks held between Tsvangirai and Nato commander-general Wesley Clark last year.
Tsvangirai, who poses the stiffest challenge to Mugabe’s 33-year rule, met with the Nato chief in Vienna on the sidelines of the Centre for Global Dialogue and Cooperation amid escalating fears in Zanu PF that Nato may try to target the regime if it attempts to subvert the will of the people in the forthcoming crucial vote as planned by Zimbabwe generals.
“Tsvangirai has been gallivanting in Europe holding meetings with Nato generals without informing his colleagues in the coalition government. What military subjects he is raising with them … that creates the impression that he is part of the agenda to effect regime change and, therefore, it creates difficulties,” Chinamasa said.
“He (Tsvangirai) even excludes our embassy staff from these meetings … that raises suspicion, surely.”
Diplomats say if Mugabe loses and the generals refuse to accept the outcome, Western countries might recognise the winners as the sole representative of the Zimbabwean people in a move that would symbolically isolate the Mugabe’s regime.
If such a step is taken, it would mimic the diplomatic initiatives recently utilised to isolate Muammar Gadhafi’s regime before the Nato campaign in Libya.
The United States assistant secretary for African affairs Johnnie Carson has already emphasised the need to de-link State institutions from Zanu PF if Zimbabwe’s stabilisation efforts are to be fully realised, and warned Zimbabwe’s security establishment to respect the will of the people in upcoming presidential elections.
Carson offered in a March 21, 2013 letter to Vice President Joice Mujuru and Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi to mobilise financial support for the forthcoming elections if Americans are allowed to observe the polls.
But Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba has rebuffed the overtures saying the “Americans have taken a partisan position on Zimbabwean politics.”
Western countries and Harare have fundamental differences over human rights, the level of responsibility in trying to end the conflict in Zimbabwe and holding of free and fair polls.
But both sides will probably allow those fundamental differences to go unresolved for now. - Gift Phiri, Political Editor