The clearest image yet of the failure of United States’ policy towards Zimbabwe was on display last week when President Emmerson Mnangagwa toured the site of his country’s new parliament building, funded by the Chinese government and being built by a Chinese contractor.
Scheduled for completion by March 2021, this $140 million building at Mount Hampdennear Harare will stand six stories tall as the largest building in Africa funded by China. It will soon be the seat of Zimbabwe’s democracy as the country ends its decades of isolation. But rather than western democracies coming forward to support Zimbabwe in this transition, it is China which has filled the gap.
“We cannot tire in repeating our sincere and deep gratitude to China for the magnificent gesture…we are grateful,” President Mnangagwa said as he toured the site.
According to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, China extended loans worth $2.2 billion to Zimbabwe during 2000-2017.Recent loans have been awarded for the upgrade of Harare’s airport as well as construction of the Hwange 7 and 8 power plant project.
The West, on the other hand, has stuck to sanctions as its foreign policy tool. These were first imposed on Zimbabwe in the early 2000s by the U.S. and European Union in response to the alleged crackdown on political opponents by former president Robert Mugabe. This included financial and travel restrictions against specific individuals and companies.
Many of these measures are still in place today despite Mugabe’s resignation in 2017 and Mnangagwa’s election last year. The EU, however, has begun to normalise its relations with Zimbabwe, with only a few sanctions remaining. The start of political talks in June was perceived as a positive sign towards abandoning all EU sanctions in the near future.
An EU memo ahead of talks in Harare last week, noted that Zimbabwe has made progress by not enforcing its empowerment law, which would have required all foreign investors to cede at least 51% of their shares in local operations to Zimbabweans.
The memo also said the government’s interim compensation of white farmers whose land was seized under Mugabe was a positive gesture towards re-opening export markets in the EU. In a budget statement last week, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube set aside $24 million to compensate white farmers, 768 of whom had consented to the interim compensation scheme.
The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained wide-ranging sanctions, at least until March 2020. Officials in Washington claim this is due to Zimbabwe’s failure to change laws curbing protests and media freedoms – a strange assessment since Mnangagwa’s government is currently modernising 30 Mugabe-era laws to meet Western standards. A controversial emergency law has already been replaced, and media laws are being replaced with new legislations currently in Parliament.
Following decades of open hostility with Zimbabwe, the West is now jeopardising the opportunity to work constructively with the Mnangagwa government. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe had actively pursued Chinese investment under his ‘Look East’ policy. But after Mugabe resigned, Mnangagwa said restoring ties with the West and western financial institutions was one of his major priorities.
That was the moment when the U.S could have helped turn Zimbabwe around, bringing in international investment and technical knowhow. But the U.S. instead chose to extend its sanctions, leaving Zimbabwe’s economy reeling from high inflation and power shortages, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Despite signals of keeping the door open, the Mnangagwa government is slowly but surely being forced to turn back to the arms of a willing China.
Guo Shaochun, the Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe, summed up the West’s short-sighted approach.“No country is perfect. No country knows Zimbabwe better than Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe doesn’t need other countries to teach it to do this or not to do that. Zimbabwe needs real partners and real help without any political conditions. Zimbabwe has the wisdom & ability to address its own issues,” Guo tweeted on November 16.
At the site of Zimbabwe’s new parliament, President Mnangagw aexpressed his frustration last week, saying Western countries had done “nothing except criticise” Zimbabwe.
“Those countries who speak against our relations with our good friends have done nothing except to impose sanctions on us,” the president pointed out.
The situation is not yet completely lost, however. If the U.S. were to reach out to Zimbabwe and acknowledge the painful reforms undertaken by Mnangagwa, it could still turn this southern African country towards the West.
The U.S. should also immediately allow Zimbabwe access to international lending agencies and provide technical expertise that is urgently needed, and, above all, eliminate sanctions when these come up for renewal in March.
Winning the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans – the most educated population in Africa – will take more than the ‘stick’ approach that has been tried so far; a ‘carrot’ will do the work much better. If the West doesn’t grab this opportunity, then it should not be surprised when China steps in to reap the benefits.