Britain helped force Mugabe out, but still sees his shadow

Story Highlights
  • The support Britain was ready to offer to the Mnangagwa administration is a reminder that it was a gift to a leopard that could not change its spots. President Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s protégé for over five decades and his chief enforcer.

By Gibson Nyikadzino

AS Britain subtly endorsed Zimbabwe’s November 2017 coup that had Chinese footprints, the African country’s former coloniser anticipated a fresh turn to the London-Harare interactions.

Relations between the two countries deteriorated during Robert Mugabe’s 37 year tenure. Mugabe incensed the British when he moved into white owned farms and redistributed land to the landless blacks, belittled human rights, administered a corrupt ring of oligarchs and quashed opposition politics.

In 2003, the late Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth of Nations, protesting what he termed: “British interference in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs.”

The 2017 coup that deposed Mugabe was meant to wash away his footprints and cleanse the nation of his “dictatorial” legacy. Then British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing sent diplomatic signals that favoured Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, when she appeared at Number 10 Downing Street wearing the latter’s trademark Zimbabwean scarf.

Mnangagwa, 78 and nicknamed “crocodile” because of his patience and political astuteness, played to the British and world gallery as a reformist. The “Crocodile” noted Zimbabwe would quickly be in the “family of nations and the Commonwealth” soon since the country “has lost twenty years of development.”

Political, electoral and economic reforms remained part of his rhetoric and appeasement policy for “legitimacy” and acceptance.

A day before Mnangagwa’s inauguration on 24 November 2017, on his arrival in Harare, then British Minister of Africa Rory Stewart said: “This is an absolutely critical moment in Zimbabwe’s history. Zimbabweans suffered for too long as a result of Mugabe’s ruinous rule. The events of the last few days have given people here real hope that Zimbabwe can be set on a different, more democratic and more prosperous path.”

As a gesture of normalcy, then British Foreign Affairs secretary Boris Johnson in April 2018 hosted his Zimbabwean counterpart and said his country wanted Zimbabwe’s re-entry into the Commonwealth. This was the first step signaling the reinstatement of relations between the two states.

“While Zimbabwe has made impressive progress, there’s still much to do,” Johnson said. “We must remember democracies are not made in a day.”

President Mnangagwa quickly coined the “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra which today comes as both a curse and blessing. It has become a curse because foreign investors continue to adopt a wait and see approach for significant economic reforms to warrant investment protection. As a blessing, key business opportunities have only been accessed by an extractive elite, cartels and oligarchs, not cascading to the ordinary citizen.

Opposition politicians confess that the post-November 2017 administration in Zimbabwe has vindicated Mugabe’s 37-year-reign in power. “What Mnangagwa has done to the opposition politicians, pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists since 2017 projects Mugabe as a kindergarten. He has closed all avenues to democracy and the country has been moved towards a military state,” Job Sikhala says.

Mugabe’s departure changed little or none. In August 2018, Mnangagwa’s Presidential Guard forces shot and killed six unarmed civilians. Five months later, another 17 were shot and killed by “members of the security forces and no one was brought to account.”

The President has continued the Mugabe legacy by administering over a country where his close associates effectively have reigns to plunder the nation’s resources without remorse for posterity and with impunity. His associates continue to be burdened with allegations of corruption, gold smuggling and influencing awarding of government tenders, allegations they cannot untag.

When Britain and its allies lecture President Mnangagwa about the importance of good governance practices, transparency, institutional reforms and opening democratic space, he swats them away and plays the sovereignty and non-interference cards, just like his predecessor Mugabe.

The Harare administration has entrenched the DNA of the Mugabe administration by clamping on opposition politicians, leniency on criminals and slow to act on delivering justice.

Though little has been done, the lack of wholesale reforms is hindering the few of what is left for President Mnangagwa to salvage his reputation as a genuine or pseudo reformist. Once likened as the Deng Xiaoping of Zimbabwe, the expectations Britain carried remain elusive.

The support Britain was ready to offer to the Mnangagwa administration is a reminder that it was a gift to a leopard that could not change its spots. President Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s protégé for over five decades and his chief enforcer.

For Britain to have seen Zimbabwe’s salvation in Mnangagwa’s presidency was too quick a belief as they quickly have lost faith. British anticipation was to quickly deal with President Mnangagwa as a case to handhold, direct and give instructions. It is now a case of a “pet that can no longer be tamed by the master.”

Britain is empirically showing how two-faced it is when dealing with Zimbabwe. As it stands, it played in the hands of the “crocodile” that drew a checkmate, and exposed the Royal Crown.

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