The West suspicious of Mnangagwa

In recent years, President Emmerson Mnangagwa seem to have discovered that Britain and the West are good.

For example, when newly-appointed as vice-president in 2013, Mnangagwa was not ashamed to demonstrate his new obsession: “We cannot do without the West,” was his early mantra. And, since replacing former president Robert Mugabe via the November 2017 coup, his obsession has deepened. These days he is deploying a catchy phrase to please any white man who happens show interest: “Zimbabwe is Open for Business.”

For a man notorious for being secretive, discerning the President’s motives has not been easy. What I call the “ED school of thought” contends that pivoting towards the West is part of the new administration’s attempts to encourage foreign direct investment. To achieve this, according to this argument, Mnangagwa’s strategy is to move his government’s foreign policy position from that of an extreme uncompromising hostility that characterised his predecessor, to the other extreme: exuberant friendliness towards the West. Business, rather than emphasis on ideological differences with London, Brussels and Washington, is to be the centre-stage of Mnangagwa’s international relations.

A speculation that I find more educated upon the promptings for improved relations with the West is that the president must have seen errors in his predecessor’s ways.

In other words, when he was in Mugabe’s cabinet, he learnt that rulership with a lot of noise from London and Washington was unpleasant. Thus, the logic is that improving relations with the West is likely to gain his administration some legitimacy or, in the event of the 2018 election deemed unsatisfactory, perhaps earn the international community’s silence.

Blundering along

Supposedly, to win the hearts of the West, one of the strategies that Mnangagwa’s team appear to have chosen from a range of diplomatic armamentarium that is available to them, has been an aggressive selling, to the international media – both television and print – of the president’s person as an open-minded reformist champion who was being held by Mugabe. His performance at Davos, and his interview with The Economist, deserve special attention.

At this year’s World Economic Forum – an annual gathering of mostly Western global elites, in Switzerland’s resort town of Davos, the president’s team of state bureaucrats and hired part time non-state aides successfully lobbied for a live interview before a live audience and television.

His aides chose to portray him as a versatile Bill Clinton or Tony Blair type of a leader, which sounds sensible since men and women who frequent Davos tend to gravitate towards those who are like these two – exquisite in mannerisms, suave in style and witty. But, despite some gruelling homework – clearly evidenced by rehearsed responses – the live interview gambit was a disaster. Instead of his story and that of Zimbabwe, what turned out to be the main highlight was the president’s reaction when Zimbabwe’s ultimate post-colonial crime, Gukurahundi, was brought up. Visibly distressed, the president attempted to handle BBC’s Mishal Husain’s insistence on discussing the atrocities by being angry at the reporter, a very awkward and embarrassing moment for the nation. Even those who are impervious to liking him, could not escape a piercing pang of pity for the president.

Through this microscopic encounter with Husain, what the president advertised to Davos elite and the world was not the idea of him as a business-like stateman, but several unattractive things that will an investor think twice: first, that any talk of Gukurahundi can spoil his day, which probably explains his mantras on this matter, “let bygones be bygones” or “we cannot live in the past”; second, that he is easily incited to anger. Probably guilty anger?

Psychologists tell us that a man saddled with guilt cannot, with tranquillity, talk about something he is accused of for he is the only one who knows the truth about what others suspect of; third, not only is he easily incited to rage, but he is capable of intimidation – which he misguidedly attempted against an international reporter in full view of the world – anger and intimidation, his aides should have warned him, is a currency that a military backed ruler can only use against minions ZBC, or The Herald. And last, he is not and cannot be a Clinton or Blair type. The Davos elite must have concluded that, naturally, Mnangagwa struggles with qualities needed to schmooze with them. Following such a suppurating performance, his team had to scramble for another interview. This time, having discovered that the president is not quick on his feet when confronted with aggressive questions, they organised a pre-recorded interview with print media, The Economist.

But, again, Mnangagwa’s aha moment failed to materialise. Rather, the interview documented a man whose struggling with telling the truth seemed innate.

Or maybe, he was doing what leaders do. Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian scribe tells us that people who are humourless rarely make it to leadership positions. Thus, if we follow Nabokov’s logic, besides the military’s aid, it could be that Mnangagwa is President because he is not deficient when it comes to humour; in the run-up to the second round of the presidential elections in 2008, there was political violence aired on the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera, among several media channels. This evidence must have been at the journalist’s mind when he posed a question about these regrettable events.

One struggles to understand why the President was being evasive with the truth, for even the dullest soul can attest to 2008 violence. I guess, here, only Nabokov’s logic makes sense; Mnangagwa was attempting at being amusing. “It was fair, very fair (2008 election). Where is the evidence for the violence? Not a single case was taken to the police,” the President must have thought he was being at his best.

But, it was the title of The Economist’s article; “open for business, closed for remorse,” which tells us that Britain’s foremost establishment paper did not find the President’s utterances amusing. Indeed, the piece went on to query the value Mnangagwa places on honesty regarding his past, the upcoming elections and his promises to investors. In other words, The Economist’s piece should be read as a devastating verdict on the President’s nascent foreign policy enterprise.

West’s attitude

One cannot get a better understanding of the British establishment’s thoughts on Mnangagwa other than from Tom, a fellow alumnus of St Anne’s College in the United Kingdom. Tom is typical of the global men that one finds at WEF. He is aristocratic, is very wealthy (the family runs a centuries old London and Zurich based private bank, exclusively for the elite. They also have extensive prime real estate across major capitals). Because of such background, naturally, Tom is connected to Britain’s economic and political establishment. Tom has an insatiable interest in Zimbabwe’s organic tobacco. I guess, he and his kind are the type of Westerners that Mnangagwa’s “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra is aimed at.

It did happen that last week, casually, we chatted about Zimbabwe’s politics. Unavoidably, our discussion strayed into Mnangagwa’s interview with The Economist.

“What a lying bore!”

I was a little uncomfortable with his uncouth language and contemptuousness of his barking laughter. Indeed, though I differ with Mnangagwa’s worldview, he is still the President of my beloved country. And, because I cannot escape that he is Zimbabwe’s President, I have my own way of dealing with it. I call it ironic acceptance: maintaining my sense of agency by keeping humour about him to the maximum.

“It’s perfectly wrong to waste perfect jokes like the ones in The Economist interview,” was Tom condescendingly sanitising Mnangagwa’s denial using Nabokov’s logic?

“There are a number of changes that have happened.” I played the devil’s advocate. I went on to list Mnangagwa’s claims to be his achievements in the first 100 days as President. But, Tom’s laughter returned. This time with a vengeance. “I find it difficult to believe that an ancestor from Mugabe’s regime can actually reform. He (Mnangagwa) is constitutionally incapable of any reform whatsoever.”

It appeared that there was nothing I could say in support of the President in order bring Tom to expel, from his mind, the thinking that Mnangagwa was an unchanged man.

To him Mnangagwa’s utterances in The Economist are not an anomalous activity, but a connected strand of which an old cloth about other bad Zanu-PF activities could be woven; baroque corruption, liberticide and rigging of elections.

I cannot think of any of my Westerner friends who have ridiculed the President’s efforts more than my English friend. However, Tom maintains that it is an established thinking in London, and probably in most Western capitals that Mnangagwa will not reform. He explained further that though paradoxically the British’s political elites, and other global leaders alike, are superficially devoted to a post-Mugabe regime, the reality is that they are full of contempt and resentment for what they see as Mnangagwa’s pretentious attempts at reforms.

‘There is also something anachronistic about his sort of lying in 2023. Such lying made sense in the 1950s and 1960s diplomatic world. Which world has he been living?” rhetorically asked Max, a former work mate and colleague who is now a director at leading political consulting firm in London.

“In Kwekwe with ‘Mudha’! We were both forced into barks of mirth when I explained to him a little background about Mudha, or Owen Ncube, the gangsterish Midlands Province’s new resident minister.

“That’s why he is hardboiled,” he tried make further sense of why Mnangagwa would appoint such a person to his cabinet. According to his theory, pervasive in his appointments was a sense of that awful trap by loyalty – for example, Mudha’s appointments -, by old Zanu-PF elites’ interests and by the military that gave him power. All this, according to Max, made it nearly impossible for him to make any meaningful reforms.

Max also told me that while it might have been the norm sixty or seventy years ago, such recklessness has little place in 2018.

“Investors and political elites don’t need to be told by Mnangagwa that there was no violence in 2008,” he continued “or that soldiers will not be part of 2018 electioneering process. Today they make decisions (on investments) based on intelligence reports . . . And, there are hundreds of due diligence and political consultancy firms in Washington and London that can, at the press of a button, provide them with thousands and thousands of pages of information on the finest details of what happened during 2008 elections, profiles of his cabinet members, the exact state of his health, or his precise role in the coup. Political consulting and due diligence firms, are like the CIA. The only difference is that they are independent and more effective,” he laughed.

“And Zanu-PF will rule forever?” Max had just commissioned a local Zimbabwean student to interpret a Youtube of Mnangagwa’s speech at last week’s sparsely attended rally in Kariba. In other words, investors and political elites in the West have, at their fingertips Mnangagwa’s minutest local, and even international business and political activities, which are worlds apart from his “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra.

Waste of time?

The soon to be departing British ambassador, Catriona Laing might have been all in, endorsing Mnangagwa.

Downing Street’s illusionary friendly foreign policy position, which is the child of her activist agenda, is very much at odds with much of Britain’s political establishment (both government and opposition parties). Once she is gone, a dynamic less characterised by unstinting support of Mnangagwa will take shape as those anti- Mnangagwa political elites assert themselves, especially if the election 2018 election is rigged.

In other words, instead of getting too excited about the West’s chorus of diplomatic applauding and visits, Mnangagwa should understand that these symbolic manoeuvres usually characterise the West’s gestures towards any new regime that talks of reform. As my all-time favourite English Playwright Alan Bennet warns, diplomats might smile, but Mnangagwa’s administration should look beyond those smiles.

“The British’s greatest gift is that they are adept at saying one thing, and then doing the other,” Bennet quips.

What he is simply saying is that sometimes when the English say I love you, what they actually might mean is that they don’t!

Tinhu is a political analyst based in Harare.

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