Hot Seat: Why EU embraced Mnangagwa government

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European Union ambassador to Zimbabwe Philippe Van Damme

Synopsis: Since coming into power last November when the army forced former president Robert Mugabe to resign after it took over government, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has made it a priority to normalise Zimbabwe’s relations with the international community. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was isolated by Western countries because of alleged rampant human rights violations and electoral fraud. However, after Mugabe’s fall, a number of global superpowers have indicated their willingness to give Mnangagwa’s administration a chance. On the Hot Seat programme Journalist Violet Gonda spoke to European Union ambassador to Zimbabwe Philippe Van Damme on the bloc’s re-engagement strategy on Zimbabwe, land compensation and elections. What will be the EU position on Zimbabwe post Brexit?

Violet: What is the current EU position on Zimbabwe?
Ambassador Van Damme: Well, the current EU position on Zimbabwe is well known, the European Council issued a statement 22nd January, in which, we confirmed our willingness to engage the authorities in support of economic and political reforms and specifying that for full engagement with the International Community, one of the essential elements, critical steps in that re-engagement will be the need for peaceful, inclusive, credible and transparent elections.
Violet: Do you expect the EU will drop the financial and travel restrictions on the last two Zimbabweans who were on the list – Robert and Grace Mugabe?
Ambassador Van Damme: Well that unfortunately is something I can’t comment on, that’s the responsibility of the European Council, and they will take a decision on the restrictive on an annual basis –  in the next couple of weeks. So, we’ll wait for that decision.
Violet: But you can confirm that they are the last two on that list?


Ambassador Van Damme: Yes indeed, we only have the outgoing President Robert Mugabe and the outgoing First Lady, Grace Mugabe, and that’s all, in terms of individuals. We also still have an arms embargo and restrictive measures against Zimbabwe Defence Industries.
Violet: There was mixed reaction to those restrictions – post 2002. Looking back, did they do any good?


Ambassador Van Damme: As I have always said since my arrival here in Zimbabwe, I am not a historian. I leave it to the historians and the political commentators to discuss the impact of restrictive measures, whether here or in other countries.  In some countries, they have been more successful than in others because it also depends on the context; the sensitivity to international engagement by different people in different countries. So, it’s extremely difficult. With hindsight, it’s always easy to comment on things but when you have to react on the spot it’s much more difficult.  And, the point was, in the run-up to the election in 2002, there were real issues and critical violations of human rights in the run up to the elections – which by the way, also led to the withdrawal of an Election Observation Mission at the time. So, something needed to be done, whether that was the right way, the right intensity of action is something for others to assess.

But what I can say is that the process was a legal process, and in these countries there is a lot of debate on these issues. It’s a legal process because it’s was in the Cotonou Agreement ratified by Zimbabwe and 70 something other ACP countries with the European Union which clearly foresees the procedures to be followed in case of gross violation of the essential elements of that agreement related to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Violet: So what’s your opinion of the situation right now? Do you think the time is right for all those restrictions to be removed now?
Ambassador Van Damme: It’s not up to me to have an opinion; it’s up to the Council of the European Union to have an opinion, which will be issued within the next couple of weeks.
Violet: But as the EU Ambassador, surely you do send recommendations to the European Union regarding what you see on the ground in Zimbabwe?
Ambassador Van Damme: Well I’m not sending out recommendations. We send out recommendations, collectively, because it’s also a decision, a unanimous decision these recommendations are sent to the Council and not to the press, I’m sorry for that.

What is at issue is that we have to revisit also the Council conclusions of the 22nd January is that whatever has been decided, can be revised at any moment in light of new developments; positive or negative. And so this is not set in stone, this is a dynamic process and between 2002 up to now we have had increases, decreases, corrections in the process in light of the developments. So, let’s not focus on something that has become relatively marginal and symbolic in this whole re- engagement process.  There are much more important things to focus on I think, with re-engagement.
Violet: How does the EU see the development that transpired on the 14th of November in Zimbabwe?


Ambassador Van Damme: We have taken note of a transition and we have reconfirmed our willingness to engage with the authorities of this country on the basis of its economic and political reform process. We have always said we are not here engaging with individuals or specific persons, we are engaging with the State, and the State is represented by its government. So, we are engaging with the government based on its willingness to proceed with the implementation of reforms to the benefit of the people of this country.
Violet: So, was it a coup?


Ambassador Van Damme: I have no idea how you can describe the events in November which led to the President and First Secretary of the Party to resign. And that’s it and we continue engaging. You know, when I presented my credentials, I presented my credentials to President Robert Mugabe who was on the restrictive measures list, and now I’m engaging with the State. And, what I’m interested in is to engage with people who have the willingness and the commitment to implement reforms in the interests of the people of this country and promoting the consolidation of democracy.
Violet: But Ambassador, some observers say the manner in which President Robert Mugabe was removed from office had the hallmarks of a coup, especially since it was done by the military.  So how did you see these events?


Ambassador Van Damme: I find it a very strange question. I mean normally you don’t like the international community to comment on this country and now you are insisting on us taking positions. SADC or the African Union didn’t condemn the events as being a coup so why would we take a different position?
Violet: But do you only follow what SADC or the African Union say? I am asking because you’re on the ground in Zimbabwe, you monitor events on the ground in Zimbabwe and even imposed sanctions. Also many believe that Western diplomats are so keen to embrace this transition in ZANU PF that they are failing to actually say that the military came in and… (interrupted)
Ambassador Van Damme: … I’m sorry to contradict you, we are not embracing anything. We are just present in this country and we are engaging with the authorities of this country. The authorities of this county have indeed changed and the circumstances. It’s for Zimbabweans and the leaders in the region to decide how they label these events. But, we engage with a government, which is in place, we agree on that and we will see to what extent they are indeed willing to implement the reforms they have been announcing and the direction of improvement of the situation for the people of this country and for the long term development of this country and, for democracy. That’s what’s our interest in this country.
Violet: But many note a change in the tone of the EU, before Mugabe’s departure and now. What has caused this shift?


Ambassador Van Damme: Well, I don’t know if there is a change of tone… since 2002 we have been consistent. You remember when the government presented its Lima programme at a fall meeting of the IMF and the World Bank, we have consistently welcomed the reform agenda which was presented then. And, since then, we have consistently said that we were willing to accompany that reform process. Now, the reforms have stalled since that announcement in September 2015 in Lima, and we will now see whether the renewed interest; the declared interest; of the government for political and economic reforms will indeed be operationalised and becoming more concrete over the next months. And, if so, we will try to accompany those reforms within the limits of the programmes, which we have been working on for the last years. Last week, we signed a couple of contracts in support of the justice system, to facilitate access to justice, notably the most vulnerable people in this country. These programmes have been identified with the previous government and we have been working on these programmes for the last 18 months. So it’s not a response to the new government, it’s just the finalisation of discussions we had over the last 18 months with all the stakeholders in the justice system.
Violet: Still, given the ‘high moral ground’ you as the European Union have stood on; and this is concerning the question of democracy in Zimbabwe; you see these various discussions on social media where people are saying it’s fascinating that Western diplomats haven’t even waited for elections, and I quote, before ‘hugging the regime close – or the re-invented ZANU PF’. Some Zimbabweans even go as far as saying ‘The British especially have behaved as though they actually sponsored this so-called coup in Zimbabwe.’  How do you respond to this?
Ambassador Van Damme: Well, I don’t have to comment on all comments made on social media now. I don’t have the impression that we are hugging anybody more than in the past, and as I said, we have a commitment and I’m speaking for myself, but it’s the same for the Member States of the European Union. We have been engaging with the government, on policy related issues, on political issues including the essential elements of the Cotonou agreement relating to the rule of law, human rights and democracy, and this hasn’t changed. To the extent of course that some people in government give indeed signals that they want to accelerate those reforms, we are willing to accompany that process, but we continue in the mode in which we were engaged with the government for the last 2 years.
Violet: But all of a sudden Ministers from Western countries are being deployed in Zimbabwe and this is for the first time in over 15 years, so some have found this curious.
Ambassador Van Damme: You have a government which claims that they want reforms and to re-engage with the international community, so its noble that the international community is trying to see how far the government is willing to go and that reengagement having been very clear throughout this whole period, that indeed one of the essential steps in a pre-engagement will be the conduct of peaceful, inclusive, credible, transparent elections as the Council concluded on the 22nd of January.

…inclusive elections; that means that ZEC intensifies its dialogue with the political parties; and transparent elections; that means that we have a Voters Roll which is accessible to the political parties which can be audited as we go into elections which are indeed observed by  domestic, and, if I hear correctly, also international observers.
Violet: How about criticism that your willingness to re-engage is because you want to protect white farmers to return to the land? What can you say about this?


Ambassador Van Damme: Nonsense! This is completely ridiculous. We have been investing over the last couple of years in the agriculture sector focusing on Communal land – because that is uncontroversial land. But, you know, as I do, that the land issue is not only about white farmers, it is about security of tenure. When AI farmers in Mazowe were invaded and kicked out a couple of months ago, I also intervened on social media. And the contempt of court in this particular case and in other cases – where indeed the invaders were instructed to withdraw, and comply with the court cases. This has been regularly condemned by all of us. So this is not only about white farms, this is about agriculture which is indeed a huge potential for this country and it is about the rule of law, whatever the background of the people who are involved.


Violet: And as you say, the EU has, in the past, tried to help resolve the land situation in Zimbabwe. We all know that the Zimbabwe constitution says that the UK must pay out white farmers for the land, and the Government of Zimbabwe must pay out for improvements. But we all know that the Government of Zimbabwe has no money to pay for anything, especially to do with its foreign and domestic debt. So how will the land issue ever be resolved, in your view?
Ambassador Van Damme: Well, there are a couple of critical issues, including security of tenure on land; that is a critical basis factor if you want to redevelop agriculture in the long term. On the whole compensation issue, we have been engaged with the government for the last two years as well – with the UNDP and also with the World Bank and FAO. We have agreed recently, late last year, to design a whole process, jointly with the partners I mentioned, and the government, to come to a consistent land governance policy, which will of course involve compensation related issues. That’s not only for white farmers it is for commercial farmers who have been taken off the land during the fast track land reform. And the idea is not to come back on the land reform, we have always consistently said that the land reform was necessary, it’s the way that the land reform was implemented which was detrimental for the agriculture sector, detrimental for the rule of law and detrimental of course for the victims of that fast track land reform. So, what we want is to rebuild the agriculture sector, linking up the smallholders with the commercial farms and with the international markets so that agriculture can become competitive again. And in that broader frame of engagement and of rebuilding agriculture sector, we will have to find ways, jointly with the different stakeholders, to indeed make those compensations possible. We have different scenarios, that can be financial, that can be through reintegrating part of under-utilised land. It can take different formats, so let’s not precipitate things, the discussion is ongoing and let’s see what comes out of that.
Violet: But, should the United Kingdom pay white farmers for their farms taken since 2000?


Ambassador Van Damme: Why are you asking these questions to me, I mean if you have a specific question relating to the UK, ask it to the UK. I am not a historian. I myself am Belgian and the independence of the Belgian Congo was not an easy thing, we mismanaged that, and each of the European Council members with a colonial history have to handle their colonial pasts one way or another. But, I don’t have to comment on the colonial past of the UK. So we have to be adults and look to the future and see how we can help building that better future for the people of Zimbabwe.


Violet: I understand that the European Union made funds available to help finalise the Land Commission and more – that the EU has actually played a very active role on this matter in Zimbabwe…but it’s OK.  On the other hand, has the World Bank indicated though, that it will look favourably on Zimbabwe that it might lend to Zimbabwe to pay off for improvements?
Ambassador Van Damme: The land issue is a complex issue. Compensation is about huge amounts, for the improvement of land. This is not a simple thing, which can be sorted out in one statement by one partner. This will be a collective discussion by all stakeholders’ domestic and international stakeholders. What we need in the first place is to get the policies right, and once the policies are right and this country starts growing again, a lot of things will be facilitated on the land, it’s also for the social services, it’s for everything. You know, the cake to be distributed among the people is too small today. People are struggling and if you have followed the Parliamentary debate on the Health Budget of this country, which is too small to satisfy essential needs of the people. So we can rationalise, we have to prioritise issues, but what we have to do in the medium to long term is getting the policies right of this country so that this country can grow again in a sustainable and a socially acceptable, inclusive way.
Violet: Has the EU done any financial predictions or analysis as to how Zimbabwe could rebuild its economy? If so, what are the main points of EU analysis?


Ambassador Van Damme: Well, we have a lot of experts in the international community. The IMF and the World Bank have probably dedicated experts for macro-economic provision making, so I leave this to them, but of course we all know that this country has huge potential and that in the agriculture sector, the tourism sector, in mining and service sector overall. So this country can be turned around if the right policies are being implemented, and of course, it will be the task of the government to engage with the international community overall in a broad spectrum to see how indeed these reforms can be implemented which will initiate the accelerated growth.
Violet: A lot of people have been trying to figure out what will happen in terms of Zim-EU relations post Brexit. So, how will the EU position on Zimbabwe change via Brexit, given that one member state, and that’s the UK, has always seemed the most important state to Zimbabwe, it was the UK which pushed for the restrictions. So do you see the EU position on Zimbabwe changing post Brexit?


Ambassador Van Damme: No, my short answer is no. I mean we always have common vision and the EU policy on Zimbabwe have always been unanimous positions. I can tell you from my experience over the last 4 years that there have never been dissenting views on relations with Zimbabwe among the 28 EU Member States. And I can’t see any divergent views arising right now. Your interpretation of the past, I leave it to you, but what I can speak about is my 4 years here in Zimbabwe, and I say, and I repeat loud and clear, that we have a common vision among the 28 Member States.

We try to be constructive, we engage with the government, not with people, not with the regime, but with the government. We engage with this government on reforms. If the government indeed pursues economic and political reforms, which are to the benefit of the people of this country, we will engage with this government. And, I think, from my understanding from my British colleague, that is also their position. So, I can’t see any change in position.
Violet: There is so much talk about elections and support from the European Union. Do you think the environment is conducive?


Ambassador Van Damme: Well, at this moment, I think all stakeholders we are talking to, confirm their interest in the EU pursuing its commitment to the electoral process, though I am deducting from that the stakeholders think that our engagement reinforces the credibility of the process.
Violet: So, in the event this election is not free and fair, will you still engage with ZANU PF as you did after previous elections since 2000?
Ambassador Van Damme: An essential step in the re-engagement with the international community is to have, indeed, these credible elections. So it will be critical for the government, indeed, to ensure that these elections are peaceful, so; without intimidation or violence; inclusive, credible and transparent and a lot will depend on that step.
Violet: In the past at least one Member State in the EU had funded and directly supported the opposition, is this still the position?
Ambassador Van Damme: I am not aware of any of the EU Member States having supported political parties. If you think that some of the Member States may have done it, you should ask them, but honestly, I am not aware of that. And, the line today and the last 4 years is that you don’t support political parties.
Violet: So have you have any idea of when the EU observer mission will go to Zimbabwe?


Ambassador Van Damme: Well I don’t know if there will be an EU electoral observation, we need to have a formal invitation by the government and we are talking with the government on these issues and then the European Council will send an exploratory mission to talk to the different stakeholders to see whether indeed the conditions are in place and whether indeed an electoral observation mission will be useful for the country and feasible. If that’s the case then the Council will have to take a decision whether indeed we are ready to deploy that mission. An electoral observation mission of the EU usually enters a country let’s say two months in advance of the election date.
Violet: That was Philippe Van Damme, the European Union Ambassador to Zimbabwe. Thank you very much Ambassador for speaking to us on the programme Hot Seat.


Ambassador Van Damme: You are welcome.
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