U.S. Ambassador Brian Nichols, a Moses Brown School graduate and son of a Brown University professor, has an opportunity to help foster democracy in the African nation at a “pivotal and precarious time” in its history, according to one observer.

The air traffic control tower at the airport in Zimbabwe’s capital city has a distinctive design, inspired by African history.

A Rhode Islander willing to look past the tower’s triangular windows and other style details could easily liken it to a New England lighthouse.

But Zimbabweans associate the tower’s cone-like form with a beloved stone silo among the ruins from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which existed from about 1220 to 1450.

Last July, the descendants of that kingdom had much to hope for as air traffic controllers in the lookout tower coordinated with an inbound plane carrying the newly appointed U.S. ambassador, Providence native Brian Nichols, son of a Brown University professor and a graduate of the Moses Brown School.

At that time in mid-2018, less than a year after the overthrow of dictator Robert Mugabe, Zimbabweans were counting down to a long-awaited election, Nichols recalled on Thursday during a visit to Providence.

In the opinion of Nichols, a veteran Foreign Service officer and a nominee of President Donald Trump, the upcoming election was an “absolutely critical test.” Zimbabwe was approaching “a crossroads.”

Nichols had said as much to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations just weeks before, calling for “profound” reforms in the country, as well as continued international humanitarian aid and other support.

“The government and people … have an opportunity to follow a new path,” he had said, “to become a stable and democratic country while returning to the prosperity of the past.”

Nichols also made reference to the Zimbabwean civilization credited with the stone ruins that inspired the triangular markings on the airport’s control tower and on Zimbabwe’s flag.

“Today’s Zimbabweans,” Nichols told the senators, “can look back across the centuries at a creative and complex civilization that built Great Zimbabwe and influenced an entire continent.”

He was hopeful, he said, that with the right help, Zimbabweans would “find the best path forward.”

Now, from the air, he marveled at the nation’s topography, lush and greener than he had expected. The country of Zimbabwe, named after a phrase that means “great house of stone,” awaited him.

The opportunity that Nichols had mentioned involved the ouster of Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator, Mugabe, in 2017.

Once heralded as a revolutionary leader against British colonialism and white minority rule, Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. During that time, the country’s economy fell apart, and Mugabe was accused of atrocities.

By late 2017, when Mugabe was in his 90s, the Zimbabwean army sensed that Mugabe’s unpopular wife, Grace, was making a power grab.

Soldiers effectively derailed any chance of that, taking to the streets and forcing the president’s resignation. Many Zimbabweans euphorically embraced the transition and anticipated a new election.

Still, the presidency was not vacant as Nichols touched down at the airport in Harare last summer.

He had plans to present his credentials to the man who had taken power from Mugabe, the country’s acting president, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. Nicknamed “The Crocodile,” the acting president was known for wearing a scarf striped with the colors of Zimbabwe’s flag.

A candidate in the upcoming election, Mnangagwa had promised to relinquish the presidency if he lost.

He was tied, strongly, to the former Mugabe regime.

Mgangagwa has been widely blamed for brutal killings in southwestern Zimbabwe that left 10,000 to 20,000 civilians dead from 1983 to 1987, according to The Associated Press.

Known as Operation Gukurahundi — “the early rains that blow away the chaff,” in the local Shona language — the killings had been carried out by a North Korean-trained military unit known as the Fifth Brigade.

Residents in the region had been forced to attend all-night rallies for Zimbabwe’s ruling party. Men of all ages dug their own graves before they were shot and buried in them, the AP reported. Survivors, according to the AP, were forced to dance on the victims’ graves, sometimes until blood bubbled up to the surface.

Nichols, the son of a professor in Brown’s Africana studies department, intended to meet Mnangagwa as soon as possible after he arrived at Harare’s airport on July 17, setting foot in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in his life.

Embassy staff, including the regional security officer, had brought his vehicle to the airport. The armored BMW 750′s right-side steering column makes it well-suited for Zimbabwean roads.

Within two days of his arrival, the car took Nichols to Zimbabwe’s version of the White House, a colonnaded building with ornate gables.

The ambassador entered through a front portico. A set of French doors opened. Mnangagwa was there, with the country’s foreign minister and senior officials.

Nichols recalls saying: “I have the honor to present my letters of credence from the president of the United States, which accredit me as ambassador to Zimbabwe.”

He said he then sat down with the president “and had a good conversation for a little over a half hour.”

Nichols says Mnangagwa, who speaks English quite well, told him that Zimbabwe intended to reengage with the world and turn the page on the country’s relationship with the U.S.

“He noted,” Nichols says, ”… that he was committed to changes to make Zimbabwe more democratic and a more open economy, not because the United States wanted that, but because it was the right thing to do for Zimbabwe.”

Did Nichols need to be assertive?

“The art of diplomacy,” he answers, “is communicating clearly what it is that you and your government are trying to achieve, but doing so in a manner that is … designed to achieve the objective and … to preserve a longer-term relationship.”

Nichols can trace a significant part of his interest in foreign affairs and diplomacy back to Moses Brown, where he says teachers encouraged students to put effort into understanding other people, including people from other backgrounds elsewhere in the world.

“Promoting consensus,” was another value deeply ingrained in the school’s teaching, he says, recalling an approach where people on opposing sides of an issue meet with each other until they find consensus.

With such values helping to guide him, Nichols says he’s quite happy to say that the U.S., despite its polarizing domestic politics, has managed to produce a bipartisan policy toward Zimbabwe. He credits both the Trump administration and others, too, including Trump critic and Zimbabwe observer, former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake.

With direction from a law that Flake helped to pass in 2018, U.S. policy aims to reform the government and economy left by Mugabe. With help from Nichols last year, the U.S. provided just over $293 million in assistance while enforcing sanctions targeting 144 specific persons or companies linked to Zimbabwe’s government leaders.

“I think it is the right approach,” the 53-year-old says, describing the response as appropriate to the Zimbabwean government’s gross corruption and serious human-rights violations, particularly during the Mugabe era.

So far, the policy has not produced all of the desired results.

“Ambassador Nichols has arrived in Zimbabwe at a really pivotal and precarious time, which is exciting for a diplomat,” says a prominent Zimbabwe observer, Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center For Global Development. “But it also makes it difficult.”

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Moss says.

The election itself, while a marked improvement from the Mugabe era, fell short of international standards, according to observers sponsored by the U.S.

The situation worsened in August, when soldiers dealt with rioting protesters by shooting indiscriminately into crowds, wounding dozens and killing six, according to a Washington Post report.

More recently, in January, protesters acted out again after the government doubled fuel prices, barricading streets, setting fire and looting. Some published reports say the government’s response left 12 dead and hundreds jailed. Government forces engaged in “systematic torture,” according to a human rights commission.

As pessimism has set in among those previously hopeful for real change, Nichols calls some of the developments “disturbing,” but the former ambassador to Peru says he also sees “significant steps.”

The diplomat says he is gratified that he and Mnangagwa have been able to have “very frank” discussions. He saw him twice in the weeks before Nichols returned to Rhode Island to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday on Saturday.

“I’ve been very straightforward in the priority that we place on issues like the rule of law, development of democracy and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe and our desire to have a positive and constructive relationship with the country going forward,” he told The Providence Journal during the interview on Thursday.

Nichols says he has continually delivered one message:

“Our desire,” he says, “is to see those pillars that he campaigned on and talked about in his inaugural address, implemented.”