For much of the 1980s and 1990s, c dealt with Zimbabwe rather quietly. On small matters over which it disagreed with the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front government (Zanu-PF), it usually opted for silence. When seriously concerned about the regime’s behaviour, it summoned diplomats to register its disapproval.
But it was hard to ignore a really big mess. In 2000, then president Robert Mugabe seized white-owned land, triggering serious human rights violations, civic disorder, and, at the time, the worst economic crisis outside a warzone.
Assuming the role of a “responsible” former colonial power, Britain’s government reacted by choosing a public platform to read the riot act to Harare, decisively ending a foreign policy strategy that had been characterised by restraint. Whitehall’s calculus was that the ferocity of its criticism would bear on the Zanu-PF regime, forcing it to retreat from its malign activities.
Return to restraint
Then, in what seems like an abrupt shift, in 2017, London once more reached for restraint. It resuscitated this strategy despite deteriorating human rights abuses. Even more surprising, this pivot from a policy designed to curtail Harare’s excesses came at a time when the military had just assisted the regime to commit the worst of excesses; a coup.
It is no wonder that Zimbabweans responded with questions rather than excitement at what the Zanu-PF government propagandised as rapprochement.
In reality, London’s reversion to quiet diplomacy wasn’t sudden. Small moves in the direction of a more measured approach began as far back as 2009, when the British government started scaling back its public position on Zimbabwe as a way of giving the then government of national unity room to manoeuvre on the international scene. Also, it should be said, the coup was not a fundamental pivot point – it simply formalised an almost decade-old reality. In other words, we shouldn’t exaggerate 2017 as a sudden break in Britain’s foreign policy on Zimbabwe. Neither should we see this “formalisation” of restraint as a response to the change in government.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the most likely reason for the change in policy was the unfavourable assessments Britain’s turbo-charged diplomacy was receiving. Here, one is tempted to quote the international relations aphorism that foreign policies rise and fall with their successes and failures.
Indeed, as Mugabe dug in in response to Britain’s severe criticisms, the strategy started to attract a list of laments.
In particular, the 2008 violence in which more than 300 opposition supporters were killed by the Zanu-PF regime, revealed the weakness of the policy’s claims to be most suited to keeping Harare’s excesses in check. Add that to Zimbabwe’s growing inclination to seek refuge in the arms of the Chinese and Russians, and you begin to see why an assertive foreign policy project fell apart.
But an assessment of the official goals of a policy can be limiting. In this case, an alternative – if not better – way to assess the strategy is to look beyond its narrowly stated aims and examine its effects on the dynamics of the target organisation, Zanu-PF.
One of the most overlooked consequences of the policy was how it triggered convulsions in Zanu-PF politics, creating a profound existential angst among the ruling party’s leadership, fed by an interpretation of Britain as the source of the party’s post-2000 electoral miseries.
In particular, Britain’s perceived support of the opposition was potent stuff. It disoriented the ruling party elite and left less experienced party members distressed.
The challenges of the 2000 and 2005 elections in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won some seats in parliament – significant inroads for the opposition since 1980 independence – were blamed on foreign funding of the opposition. The problem of Tony Blair’s government became a priority that needed to be solved with urgency.
Rumblings began over how to stem the perceived existential threat posed by London’s foreign policy, with the effects of those discussions being the emergence of a clear chasm within Zanu-PF. This led, for the first time, to the start of serious debates about succession in the party.
Indeed, while the unity of the party had until then ebbed and flowed over fringe issues, debates on how to respond to London became a site for substantive elite competition.
Mugabe and a group of elderly hardliners insisted on maintaining a pugnacious stance that reciprocated Britain’s brazenness. Hence Mugabe’s rhetoric on fighting the British to the end – a stance which met opposition in many places, not least among a group of moderate politicians led by the former army chief, the late Solomon Mujuru. Mujuru and his wife Joice Mujuru, who was later vice president, wanted to retain a nationalist agenda, but reconcile it with the demands of diplomatic reality.
Mujuru’s faction would prove to be a power bloc capable of challenging Mugabe. Nothing illustrates this more than how the group undermined the long-time leader’s presidential campaign in 2008 by urging Zanu-PF supporters to vote for the ruling party in parliamentary elections, but vote for the opposition in the presidential elections.
This led to Mugabe’s first loss in national elections.
Showdowns over how to respond to Britain’s hardline foreign policy created not only a pathway for the fracture of the elite, but also to subsequent processes that culminated in the party’s implosion in 2017, when Mugabe’s inner circle ganged up against him to bring his reign to a swift end.
In that sense, London’s foreign policy strategy could be viewed as a surprising success.
This success was slowed by Britain’s more deliberative approach towards the coalition government of 2009. But it was the “rapprochement policy” of the post-2017 period – driven by the mistaken assumption that Zanu-PF could reform – that took the wind out of the sails of the fracturing processes that had been ignited by London’s unremitting rage.
Today, Britain’s less assertive policy is mistaken for disengagement, which fits easily with Zanu-PF’s propaganda messaging. Harare has capitalised on this apparent lethargy, branding Britain’s reduced criticism as a sign of its approval of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his government’s actions and policies.
Since 2017, the Zimbabwe regime has been steadily escalating its problematic activities.
What is worrying is that this has not only been confined to an increase in policies that have hurt the economy, but there has also been an increase in government’s excesses, suggesting that Britain’s post-2017 foreign policy may inadvertently be acting as a vehicle for the expansion of Zanu-PF’s malign activities.
As we hurtle towards 2023 legislative and presidential elections, violence has already increased, and journalists, opposition politicians and democracy activists have been arbitrarily exposed to harm. It’s what Zanu-PF does.
Dealing with a regime that has no respect for political norms, rather priding itself on some of the most outrageous behaviours known to politics and diplomacy, requires extreme decisiveness.
That requires Britain to depart from foreign policy orthodoxy and to return to the carefully calibrated pre-2009 rage that pushed the liberation movement into a coalition government with the opposition and ignited debates that set the pathway for elite discohesion and much of today’s internal infighting. DM