Two years ago, euphoria gripped a nation that was epitomised by cronyism, misgovernance and repression when President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from his mentor turned-tormentor Robert Mugabe following a popular military-assisted intervention.
After all, Zimbabwe had known one leader since Independence in 1980 and there was every reason to celebrate for those hankering for change. Against a backdrop of international isolation, frosty relations with the West and drying up of credit lines, Mugabe’s successor promised a raft of reforms to attract foreign capital.
Zimbabwe defaulted on its payment of arrears owed to international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank in 1999 and new allies had to come to its rescue at the turn of the century.
In pursuit of a socialist agenda, Mugabe attempted to change that narrative of relying solely on Western capitals to advance his development agenda. Mindful of the growing international isolation, re-emergence of the bi-polar international political system, and the breakneck pace of globalisation, he looked East.
After all, relations had soured after he embarked on the fast-track land reform that had been in abeyance during the first 10 years of majority rule. He took radical steps during the land exercise and immediately he transformed from being a knight to a hermit.
Most Western capitals declared him a persona non grata and despot. His admirers who disdained what they termed contemporary imperialism extolled him as a modern-day Kwame Nkrumah.
In 2003, the long-time leader pulled out of the Commonwealth amid ratcheting pressure to do so from Western powers and today the Zimbabwe wants readmission.
Following Mugabe’s dramatic resignation and failure by multitudes of locals to emigrate to the United Kingdom to seek better economic prospects, the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ mantra gained some currency. On the face value of it, Mnangagwa wanted to reach out to Zimbabwe’s erstwhile foes.
He promised to compensate nearly 4,500 white former commercial farmers who lost large tracts of land under the agrarian reform. His neoliberal stance won the hearts of many Western politicians who questioned Mugabe’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and property rights.
While some may argue that the government’s heavy-handedness after last year’s elections could have wiped out the goodwill that Mnangagwa’s administration enjoyed since Operation Restore Legacy that ousted Mugabe, a new thinking could explain the state of affairs.
International relations 101 teaches you that the foreign policy-making process is like a game of chess – one can only be declared winner when the game is over.
More so this study teaches that foreign policy is complex and the international affairs of a state can be classified under status quo, imperialism and ambiguous. Zimbabwe appears to have adopted a deliberate policy of ambiguity.
In October this year, Mnangagwa was seen cosying up to the Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Israel Katz on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings. Who have imagined this under Mugabe’s rule?
Traditionally, Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa’s predecessor lobbied for the independence of a Palestine state as part of Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy on the Middle East region, but Mnangagwa chose a different path and many are watching.
Commenting of Zimbabwe’s reengagement with Israel, Stephen Chan, the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies professor, said the Zimbabwe stood to benefit from the bilateral cooperation.
“Many African countries have developed policies and programmes of cooperation with Israel,” Chan
said. “As early as the 1980s, Kenyan Special Forces were trained by the Israelis. Israel itself is keen to foster and develop links.
“It is a deliberate part of Israeli foreign policy to isolate Palestine in diplomatic terms. As it is, support for Palestine from countries like Zimbabwe has always been rhetorical. No close operational cooperation has taken place.
Links with Israel bring benefits in the form of training in intelligence and security matters, access to medical treatment for senior leaders, and as a device to smooth the way to better relations with the United States. Apart from the sacrifice of principles, there are no obvious downsides or pitfalls,” Chan added.
While this policy of deliberate ambiguity (which is also known as a policy of strategic ambiguity focuses on Zimbabwe’s decision to be intentionally ambiguous on certain aspects of its foreign policy) may be useful, if Harare has contrary foreign and domestic policy goals or if it wants to take advantage of risk aversion to abet a deterrence strategy, such a policy may send the wrong signals to its allies.
In fact, it can be very risky as it may cause misinterpretation of a nation’s intentions, leading to actions that contradict that nation’s wishes. Let’s rewind – at the UN Security Council China and Russia vetoed any form of aggression on Zimbabwe when Harare embarked on the land reform programme.
Thanks to multipolarity, that action largely kept Zimbabwe going. The United States had imposed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera) which blocks the world’s largest economy and its allies and international institutions from writing off debt owed by Zimbabwe to IFIs as well as extend financial aid to Zimbabwe. Fast forward to this year.
Zimbabwe-Japan relations are deepening and the question is “where does this put China?” Before leaving for the Tokyo International Cooperation on Africa Development (TICAD) in August this year, Mnangagwa expressed his gratitude to Shinso Abe’s government for helping Zimbabwe to construct a 6.5 km road stretch along the slippery Harare- Chirundu highway.
Currently only two notable Japanese companies – Toyota and Kansai Plascon (which took over Astra Paints) – are present in Zimbabwe and the government is working around the clock to at least restore yesteryear figures of 40 firms.
China, which has been increasing its presence in the region will not be amused. Just this week China rebuked Zimbabwe after Harare downplayed Beijing’s role in Zimbabwe. Left with egg on its face, Zimbabwe, through the Information Ministry, promised to “establish the common accounting position” regarding the matter.
Mnangagwa’s foreign policy in the Great Lakes Region has also been viewed as ambiguous. Last month the President was given Uganda’s highest honour bestowed to any foreign leader – the Most Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa where he was the guest of honour at the country’s 57th Independence anniversary.
Relations between Uganda and its neighbour Rwanda – which nearly 20 years back were cordial during the DR Congo war in which Zimbabwe backed Laurent Kabila of DRC— are not rosy. At some stage, the two countries were on the brink of war.
Now where does Zimbabwe stand? Mnangagwa’s government has sent bureaucrats to Kigali, capital of Rwanda, to understudy governance issues that have re-written history in Rwanda, which has become the first exporter of smart phones in Africa under its export-oriented industrialisation strategy.
The east African country is one of the top-ranked on the World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings. Lest we forget, Rwanda is a country that literally emerged from the ashes following the 1994 genocide.
Lawrence Mhandara, the University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer, says the ambiguity of Zimbabwe’s foreign policy is seen through political polarisation, but he however argued that despite all this Zimbabwe has clear goals.
“Those inside government view the current policy as that of reengagement but those outside see ambiguity,” Mhandara argued. “The current administration unlike the previous one adopted an all-round foreign policy and the main goal is economic stability and development. From an objective point of view, the outcomes may take time to see but one can see what the government is trying to do.”
As Zimbabwe navigates through the complex international political economy, it is imperative to note that big brother has also walked through a similar path. As it becomes increasingly clear that the international system is by and large anarchic, two governments are currently claiming legitimate rule and sovereignty over all of China, which they claim includes Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as well as some other islands.
The People’s Republic of China rules Mainland China under a one-party system and Hong Kong and Macau as special administrative regions, while the Republic of China (ROC) governs the Island of Taiwan as well as the Kinmen Islands which the ROC refers to as the “Free area of the Republic of China.”
That may explain the complexity of Zimbabwe’s international affairs. After all is said and done, Zimbabwe should be mindful making a Fundamental Attribution Error as it pursues its foreign policy. In foreign policy things do not always appear as they look.