Sifelani Tsiko: THE INTERVIEW
Zimbabwe was a member of the Commonwealth since its independence in 1980, but was suspended in 2002 after a diplomatic fallout between Harare and London. The country then pulled out of the Commonwealth in 2003 after its suspension was extended. Under the new political dispensation, President Mnangagwa is working towards normalising diplomatic ties with the former colonial master and other Western nations. In this report, our senior writer Sifelani Tsiko (ST) speaks to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo (Retired) (SM) on the country’s prospects of rejoining the Club.
ST: As Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister, you told Parliament recently that Zimbabwe stands ready to rejoin the Commonwealth Club, almost 15 years after the country pulled out of this grouping after a major fallout with London. Why has there been a seismic shift on the country’s policy towards Britain and other Western countries?
SM: The thrust of our foreign policy is to promote and protect Zimbabwe’s national interests at all times. It is in this regard that an adjustment of our foreign policy posture has been undertaken. As a country, we have historical ties with the UK which cannot be wished away. The new Head of State, H.E. Cde E.D. Mnangagwa informed the world on his inauguration day that isolation was not desirable and that the new era would see the country deepening relations with old friends and reaching out to those who had distanced themselves from us over the past 15 years.
You may want to note that, the turbulence that burdened our relations with the United Kingdom and other Western countries can only be resolved through an open and candid re-engagement process based on mutual respect and acknowledgement of divergent historical perspectives. In other words, it is our intention to bring the counter-productive era of parallel monologues to an end, and supplant “shrill” diplomacy with sober and constructive engagement in the management of our external environment. Realpolitik has won the day informed by the collective recognition that there are no permanent friends or enemies in this global village but permanent national interests. We are earnestly re-engaging with the West and deepening our relations with those who have stood by us, without a break, since independence. The reasons we left the Commonwealth no longer exist but, whilst we desire to rejoin the Commonwealth, we have not formalised the application to do so. However, our rejoining the Commonwealth would be yet more proof that we belong in the family of nations.
ST: At what level has Zimbabwe engaged Britain over plans to rejoin the Commonwealth?
SM: The decision for Zimbabwe to engage in diplomatic efforts to rejoin the Commonwealth is a systemic undertaking. It cannot be compartmentalised and attributed to a specific Government department. A major foreign policy decision of this magnitude hinges on comprehensive cross-cutting consultations within our governance architecture.
In view of the foregoing, the approach to the engagement process is organic rather than hierarchical. Zimbabwe departed from the Commonwealth because of a binary choice: reverse the land reform programme or bend to the Commonwealth’s viewpoint against the restitution of the national heritage. Following the Masvingo 2003 People’s Congress decision to leave the Commonwealth, the Executive of Government obliged the people. This new Executive has engaged a number of members of the Commonwealth and explained to them that the country’s 10 provinces must give their consent on whether to rejoin the Commonwealth. The Executive will take the people’s lead and, in all likelihood, Zimbabwe will rejoin the Commonwealth sooner rather than later.
ST: “In fact, the process at the moment is that there are necessary processes and consultations taking place, which should inform the Executive, so that the process of rejoining the Commonwealth can be undertaken,” you were quoted saying. Could you explain a bit more what this entails?
SM: It is important to note that in diplomacy, agenda setting and procedural issues are an integral part of the negotiating process itself. It, therefore, would be impolitic and preposterous at this juncture to divulge the diplomatic intricacies underpinning our negotiations on Zimbabwe’s intention to rejoin the Commonwealth. It is imperative to take cognisance of diplomatic sensitivities and sensibilities surrounding this issue.
ST: The land redistribution programme was one of the major issues that strained relations between Harare and London. Do you think the Commonwealth can accept Zimbabwe to rejoin given the emotive land issue? To what extent has the Government addressed the land issue to pave way for the normalisation of relations between Zimbabwe and the UK – which superintends the Commonwealth group?
SM: My response is not to speculate on what the Commonwealth “thinks” about our intention to rejoin it. My solemn mandate entails articulating and accurately transmitting Zimbabwe’s intention to rejoin the Commonwealth. In this regard, it would be unhelpful to rehearse arguments that were made when we embarked on the land reform programme in 2000.
However, it is our considered view that the land question has largely been settled and is non-reversible. We are open to discuss consequential issues such as compensation for those affected in a fair and transparent manner. Our Constitution speaks definitively on our land. BIPPAs and other platforms will address issues to do with 99-year leases and other uses of land, which has now become a bankable asset in our country. This now gives comfort to foreign investors and Zimbabweans alike. The land reform programme is accomplished and cannot be reversed. Therefore, we do not now, given the foregoing explanations, see land as a stumbling bloc to Zimbabwe’s rejoining the Commonwealth.
ST: “We want fair, free and credible elections,” President Mnangagwa was quoted as saying in a recent interview. “In the past, those who had pronounced themselves against us; who pre-determined that our elections would not be free and fair, were not allowed to come in. But now, with this new dispensation, I don’t feel threatened by anything. I would want the United Nations to come, the EU should come. If the Commonwealth were requesting to come, I am disposed to consider their application.” Has the Commonwealth made any request to observe the 2018 elections? How would you describe the position taken by your principal regarding the Commonwealth issue?
SM: His Excellency the President, Cde E.D. Mnangagwa has explicitly extended an open invitation to all regional and international organisations including the Commonwealth to come and observe our harmonised elections scheduled for July or August 2018. It is the responsibility of each organisation to comment on its intentions in this regard. On our part, we would like to reiterate our willingness and readiness to be perfect hosts.
His Excellency the President directs Zimbabwe’s foreign policy whilst the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is the implementing agency. It follows, therefore, that the decision to rejoin the Commonwealth would be sanctioned at the highest level following consultations with the people. These consultations are already underway.
ST: Last November, (UK Foreign Secretary) Boris Johnson signalled his support for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth after Mr Robert Mugabe resigned as the country’s president. The British Foreign Secretary backed the “fine and noble aspiration” but stressed the African nation had much to do to restore its international reputation before it could be welcomed back. Are you optimistic that the Commonwealth will accept Zimbabwe back into the club? What has the Government done to restore its international reputation?
SM: We are indeed optimistic about our prospects for rejoining the Commonwealth. Our diplomatic posture is forward looking and open minded. My colleague, Hon. Minister Patrick Chinamasa, recently visited London as part of a comprehensive re-engagement process. The feedback is encouraging. On the domestic front, we are promoting and protecting civil and political rights based on the observance of the rule of law.
ST: “The immediate priority is to ensure that Zimbabwe has a legitimate government, appointed through free and fair elections in accordance with the Constitution,” Johnson was further quoted as saying. Do you think President Mnangagwa and his Government have done enough to allay fears over the coming general elections? Do you think the President’s message on elections is gaining traction with the international community?
SM: We are coming from an era of troubled relations amongst political protagonists in Zimbabwe. This historical background has generated an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. It will take some time to build bridges and instill a culture of tolerance across the political divide. We intend to walk the talk, and it is our sincere hope that we will be judged on the basis of concrete deliverables rather than preconceived attitudes. This viewpoint has been buttressed by pronouncements from His Excellency the President calling for constructive and peaceful politicking. In fact, H.E. President E.D. Mnangagwa has never shown himself to be a unilateralist. He will meet the leaders of all political parties so that all of them “smoke the peace pipe”. He, like them, desires a civil politics in our country. Yes, elections entail competition. That can be done without violence and the nastiness so typical of experiences in the past and elsewhere.
We certainly hope and want the President’s message on the elections to be owned by all significant players and that, in so doing, they give traction to it in the international community. The elections are a process and not an event. We must all play our part to ensure that the process is credible, firstly, to ourselves as a nation, and then expect validation from those who will have observed our democratic process of electing our future leaders. All going well, the resultant leadership and Government would have earned a clean mandate from the people.
ST: In January this year, Queen Elizabeth II said her dream was for Zimbabwe to return to the Commonwealth, when she was asked by a diplomat at a party. She is said to have remarked that her hope for this year, was not much for world peace, nor even happiness for her own family but “that Zimbabwe will rejoin the Commonwealth”. What is your comment on this? What does this show?
SM: It is good to know that Her Britannic Majesty deems us worthy of belonging in the Commonwealth of which she is the head. What that shows, clearly, can be many things. I confine myself to appreciating that she knows that we share a history which cannot be wished away. For future generations, it may be that our journey in the Commonwealth would have been very worthwhile and that, we would have made a distinguished contribution to the Commonwealth’s accomplishments.
ST: The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and the 2018 Commonwealth Summit will take place in London and Windsor, United Kingdom from 16 to 20 April 2018. The theme will be “Towards our Common Future” which is linked to the theme for Commonwealth Day 2018. Has Zimbabwe been invited or given the observer status at least at this event?
SM: You have rightly noted that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and the 2018 Commonwealth Summit will take place in London from 16 to 20 April 2018. In accordance with established diplomatic etiquette, it is the host that can indicate to the public the guest list to an event. In this particular case, the Commonwealth Secretariat might render some assistance.
ST: Do you think Zimbabwe will garner the necessary support to rejoin the club from other nations within the group? What is the process like for rejoining the club?
SM: It is our assessment that the Commonwealth family is ready to welcome Zimbabwe back into the fold. It is pertinent to note that some of the members of the Commonwealth also belong to organisations such as SADC, AU, G77, Non-Aligned Movement and the UN, to which Zimbabwe is also a member. These shared interactive frameworks provide platforms to exchange perspectives on issues of mutual concern.
Zimbabwe is ready and willing to play its constructive and rightful role within the Commonwealth after it has rejoined. In this regard, Zimbabwe commits itself to Commonwealth values, principles and priorities as set out in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of 1991 and its attendant norms and conventions. Let me say that, we should want to be convinced that once we have restored our political-cum-diplomatic relations with the UK, other members of the Commonwealth should not have any footing to deny us membership. Still, nations are sovereign but, I am of the conviction that rejection of others is not a desirable act, especially when there is no direct quarrel to keep alive.