Relations between Zimbabwe and the 28-member European Union bloc were recently upgraded from informal to formal engagements. Government is presently ratcheting up its engagement and re-engagement drive. Our Chief Reporter Kuda Bwititi last week spoke to EU chief envoy to Zimbabwe Ambassador Timo Olkkonen to unpack the significance of the latest development, including how future relations between Harare and Brussels might possibly pan out.
Q: You presented your credentials (as EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe) late last year. What was your perception of Zimbabwe before you came and your perception now that you are in the country?
A: I am not a complete stranger to Zimbabwe, because I used to be the Finish ambassador in Lusaka. Finland does not have an embassy here, so I was covering Zimbabwe as a non-resident ambassador from Lusaka.
But obviously it’s a completely different thing when you are a resident ambassador in the country than when you are a non-resident living from outside, and particularly being the EU head of delegation here; the roles are completely different.
So what I would say is that there was a lot of frustration during the last days of former President (Robert) Mugabe, which we could see clearly as members of the diplomatic community.
Then there was the November 2017 events, which created expectation about things changing.
I got recruited in my current position when there was a lot of hope and a lot of goodwill towards Zimbabwe.
The August 1 2018 events created a dent. In that perspective, there was the whole electoral process that had gone quite peacefully and marked a change from the days of the past.
These events then created a waiting atmosphere of what will happen next. Government then presented its reform agenda through the Transitional Stabilisation Plan, and there is a lot of good things there.
Then obviously you had the January events, which, like what has been reported before, were a setback.
The January incidents also raised a lot of questions about security forces and many questions about how much has Zimbabwe changed.
I do think in general now that we are observing the country in different light. The obvious thing is that there has been a marked change from the Mugabe years in terms of the discussion atmosphere. We patiently hope that things will change for the better in terms of the economic and political reform agenda and addressing other issues so that things will move for the better. We hope to see further change.
Q: There has been laudable progress made by Zimbabwe on the reform agenda; a case in point, alignment of legislation (to the Constitution), political freedom and freedom of expression, among other positives. What is your take on this?
A: The legislative agenda is a process we are part of through technical assistance and alignment of the legislation and we recently had the visit of the EU managing director for Africa, Mr Koen Vervaeke, who met also with the Minister of Justice (Legal and Parliamentary Affairs).
The Minister (Ziyambi Ziyambi) made reassurances that this alignment agenda will move forward and controversial legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the media laws (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) will be presented to Parliament.
We are very much looking forward to this because these are symbolic issues, but also very real because they are in Zimbabwe’s past, you know that legislation has been abused before.
So I think these are the positives that we had been expecting to see.
I know that economic change is very important. Government is trying to take action. They recently had the IMF mission here last week (a fortnight ago), which recognised the Government is trying to cut down on expenditure in trying to balance the economy and addressing the currency issue.
But I think on the economic side what is important when you are addressing the short-term issues is to address the bigger, structural problems or bottlenecks that are holding Zimbabwe back.
I think agriculture holds tremendous potential for Zimbabwe. I am a very keen farmer myself, but the more I learn about it here, the more complicated and complex it gets.
There are some issues about security of tenure and how banks don’t accept property as collateral.
We are supporting Zimbabwe in the agriculture sector and I think our programmes would be more successful if given to private sector agriculture. There is a lot of opportunity, especially if all the structural issues are resolved.
Mining is also very important, but investors are cautious. These are the structural issues that should not be forgotten, even when you are looking at the short-term issues revolving around currency.
On the political agenda, it shouldn’t be underestimated that the January events had a bad impact on Zimbabwe.
We have had assurances from the highest levels of Government that the Kgalema Motlanthe commission issues will be addressed.
Police is also looking at their training, so those kind of things are quite important. We also had our own electoral observation team here, which came up with a number of recommendations.
We also expect to see the implementation of these recommendations. As we speak, Zec is having a stakeholders meeting in Nyanga and we hope to continue supporting Zec and supporting the process.
It’s a wide agenda, we do not want to be prescriptive, but we want to see progress.
Q: Is the EU doing anything to support Zimbabwe clear its debts, given that the country also owes money to the European Investment Bank?
A: Discussions have been ongoing on how to clear the arrears. The first stop is that there are the International Financial Institutions — that is, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank.
Indeed, it is something that we are discussing with the other creditors and also discussions with Government, who are key to the process. So at this stage all I can say is that these discussions are ongoing.
Q: But how could the EU assist in debt clearance?
A: I think it’s too early to go there, there is a global agreement with other creditors, so it’s something that needs to be agreed with other parties.
Q: The Sunday Mail recently reported on the upgrading of dialogue between the EU and Zimbabwe from informal to formal. Please, explain the significance of this?
A: This is a very positive development. It is based on the Cotonou Agreement, which the EU has with African-Caribbean-Pacific States. It is a legally binding agreement that covers many issues.
There is a specific article there — Article 8 — which says we should have political dialogue between the EU and the countries under these organisations.
With Zimbabwe, we haven’t had this dialogue for several years; rather, we have had informal engagements. Obviously, member states have had their own engagement with Government interlocutors, but we haven’t had this setting for a dialogue, where you would have the EU state ambassadors and the EU delegation interacting directly with the Government in a formal setting.
We have had informal dialogue with the Government; for example, with the permanent secretary Ambassador (James) Manzou.
Recently, we then agreed that we will enter into a more formal Article 8 dialogue. It’s an important and welcome step. This is something that we wanted to do for some time now and we are happy that Government is happy to do this.
What is important to us is that this has to be a wide and extensive dialogue. So issues such as human rights, democracy should also be part of the dialogue.
We have made this clear to Government and they have accepted it and it is a positive step. It’s a natural forum for addressing many issues such as trade, economic cooperation issues and so forth. It is a very positive development.
The President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) met with our Commissioner for Development in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) not long ago. The fact that the managing director for Africa was here is a signal of our interest and in the interests of dialogue.
This year will be a bit difficult for higher-level discussions because we have the European Parliament election and then we will have a new Commission for the EU coming later in the year.
So we will see about that higher-level engagement and how it will happen, but the dialogue will mostly take place at country level. As you will see when we have more than 70 ACP countries, it will be impossible for them to come to attend to each of these countries for dialogue. It will definitely not be possible. That is why the dialogue takes place through the local ambassadors.
Q: What is in it for the ordinary Zimbabwean now that the dialogue between Zimbabwe and EU has been upgraded?
A: Dialogue is the trade for diplomats. It’s something that we need to do. We need to discuss and we need to clarify and do away with misunderstandings. I think it’s for our mutual benefit to do away with all misunderstanding and tackle all problematic issues in all transparency and honesty.
This upgrade will be helpful for the overall Zim-EU relations. What I would personally want to see as part of this dialogue is obviously the policy issues.
For example, there is the issue of structural impediments on economic growth and many of those are linked to investor perception.
And why is it that we do not have more European investors coming into the country, building companies, providing employment and doing more trade?
I think if we could get to the point of talking about these sectoral issues and get to an agreement; if we look at what are real impediments to increasing trade and investment and if we could tackle those, I think it would be very pertinent and interesting for ordinary Zimbabweans.
If we could get the trade and investment flowing, that could get more investment and more trade. I see a lot of opportunities. We have the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between Zimbabwe and the EU. This agreement grants duty-free market in the EU for Zimbabwean products on the market.
Not many people know about this, but I feel it is important that Zimbabwean products can flow freely in the EU market than talking about the so-called sanctions.
There are a number of agri-businesses that are making good these opportunities and I think there is more room for that.
Although Zimbabwe has a very huge trade balance overall, interestingly with the EU, which is the third-largest trade economy in the world, Zimbabwe enjoys a trade surplus.
This is mainly agricultural produce.
It’s only 5 percent of trade that Zimbabwe has with foreign countries. If we can address the impediments on the ground and get the trade flowing, I see a lot of opportunities for promoting economic growth of Zimbabwe. Of course, you have to tackle the issues such as forex retention and repatriation of the profits, but it also applies to the structural issues.
Q: Turning to the issue of sanctions against Zimbabwe, one would expect that the EU would complement Government’s reform efforts through removing the outstanding sanctions. How would you react to that?
A: The word sanctions gives the wrong impression and I would rather choose the term restrictive measures. There is a very limited scope to the measures as it only has restrictions on the former First Couple (Mr Robert Mugabe and Mrs Grace Mugabe), the Zimbabwe Defence Industries and the arms embargo.
So the measures are targeted and they apply to individuals.
The decisions for review of these measures take place in a political environment and when they were reviewed last time in February, it was just after the January events, which raised issues about security forces.
So what would be important for Zimbabwe is looking at human rights issues and addressing what is important and make sure that those things do not happen again.
Our higher representative mentioned that there is always a possibility to come back and change those measures in one way or the other during the time when they are not bound to the annual cycle of renewal. It’s not for me to say what type of action would be decisive in that regard.
Q: There is evidence which suggests that Government failed to get helicopters from EU to assist Idai victims because of the sanctions. Certainly this is one example that thrashes the notion that sanctions are targeted. What is your response?
A: I would need to get more information about that. It’s an allegation I have heard, but, unfortunately, I don’t have any specifics now.
Q: You recently offered US$5,5 million support to NGOs (non-governmental organisations) . Are you satisfied that these funds will be put to good use?
A: We have no hidden regime change agenda. It’s hogwash. We openly call for proposals and the process is very transparent and we enter into agreements with the successful organisations.
Accountability is very important to that because it is taxpayers’ money from Europe. Most NGOs that we work with actually complain over the amount of transparency that we demand.
Q: Are you not concerned that some of these funds will be channelled towards what the opposition has termed the “Kudira Jecha” mantra (or sabotage), which may rebut your otherwise sincere diplomatic engagement with Government?
A: Zimbabwe is very polarised and acrimonious, particularly on social media. After elections, Zimbabwe became divided and there is a lot of healing that needs to be done. Churches need to continue to play a role to heal the nation.
In any country, opposition is very critical of the Government, but I hope that there will be issue-based discussions on how to take the country forward. The situation is very polarised and I hope that your country can overcome this polarisation and focus on more issue-based agendas.
Q: Lastly, where do you see Zimbabwe going in the next few years, according to what you have seen so far?
A: When I first came here, I told myself that I would pay attention to the economic agenda. I believe that Zimbabwe is very special. The human capital, the natural resources, all the different minerals. I think there are so many opportunities that could be of mutual benefit and of expanding our relations. We shouldn’t shy away from issues of the reform agenda. I hope that during my tenure here we can enter into an era of not living in the past and look into the future. We want to increase people-to-people exchanges so that we can enter more into the economic issues.