via Let’s have mature dialogue: British envoy | The Herald October 25, 2014
Ties between Zimbabwe and Britain have been frosty for over a decade now, following the former colonial master’s anger over the land reform programme which saw two million indigenous Zimbabweans, who were previously marginalised, benefiting from equitable land redistribution. While emotions are not running as high as they previously did, are relations between the two countries getting any warmer? Our Senior Reporter Lloyd Gumbo (LG) recently engaged the new British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Ms Catriona Laing (CL) on this and other issues.
LG: It’s almost a month since you have been in Zimbabwe. What’s your perception about the country?
CL: Very positive indeed. I said to President Mugabe in my credentials meeting that this is my dream job. This is the job I have always wanted. So I am absolutely delighted to be here. I got a very warm welcome from both Government officials and people of Zimbabwe generally. I haven’t had a chance yet to go out and about but now that I have presented my credentials, I am looking forward to travelling the whole country and seeing the real Zimbabwe.
LG: You have come here at a time when the relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain is not so warm. Isn’t yours a mammoth task to normalise relations?
CL: I come well-prepared with quite a lot of experience. Yes there are challenges in the UK-Zimbabwe relationship. But I want us to first look back on the solid foundation, our long history, our cultural ties on the one hand and then to look forward to strengthening and building on that solid foundation. There will be areas where we disagree but what I said to the President is that I would like us to have a mature dialogue where we can air those differences in an honest and transparent way. And on that basis, I am confident we can get the relationship to a better place.
LG: The issue of sanctions has always been Zimbabwe’s case. How does Britain intend to address that issue?
CL: First of all, as I mentioned to the Press when I presented my credentials there are no economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, I think this is a mis-perception. There are two sets of restrictions that the European Union has with Zimbabwe and these are EU wide and not UK specific. The first is called the PRE-PEPS MEASURES which were put in place following the challenges of the elections of 2002 which means the EU at the moment does not have a formal political dialogue with the Government of Zimbabwe. And it doesn’t have a formal development dialogue around the European Union development programme. Various measures are being looked at right now and as of the 1st of November potentially current measures could expire and if that happens there will be some announcements but I can’t go any further than that at this stage. And if that happens, then the political dialogue restarts and the Government of Zimbabwe becomes a full partner and looking at how development expenditure is allocated.
On the second set of measures, what we call restrictive measures, those are travel bans and asset freezes on designated individuals and some sanctions against the Zimbabwe Defence Industry. The only two people who remain on that list of travel ban and asset freezes are the President and Grace Mugabe. There are no other individuals on that list.
LG: Which issues do you consider hurdles in normalising relations between Zimbabwe and Britain and what do they stand to benefit if they normalise relations?
CL: We have talked about some of them. On the rule of law side it’s about that clarification on indigenisation, land tenure and so on. On the democratic side, its issues to do with electoral reforms and so on. It’s not only UK-Zimbabwe relationship. I think it’s about Zimbabwe returning to the international community and so for example if your IMF process goes well, it will potentially lead to a debt reduction package. That’s a huge benefit potentially for Zimbabwe. Some of the hurdles as I said are particularly around rule of law, electoral reform and of course continued commitment to human rights.
LG: But in terms of rule of law, the country passed a new Constitution last year and now there is harmonisation of existing laws to the new Constitution. Ministers have also made pronouncements in clarifying the Indigenisation Act, are you saying they have not done enough?
CL: The Constitution itself is a good Constitution. I know it took a lot of dialogue to get there amongst the three parties because it came out at the time of the coalition Government which is a good thing in my view because having that dialogue means you have thrashed all the tricky issues. So the Constitution is one we welcome. In terms of clarifications around the indigenisation law, I think the Government acknowledges that it hasn’t done enough because if it had done enough there wouldn’t be these concerns and questions from investors. So the test of that is the investors themselves, if they are saying they do not understand the law and what it means for them then there hasn’t been enough clarification.
LG: But we have had prospective investors coming from the East and Eastern Europe in the case of Russia expressing interest in investing in Zimbabwe. If there was no clarification with indigenisation do you think they would have come?
CL: I can’t speak for Russian investors obviously and I don’t see any problem with having different arrangements with investors. A look everywhere policy is very sensible if there is interest from China, interest from Russia, Europe or the United States that’s good. If Russian investors are prepared to invest under the conditions that they have discussed with the Government that is the decision for Russia, I can’t comment on that. What I can comment on is what it feels like for our investors and they have raised concern and fortunately Government is responding to that.
LG: Chinese financial institutions have undertaken to provide loans for projects in Zimbabwe. Are we likely to see Britain doing something in that regard?
CL: Well, I think the key for the sort of loans that you are talking about of infrastructure investment is to return and be able to borrow from international financial institutions that will be the equivalent of the IMF, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, African Development Bank. That will only come through: (a) completing the IMF Staff-monitored programme and; (b) that there is a process that eventually leads to a debt restructuring package. The way we work is slightly different from China. They do provide some soft loans and there are loans that will have to be repaid. For the public sector type infrastructure that investors will be interested in supporting, that will need big money that will come from international financial institutions.
LG: But we had the President going to China recently to deliberate on investment opportunities that China could pursue in Zimbabwe. What if he intends to visit Britain for the same purpose since you are sending a trade delegation here? How will that be possible with the restrictions on him?
CL: Step by step and I think on trade specifically, there has been a delegation from the Government of Zimbabwe to Britain led by your Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries to talk to our Parliamentarians, to talk to potential investors to explain the situation in Zimbabwe. So what I am hoping, following this trade mission, is that first of all the investors will be interested enough and re-assured enough that they want to come back. This delegation we are funding. And then after that I think it will be a good idea to encourage another visit back from the Zimbabwe side. At this stage I would suggest it’s about investors talking to each other.
What we need from the President frankly and from other Government ministries is re-assurance that the policy environment in Zimbabwe is conducive to attracting inward investment. We very much welcome Minister of Finance Chinamasa’s commitment to clarifying the indigenisation law.
LG: What is Britain’s position on the indigenisation law in its current form?
CL: The view is that it’s perfectly within Government of Zimbabwe’s sovereign right to encourage indigenisation and empowerment of Zimbabwean people. That is not the concern. The concern is lack of clarity about what the law actually means in terms of investors. We hear different things from different investors. They have been able to negotiate different kinds of agreements and the most critical thing, therefore, is clarity.
LG: When exactly is the trade delegation coming? How many are they and for how long will they be here and which areas are they mainly interested in?
CL: Its five people, they will be arriving next Wednesday (October 29) and will be here till Friday. This delegation is a team of people who put deals together. So they have quite a wide-ranging interest. Infrastructure and energy are two of the sectors they are going to be looking at. So Minister Chinamasa has been extremely helpful in ensuring that we have meetings scheduled with the various key ministers including Industry, Energy, Indigenisation and so on.
LG: From your meeting with the President what came into your mind considering that it was your first time to meet him having heard or read about him? Your perceptions about the man?
CL: Obviously, he is a very iconic figure. He is one of the few Presidents in an African country whose name will be known in our country and in most countries maybe because he has been in power for a long time.
Everyone has heard about him, I have read about him so it was very interesting to meet him in person. I think we had a very constructive meeting. I found him willing to listen, to engage. And he gave me a signal as I requested that where we have differences we can have a mature dialogue. The objective of the meeting was to ensure that we can come out with a feeling that this was a start of a dialogue rather than just a once-off and I was assured that. He gave me that commitment.
I think the second thing that came out for me was the recognition that despite some of the differences we have had we have got a long and shared history. He has been around long enough to have seen a lot of our history.
I think that’s a positive thing in terms of returning to a more constructive UK-Zimbabwe relationship and recognising that shared history, that shared culture, shared education system and remembering that as we tackle some of the more difficult issues going forward. I felt confident after my meeting with the President. That provides for us a good foundation for partnership going forward.
LG: And his ability to grasp issues?
CL: He was extremely alert and very attentive and interested in the dialogue. He is absolutely 100 percent engaged.