Relations between Zimbawe and Britain have for a long time been sour. There have been counter-accusations of ill intentions between the two governments.
NewsDay Chief Reporter Owen Gagare (ND) recently held an exclusive interview with British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Deborah Bronnert (DB) on Zimbabwe-British relations. Below are excerpts:
ND: You have been in Zimbabwe for a relatively short time, what has been your impression so far?
DB: So far I’ve been really delighted to be here and to get to represent the United Kingdom in Zimbabwe . . . Since my arrival my expectations have probably been exceeded. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country.
The other thing that has been really striking to me since arriving is the huge potential there is for economic growth and the need for investment to update infrastructure as well as ensure that ordinary people have jobs and reliable services.
ND: During your tenure in Zimbabwe, what would be your foremost goal?
DB: What I would really like is to see Zimbabwe to be very clearly and firmly on the path to prosperity and security for everyone. I would like to see the people of Zimbabwe being able to achieve their aspirations, their desires to choose their own government and their own future through free and fair elections. I’d like the relationship between the UK and Zimbabwe on a political level to be transformed and the quickest and most effective path to that is the implementation of the GPA and the holding of free and fair elections. I hope that will happen. We can then start to seriously engage on issues which matter to people like climate change, boosting economic prosperity and our trade links, looking ahead at the London Olympics next year, those kind of issues rather than history.
ND: Relations between Zimbabwe and Britain have been strained for years, what efforts are you making to mend bridges, promote investment and trade as well as issues of humanitarian assistance?
DB: Obviously one of the things that I want to do as Ambassador is try to make sure we communicate clearly and that we understand what we really disagree about and understand the things that we agree about. In any relationship between countries, you have things that you agree and disagree about. I want to talk to people and I am talking to people from across the political divide so I can report back clearly to my government about the perception that is here and also communicate to people directly about what the UK actually thinks about things, rather than to rely on third-hand reports.
The UK has huge engagements in Zimbabwe and I have already mentioned the broad amount of aid that we deliver, but just for example, the UK government aid last year helped deliver:
A fifth of Zimbabwe’s entire anti-retroviral treatments, provided essential medicines to 1 300 primary care clinics and rural hospitals and we helped ensure that every primary school pupil in Zimbabwe has a set of textbooks.
We paid fees to enable almost 200 000 orphans and vulnerable children to attend school. We supported over one million Zimbabweans by supplying seeds and fertiliser to smallholder farmers and we provided over
34 000 rural people, most of whom are women, with access to finance.
Now, in addition to that, there has been an 85% increase in trade between the UK and Zimbabwe in the first six months of 2011
I think it should be clear that the UK has a real interest in engagement with the Zimbabwean people. We don’t just say it, we do it.
ND: There have been accusations from the Zanu PF side of the inclusive government, that Britain has been interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs by sponsoring the MDC formations and imposing sanctions to effect regime change, among other things. What is your take on these accusations?
DB: I don’t accept such accusations. Certainly the development assistance we provide goes to help all Zimbabweans regardless of their political affiliations. I don’t see how the provision of textbooks in schools or essential medicines in clinics or our other assistance can legitimately be characterised as “internal interference”.
Now, as for the EU restrictive measures, these were initially introduced in 2002 in response to serious violations of human rights and of freedom of opinion, of association and of free peaceful assembly against those who bore wide responsibility for those violations. The EU wanted to make clear the grave concerns about those violations.
The EU measures are agreed upon by all 27 EU countries. The UK is part of that. They comprise a visa ban and assets freeze and are now limited just to 163 individuals and 31 companies.
The ambassador in the EU Baroness Ashton said the EU is ready to revisit the measures at any time, but only in response to concrete progress on the ground in implementing the GPA.
ND: Does the British government prefer working with a certain political party or parties in Zimbabwe?
DB: We will work with whatever political party wins free and fair elections and that includes Zanu PF. I said that to the President when I met him last month and I have said that to other members of the government.
ND: What are the chances of Britain removing the restrictive measures imposed on Zimbabwe and encouraging the European Union to take a similar route, as a way of showing goodwill and also because the inclusive government, Sadc and the African Union have called for their removal?
DB: I have already said these are European Union restrictive measures. They are not British restrictive measures. They are EU measures and when the decision is made it’s done collectively by the whole European Union. It requires unanimity. It is not a decision of one country. We do not think that the measures impede Zimbabwe’s economic development, the provision of humanitarian aid or actually impact on ordinary Zimbabweans. The EU and its member countries provided almost $1 billion in development assistance to Zimbabwe since the establishment of the inclusive government.
ND: Have the restrictive measures imposed on President Mugabe and his clique achieved their desired effect?
DB: The measures were initially introduced in 2002 in response to serious violations in human rights and of freedom of opinion against those who bore a wide responsibility for those violations.
There is an expression of concern about the things which were happening. I’m afraid these concerns continue and at the moment the GPA has not yet been fully implemented.
ND: What role does Britain see itself playing in consolidating the gains made by Zimbabwe’s inclusive government and ensuring that the next elections will be held in a conducive environment and will be free and fair?
DB: Obviously this is primarily for Zimbabweans, and we think it is vital for Zimbabwe that elections, when held, are conducted freely and fairly without fear of violence or intimidation – and that is clearly in line with Sadc’s guidelines and principles for democratic elections.
So we very much support work of Sadc and South African President (Jacob) Zuma in helping the parties here agree on the essential reforms needed before credible elections can be held . . . We therefore support calls made by Sadc, political parties and civil society for a robust, long-term regional observation effort.
ND: A British government minister, David Howell of the Foreign Office, recently said it would be premature for Commonwealth leaders to hold out an olive branch to Zimbabwe when they meet later this month, saying President Mugabe “is showing no sign of recanting, standing down or removing some of his Zanu PF thugs from the scene”. What is your view on the matter?
DB: The Commonwealth has 54 members, again it’s up to that membership to decide how they want to approach Zimbabwe, and if Zimbabwe wanted to rejoin the Commonwealth it would in the first instance have to re-apply for membership.
I have to say there is absolutely no doubt — as Lord Howell pointed out — that Zimbabwe would have to address the issues of concern, and breaches of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values, which led to its suspension in 2002 and subsequent withdrawal by Zimbabwe a year later. These issues would include political violence, the use of repressive legislation and issues around press freedoms.
My understanding is that the Commonwealth would be open to engaging with Zimbabwe if requested.
ND: Will the British government engage the Zimbabwean government on the land reform programme, or be able to compensate the farmers who lost land during the land reform exercise, given that President Mugabe insists any compensation should come from the British.
DB: We have always supported land reform. Of course, patterns of land ownership had to change and black Zimbabweans had to have better access to land . . . We have always been clear with others in the international community to support a credible land reform programme that is fair and transparent and genuinely benefits poor Zimbabweans. And, of course, reviving the rural economy will be an important part of Zimbabwe’s economic growth and ensuring sustainable economy here.
We have never agreed to accept responsibility for compensation, but we did in the 1980s provide £44 million to support land transfers — now £3 million of that facility was never taken up by the Zimbabwean government, but £41 million was. We stopped the funding in the 1990s when it was clear that land was being taken by force and handed to the Zanu PF elite.
Much of it of course, as a matter of record, was stripped of value rather than put to productive use. That was not reform.
It was criminal theft. It enriched an elite, but provided no benefit to ordinary Zimbabweans.
We continue to be very concerned about the continuation of farm invasions which contravene the Sadc ruling of November 2008 and the terms of the GPA and demonstrate a lack of respect for the rule of law.
You will remember that recently, at least an example, a farmer in Beatrice was evicted along with 450 workers and their families. The farm has been looted and is now vacant. I can’t see how this can be characterised as “land reform” — people have been made jobless and homeless and economic value has been destroyed. How can this possibly benefit ordinary people of Zimbabwe?
Events like this deter investors, reduce employment, increase homelessness and destroy production just when Zimbabwe wants to rebuild its economy.