‘I have not dumped the opposition’ – British Envoy

British ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing

LAST week, the Zimbabwe Independent carried the first part of an interview by deputy editor Faith Zaba (FZ) with British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing (CL) on the re-engagement process, Lima Plan arrears clearance strategy and the proposed bailout by international financial institutions in the private sector, as Zimbabwe seeks to settle outstanding obligations in order to secure US$2 billion in fresh funding. This week, the interview focuses on Zimbabwe-United Kingdom diplomatic relations, criticism of Britain’s re-engagement with the Zanu PF government and foreign direct investment from the UK and the 2018 elections. Below are excerpts of the final part of the interview:

FZ: Please give us an overview of Zimbabwe-Britain diplomatic relations.

CL: Zimbabwe and the UK have a long shared history. We have had some ups and downs in that relationship, but we remain united through our people-to-people links.

Ultimately, I think both parties share the same goal, which is to normalise the relationship. I have been in Zimbabwe for just over two years and my arrival actually coincided with the government’s own desire to start the process of normalisation, particularly on the economic side through the plan presented in Lima (Peru) a year ago, but work had started before that.

We have two elements to the normalisation. One is the economic pathway and the other is a pathway around politics, governance and human rights. And it is not for us to determine government’s choices in following these pathways, but it is for us as members of the international community to respond to the government’s own intentions.

FZ: What does Zimbabwe need to do for the relations to be normalised?

CL: Our government has a very clear manifesto commitment which is ‘to stand up for rule of law and human rights’.
We have seen some deterioration in the human rights situation recently.

Secondly, we want to see government’s clear commitment to determined economic reforms. This economy needs sustained domestic and foreign investment. That, depends on a comprehensive approach to property rights. It means getting a grip on regulatory and fiscal stability and it means an approach to economic empowerment and that comes through employment rather than appropriation.

Thirdly, the government is running a huge a fiscal deficit. That clearly is not sustainable. It means for every US$2 it raises from taxes, it is spending US$3. The government itself knows that this is not sustainable and they will have to get a grip on this.

Fourth, is around the constitution, which provides a good framework. While there has been some progress in the implementation and alignment of laws and so on, “constitutionalism”, is not yet embedded. It is the foundation for human rights and rule of law.

The fifth area for us is around the wider economic context. The challenges arise from some bad policies, but also an economic environment with low commodity prices arising from the slowdown of the growth of China, two years of drought and high value of the US dollar.

The poor and vulnerable are the ones that suffer the most. As difficult adjustments are made, we are urging government to protect the most vulnerable.

The pathway remains open and we remain open for dialogue. We want to normalise the relations, but it has to be at the right terms to benefit the people of Zimbabwe.

FZ: While government has put in place a human rights commission, which is currently underfunded, do you think there is a political will to deal with human rights violations?

CL: The commissions have a funding problem at the moment. However, the government is finding money for other things they see as priorities such as travel, allowances and cars.

We know the fiscal position is tight, but there are some choices that can be made.

We would urge prioritising the funding of the commissions. On the human rights commission itself, I think they have done some good work — some brave reports —such as the recent report they have done around food aid. Government is engaging with the conclusions of the report. It denies it politicises food aid. We welcome those hard-hitting reports and encourage the government to engage them seriously.

FZ: There has been a lot of criticism mainly from the opposition parties about how you are engaging with the government — there are accusations that you are supporting the government and have dumped the opposition. Can you comment on that?

CL: It is completely inaccurate. We are not in the business of backing any individual, any faction or political party. We back outcomes, reforms for the benefit of the people.

I think there are two reasons why this myth is circulating. Firstly, during the government of national unity (GNU, 2009-2013), members of the opposition were in government. Inevitably, the British government spent a larger part of our time talking to those individuals because they were part of government. They are no longer in government. As with every other ambassador, I spend most of the time talking to government because that is my job. I am here to represent the British government in its relations with the Zimbabwe government. However, that does not mean I have dumped the opposition. I spend a lot of my time talking to the opposition. But there are many parties and I can’t personally talk to everybody; there are just not enough hours in the day. The embassy has a political section. Between us we talk to everybody.

FZ: What is the other reason?

CL: The second reason I think why this accusation arises is that since I have been here, the Zanu PF government itself has set out its own plans for re-engagement. As the international community collectively, have to respond to that. We have to engage in discussion. Engagement does not mean support. There are terms of that engagement and I have laid those out; I hope clearly.

There are some who believe that the international community should not engage with this government under any circumstances. That cannot be a position that we adopt. The international community has to engage with the government of the day, but we also have to set the terms of that engagement. It is about outcomes and ensuring that the dialogue that we have is constructive.

When l see ministers, it is not always an easy conversation. This is tough discussion, but I do it respectfully. I listen to the government position. I hope through that dialogue I am making some small difference in terms of trying to increase the prospects of success for this process. It is important that this process succeeds for the people of Zimbabwe because there is no other way to go.

FZ: You have been accused by the opposition of campaigning for Mnangagwa. What is your comment?

CL: That is absurd. My message to him is the same message I give to any member of government and indeed the opposition. It is exactly what I have told you here. This is just traditional diplomacy which is based on engagement and dialogue for the benefit of our two countries.

FZ: We have elections coming in 2018 and it seems there has been little movement in terms of electoral reforms. Without reforms would the British government support any election outcome?

CL: We are still a while away from elections. We have around 18 months. There are a number of levels to this. There is some technical work that has to happen on time in order for this to happen, for example, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) support on biometrics. We are not too late for that yet. But we know that elections are not just about technical processes, there is an environment around elections which determines them as free and fair or not. People need to feel free to vote for the party of their choice without fear or intimidation.

In terms of the conditions to establish a free and fair election, a good starting point is the Sadc and (African Union) AU’s own recommendations from the previous election, which give us a starting point for checking what is in place. Fundamentally, it is for the opposition parties to decide whether they are going to feel they can participate in these elections on the right terms. It is for civil society here also to hold government to account to implement the necessary reforms. We can support civil society and we are doing through our various programmes to help their work.

Some of the key issues we are tracking include Zec (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission). It needs to be fully funded, it needs to be independent and not militarised. These are all messages we hear from civil society and we relay them back to government. An independently free and fair election will be the single most important test of whether the government of Zimbabwe really wants to go back to normal international relations.

FZ: I now want to turn to foreign investment. What issues have British businesspeople raised about Zimbabwe which are deterrent in investing in Zimbabwe?

CL: We haven’t had any delegation recently. I think generally there is a lot less business delegations coming through. This time a year ago, when there was more optimism about the re-engagement process with Lima, there was a lot of interest actually, but that dried up frankly. I think people are more on a wait-and-watch mode, ready to move once they feel things are on an irreversible track of economic reform and political reform.

The things that they raise are at a very practical level, just the regulatory complexity of doing business here. I think the government is making some slow progress in that, but not fast enough. Secondly, obviously the indigenisation issue, which we appreciate was clarified but it is not yet in law. Generally it is around property rights, rule of law. With the history of land grabs here, even if that is not the business you are in, they will nevertheless be worried whether their assets will be misappropriated.

I think that one of the results that government has to show is that it has a long history of respecting property rights before people can believe it. Zimbabwe is competing with the world for investment and at the moment it is not attracting very much and there are obviously various reasons for that.

The policy environment is not consistent, coherent and it is not very business-friendly. We hear a lot of good intentions, but it really will need a long track record before we can encourage investors to come here confidently and feel they are going to get a good return on their investment and be secure in terms of their property rights.

This was first published by the Zimbabwe Independent

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