After army crackdown, UK won’t back Zimbabwe debt plan or vote for Commonwealth readmission

Better times: UK foreign secretary Harriet Baldwin with Foreign Affairs Minister SB Moyo in Harare, April 2018

Britain will not support Zimbabwe’s debt clearance plan and would not back its application for readmission to the Commonwealth over “sickening” human rights violations seen over the past weeks, the UK’s foreign secretary Harriet Baldwin said Tuesday.

Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube is desperate to clear $2 million worth of arrears to lenders such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank, and appeared to have secured a breakthrough last October when he presented his economic plan to EU countries in Bali. He hoped to clear arrears this year, which would allow Zimbabwe to access the new credit it badly needs.

But his road map appears to be heading for a dead end, after Baldwin told the International Development Committee, which monitors the UK’s development programmes for the British parliament, that events of the past two weeks make it hard for the UK to support any such plan.  

“There needs to be progress in terms of the arrears that Zimbabwe has to international finance institutions, and they recent violence from state actors makes it very difficult for me personally to try and argue that this is the time for the UK to be stepping up to the plate working with international partners to do this,” Baldwin said.

“The idea that we would step up to the plate and say ‘look guys, the government is doing this to its own citizens, shooting them with live ammunition, a range of other egregious violations, and you know what, the UK is really happy to argue that now is the time for them to be helped with their international arrears’; you may push back on this, but I find that a very difficult political case to make.”

Baldwin visited South Africa last week, and she said officials there are discussing a package to help Zimbabwe clear its arrears.

“We will listen to that plan, but as the UK government’s Minister for Africa, I cannot say that now is the time for us to really be sticking our necks out politically on the back of the kind of behaviour that we’ve seen from the government,” Baldwin declared.

Asked whether the UK would continue engaging with Zimbabwe, Baldwin added: “It is right to engage in terms of the messaging, and to set out the kinds of reforms that would enable Western democracies and organisations to work more closely with tackling the government’s outstanding international debts, but I think we are a long way from that, and we’ve gone further away from that as a result of the human rights violations by the security forces.”

Zimbabwe has cleared its arrears with the IMF, but the country still owes $687 million to the AfDB, $1.4 billion to the World Bank and $322 million to the European Investment Bank. In total, foreign debt stands at $7.6 billion with $1.3 billion in arrears. 

To qualify for new credit, Zimbabwe has to clear its arrears first.  Under the pari pasu rule, the country must simultaneously pay off what it owes to the World Bank, AfDB and other priority lenders. Ncube had been holding meetings, including with the UK, to have this requirement waived. 

After meetings in Bali in October, Matthew Rycroft, the UK’s Permanent Secretary to its development arm DFID, showed some cautious support for Ncube’s plan, tweeting: “Long road ahead on political and economic reforms. The UK, and others, stand ready to support reform efforts.”

However, this progress, and President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s year-long carefully crafted plan to end Zimbabwe’s international isolation, appears to have been shattered by his security forces’ use of deadly force to quell violent protests over a fuel price hike.

Returning to the Commonwealth, from which Robert Mugabe withdrew the country in a rage in 2003, was a major part of Mnangagwa’s reengagement plan. To be admitted, a country needs all members to vote in its favour. But if a vote was to be taken on that today, Baldwin says, Britain would vote against Zimbabwe’s readmission.

Says Baldwin: “UK as one of the members of the Commonwealth it would have to be a unanimous decision by all 53 members, but as of today, the UK would not be able to support that application because we don’t believe that the kind of human rights violations that we are seeing from security forces in Zimbabwe are the kind of behaviour that you would need to see from a Commonwealth member.”

Baldwin said she had summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the UK, Christian Katsande, to “take back to his government the message that we deplored this form of disproportionate violence from security forces”. She had also taken a call from Zimbabwe Foreign Affairs Minister, SB Moyo, and expressed her concern over the violence.

New sanctions era?

The EU imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe after the country expelled the head of the EU election observer mission in 2002. Over the years, the sanctions were pared down to leave only senior officials and the Zimbabwe Defence Industries. Now, Britain is considering widening the sanctions once again to target the people that Baldwin says are responsible for the crackdown.

Asked if the UK government had been “too quick to back the current president” since he and others had been on the EU travel ban, Baldwin said support had always been conditional on a free and fair election.

The annual process of rolling over the EU sanctions has begun and the UK has been arguing that it’s too early to remove sanctions, she says. With recent events, the UK is in fact looking to have sanctions widened “to include further individuals”.

“We have been aware that the President has said heads will roll, but we haven’t seen any specific heads rolling,” but these would be the people to be added on a new sanctions list.

Describing the reports of rape as “sickening”, Baldwin said it “defies imagination” that the victims of violence could not report violations because they hold the same authorities responsible.

UK looks to Zim’s neighbours

While touring SADC last week, Baldwin held talks with South Africa and Mozambique, and she says the UK will let the region take the lead on how to solve the Zimbabwe crisis.

Asked how the UK could support Zimbabwe, as it did under the GNU when it channelled funding to “non-ZANU PF” ministries, Baldwin said on her last visit to Zimbabwe in 2018, she had announced a package of 5 million pounds to civil society groups. She would not disclose who these were, citing the nature of their operations. “We believe it’s quite sensitive work, and we are really not able to disclose who it is we work with, and who we fund.”

Civil society members travelled to meet Baldwin in South Africa last week, where she said they briefed her on “completely egregious human rights violations” which appeared to target women deemed to be pro-opposition.

On reforms, Baldwin said after the disbanding of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, the UK is waiting to see the new appointments.

“The previous one had obviously been very ineffective, so it may be that we see some good appointments to that.”