ZIMBABWE – Our long history — before, during and after colonisation, and since Independence — presents an image of America that is ambiguous, an America appears, disappears, appears and disappears from our radar screen. That long history presents an image where America is an opponent, an enemy, a partner, just another country, a critical source or part of the solution to the resolution of the national question. It is a chequered history which justifies the posture of a Zimbabwe that is habitually wary of this enduring superpower. This might not be known to many Zimbabweans, a people notoriously ahistorical.
When history is the present
There were some American hunters and gold-seekers who crossed the Limpopo, on various expeditions well before colonisation. There were some Americans who participated in the conquest and the eventual colonisation of this country, most notably one Bernham known for claiming to have slain M’Limo, the great spirit at one of the national shrines, and another Harvey-Williams who stayed on, even becoming a native commissioner.
The mining skills, the mining technology employed here in part derived from America. Much more, the frontier spirit and philosophy which kept the white invaders going soon after their disbandment in 1890-91, borrowed from the frontier spirit of America. Race relations borrowed, yes, from Afrikaner South Africa, but also from the American experience.
And when white rulers here sought to rebel against Britain, the mantra was Unilateral Declaration of Independence, fashioned to be strongly reminiscent of American Declaration of Independence. That also included the guiding document which echoes American drafting style, tone and resoluteness.
America succours UDI
When the United Nations decided to impose sanctions on UDI Rhodesia, decided on the isolation of Rhodesia, the issue of Rhodesia as the only other source of chrome, then a strategic mineral, only other source besides the USSR, decided American attitude to those sanctions. America demanded and got derogation, with the result that chrome sales to America continued throughout the war years, providing much financial fillip to the UDI war machine. At the height of the struggle, embattled UDI found both succour and mercenaries from European countries, and from America. The Rhodesian tourism industry emphasised growing its cake in America, working out packages designed to be irresistible to targeted strategic American visitors. The focus of Rhodesian tourism — itself a softened and seductive UDI — was on South Africa, Australia and America.
We have many graves of Americans here. The bogus 1978 Internal Settlement elections won by Muzorewa saw an American delegation coming in to monitor those elections. By a vote of 66 to 27, the US Senate on March 28, 1979, adopted a resolution to send a team of private citizens to observe those elections. It was led by a black American, and was funded by the House to the tune of $250 000. The outcome of that mission was to empower Senator Jesse Helms to move a motion on April 24, 1979, to have sanctions lifted and Internal Settlement elections recognised. That only failed because of a robust response from Frontline States diplomacy. The names Moose, Vance and Carter became household names here.
At Lancaster House talks, the land deadlock was broken by the Carter Administration which made a commitment on land acquisition, thereby breaking an impasse which would have seen a resumption of the war. Reagan would later cancel that commitment, but clearly America had sponsored a breakthrough. George Bush Snr. was a friend of both President Mugabe and the late Vice President Simon Muzenda. He visited us here when he was America’s Vice President.
He still lives, I don’t know with what amount of togetherness physically. And when he rose to wear the crown, President Mugabe paid a State Visit to America at his invitation. Former President Carter was here, precipitating the “Kari” Affair, named after the late David Karimanzira who, as acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, attacked the then sitting American President at dinner, precipitating a sympathy walk-out from Carter. Carter would reappear much later, soon after the 2008 elections under the provocative rubric of “Elders”, an assorted grouping of politicians, businessmen, humanitarians and former First Ladies who sought to cut fame from Zimbabwe’s challenges. Relations with Clinton were not so close; but they were not frosty either.
When Hilary visited
And Clinton’s wife, Hilary, paid us a visit, creating another incident which made her a bitter opponent of the Zimbabwe leadership, an incident I would rather not write about. Suffice it to say she voted with both Democrats and Republicans to give us a bi-partisanly supported package of country sanctions we now know as ZDERA. And generally in Shona anything starting with a “Z” is either pejorative or frightfully disproportionate. Zimbabwe stands for an unusually big house of stone. The ‘Z’ panegyrises our size, our strength, whether real or imagined. ZDERA could never have meant well for our country, and Americans communicated that ill-will phonetically.
George Bush Jnr. regarded Thabo Mbeki, the former South African President, as his “pointman” on Zimbabwe. It was an epithet that caused angst on the unsophisticated, but great joy to most of us who knew.
Thabo had succeeded in getting this warrior American President to trust South Africa’s views on Zimbabwe. Thereafter, South Africa could save or damage us, as warranted by, and dependent on the state and scope of our bilateral relations. But Thabo had got the Americans off our back at a time when war and invasion was a matter of whim. Bush told Mbeki he did not understand why “his people” wanted him to take a harder line against Zimbabwe. “His” people included General Collen Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Jendayi Fraser, three pitchy black people like you and me. How ironic!
Obama, the current US President, rose to Presidency to great ululation of the Zimbabwean leadership. “I have lived to see a Blackman in White House,” said one of our leaders. Obama had attacked Zimbabwe during his election campaign. But that jarring note was nothing compared to the beauty of a Kenyan-born African-African American making it to White House. Hardly much later, he renewed the executive order that gave effect to ZDERA. Ever since, he has renewed it twice or so, ensuring that from the Zimbabwean perspective, he passes for a black sanctions President.
Attempts to get Zimbabwe under UN Chapter 7 were made by his Administration, something that could have made us the first case of the invasion disaster which was to befall Libya much later. We owe it to Mbeki, Russia and China who stood by us. But the same Obama was behind the ending of sanctions on Cuba, Burma and Iran, often against Congressional whim. He showed courage and strength, especially on Cuba and Iran. But not on Zimbabwe, a mild, even vicarious opponent for America.
When all programmes ended
Gentle reader, I have run you through history of Zimbabwe-US relations all to get you to appreciate the ups and downs of that turbulent interaction. I have not mentioned American capital which came in as aid, supporting development of urban infrastructure in our cities. But that was to be among the earliest casualties once sanctions were imposed.
I did not mention, too, that American soldiers routinely enrolled with our Zimbabwe Staff College, enrolled for every intake especially after ZNA’s fighting and peace-making doctrine had proved a success in Somalia where Americans pulled out in an undignified fashion, after the downing of their Black Hawk, and spectacular street lynching of bodies of their slain soldiers. That joint training programme, too, ended with the sanctions.
The way is open
The upshot of all this is that there is a lot in that diplomatic history to inspire permanent hostility for America and Americans; enough in that diplomatic history to inspire moves towards a restoration of relations to normalcy. Indeed a lot to justify hardline ideologues on either side, but also a lot to supply raw materials with which to fashion new realities, new relations. On our part, we have had a fair share of hardline ideologues as diplomatic actors. But we have a new generation of diplomats ready to try out things, ready to grant Americans another benefit of the doubt. I am sure it’s pretty much the same with the American side.
Hard and soft, together
The past three weeks have been a whirlwind as far as our bilateral relations are concerned. The weeks have been packed with highs and lows, all in equal measure. We had unhelpful noises from the Committee on Foreign Relations. But we have also had two previously sanctioned banks being removed and freed. Instead of building on that positive note, OFAC, a key American Office in charge of enforcing US’s unilateral sanctions abroad, proceeded to fine Barclays Bank about $2,3million for handling banking transactions for persons and entities in Zimbabwe under American sanctions.
We saw the impact of that well before this latest action. Standard Bank will not touch transactions involving Zimbabwean persons under sanctions. But it does not mind taking their deposits, making money out of them, and sending a dividend to its shareholders overseas, including in America. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Other international banks will follow suit, soon, assuming they have not done so already. Sanctions which spell out a national position, sanctions which are not declared by the UN, have now assumed universal obligation for all who transact in the US dollar. The dollar has become that much of a burdensome currency.
A new man in town
But hard on the heels of this inauspicious development, an American delegation of Congressmen came, and met with the President who left them to go away with unforgettable impressions. But they raised many issues, some prickly, others routine and manageable. Overall, whichever way we look at it, American diplomacy has shown a capacity to engage at multiple levels, in the process sending out complex messages, made all the more complex by how they refuse to add up, refuse to harmonise, towards a definite direction.
Yes, as Dr Mudenge would say repeatedly, diplomacy works on predictability, adding that the national position must not be readily read, must not readily yield. America’s new man is now here, still to present his credentials. His name is Ambassador Harry Thomas. We do not know him yet, don’t know his temperament or brief. It is our business to soon know, which we will soon do. But there are signs he comes on a positive deputation.
Then comes the crunch
And events will help us, sooner. There will be a sequel to Lima, where America and the rest of Europe did not oppose our debt payment plan. Gentle reader, you notice I said “did not oppose”. Not quite the same as “supported”. They only did not oppose. Assuming we pass the Staff Monitored Programme, we reach the crunch related to whether or not Zimbabwe must access new money from IFIs, after such a long time.
At that stage, America has to do much more than not to oppose. It has to take a stance, whether for or against. But beyond IFIs and new credit lines, the fact that it is possible for the Administration to remove entities hitherto specified under sanctions, means there is a lot that Obama can do administratively, without the revocation of ZDERA.
In spite of ZDERA
Obama has lots of room, lots of space for discretion, without recourse to Congress. Is this not the big lesson to be drawn from US relations with Cuba, Burma and with Iran? True, we have no oil, no huge population that gives America a big market. True, we are not strategic geo-politically, which is why one American officer once warned America can keep ZDERA for a thousand years without anyone in America noticing it, adding diplomacy is about interests and sizes, not moral blame-worthiness. Where holy interests and good actions coincide, consider it good fortune not so prone to repetition. Oftentimes the two don’t, and that is realpolitik.
Beyond diplomacy of positions
Where to Zimbabwe, whither now? The Americans have met the President. The Congressmen have been meeting with Foreign Affairs, led by Minister Mumbengegwi. Issues have been raised, answers have been given. Generalities and prejudices have been dropped and contacts shared to ensure new horizons in the interaction.
Deputy Minister Mbwembwe is the point-man for the Ministry. Both sides appear keen to move away from the diplomacy of positions, which has seen us reach predictable conclusions so easily, so quickly, so routinely. Zimbabwe must appreciate there are many things we can cautiously and calculatedly do with the Americans, ZDERA apart. The former US Ambassador, Bruce Wharton, now in the strategic office of African Affairs, used to say. Maybe he was right and we did not hear, let alone appreciate his point. We may now need to, so we build on what has happened to our two banks, build on contacts done so far, exploit possibilities offered by third parties of goodwill.
No sun heat cooks rice
After all, with Europe moving many people on sanctions list from suspension to removal, albeit leaving the First Couple and the Generals on the list, America might not want to shoulder a lonesome burden of sanctioning Zimbabwe alone. True, it has nothing to lose, yet equally, it has nothing to gain. Looking in the crystal ball, it is likely we might see European sanctions against this country dropped altogether before year-end. Already EDF, the European Development Fund, is being accessed, albeit with a staggering 6million Euro, being earmarked for NGOs, mostly political NGOs.
And we have Cuba to learn from: it is possible, through mere indifference to the Executive Order, for an American President to leave Congress holding on to a sanctions shell, while much returns to normalcy bilaterally.
Maybe it’s too early, too much, too soon, to hope for an America that supports us. But it may not be too much, or too soon, to hope for an America that does not oppose us. That in itself would be good progress. The key thing is to know that diplomacy, like fire, is an important tool and a treacherous friend. And also to know that no matter how hot the sun may be, it will never cook hard rice. Handling the tool well, not under — or overestimating what it does, abandoning positions, upholding sacred principles, that is the key. Are we ready?