‘We are seeing Zim in a different light’
Relations between Zimbabwe and the 28-member European Union bloc were recently upgraded from informal to formal engagements. Government is presently ratcheting up its engagement and re-engagement drive. Our Chief Reporter Kuda Bwititi last week spoke to EU chief envoy to Zimbabwe Ambassador Timo Olkkonen to unpack the significance of the latest development, including how future relations between Harare and Brussels might possibly pan out.
Q: You presented your credentials (as EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe) late last year. What was your perception of Zimbabwe before you came and your perception now that you are in the country?
A: I am not a complete stranger to Zimbabwe, because I used to be the Finish ambassador in Lusaka. Finland does not have an embassy here, so I was covering Zimbabwe as a non-resident ambassador from Lusaka.
But obviously it’s a completely different thing when you are a resident ambassador in the country than when you are a non-resident living from outside, and particularly being the EU head of delegation here; the roles are completely different.
So what I would say is that there was a lot of frustration during the last days of former President (Robert) Mugabe, which we could see clearly as members of the diplomatic community.
Then there was the November 2017 events, which created expectation about things changing.
I got recruited in my current position when there was a lot of hope and a lot of goodwill towards Zimbabwe.
The August 1 2018 events created a dent. In that perspective, there was the whole electoral process that had gone quite peacefully and marked a change from the days of the past.
These events then created a waiting atmosphere of what will happen next. Government then presented its reform agenda through the Transitional Stabilisation Plan, and there is a lot of good things there.
Then obviously you had the January events, which, like what has been reported before, were a setback.
The January incidents also raised a lot of questions about security forces and many questions about how much has Zimbabwe changed.
I do think in general now that we are observing the country in different light. The obvious thing is that there has been a marked change from the Mugabe years in terms of the discussion atmosphere. We patiently hope that things will change for the better in terms of the economic and political reform agenda and addressing other issues so that things will move for the better. We hope to see further change.
Q: There has been laudable progress made by Zimbabwe on the reform agenda; a case in point, alignment of legislation (to the Constitution), political freedom and freedom of expression, among other positives. What is your take on this?
A: The legislative agenda is a process we are part of through technical assistance and alignment of the legislation and we recently had the visit of the EU managing director for Africa, Mr Koen Vervaeke, who met also with the Minister of Justice (Legal and Parliamentary Affairs).
The Minister (Ziyambi Ziyambi) made reassurances that this alignment agenda will move forward and controversial legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the media laws (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) will be presented to Parliament.
We are very much looking forward to this because these are symbolic issues, but also very real because they are in Zimbabwe’s past, you know that legislation has been abused before.
So I think these are the positives that we had been expecting to see.
I know that economic change is very important. Government is trying to take action. They recently had the IMF mission here last week (a fortnight ago), which recognised the Government is trying to cut down on expenditure in trying to balance the economy and addressing the currency issue.
But I think on the economic side what is important when you are addressing the short-term issues is to address the bigger, structural problems or bottlenecks that are holding Zimbabwe back.
I think agriculture holds tremendous potential for Zimbabwe. I am a very keen farmer myself, but the more I learn about it here, the more complicated and complex it gets.
There are some issues about security of tenure and how banks don’t accept property as collateral.
We are supporting Zimbabwe in the agriculture sector and I think our programmes would be more successful if given to private sector agriculture. There is a lot of opportunity, especially if all the structural issues are resolved.
Mining is also very important, but investors are cautious. These are the structural issues that should not be forgotten, even when you are looking at the short-term issues revolving around currency.
On the political agenda, it shouldn’t be underestimated that the January events had a bad impact on Zimbabwe.
We have had assurances from the highest levels of Government that the Kgalema Motlanthe commission issues will be addressed.
Police is also looking at their training, so those kind of things are quite important. We also had our own electoral observation team here, which came up with a number of recommendations.
We also expect to see the implementation of these recommendations. As we speak, Zec is having a stakeholders meeting in Nyanga and we hope to continue supporting Zec and supporting the process.
It’s a wide agenda, we do not want to be prescriptive, but we want to see progress.
Q: Is the EU doing anything to support Zimbabwe clear its debts, given that the country also owes money to the European Investment Bank?
A: Discussions have been ongoing on how to clear the arrears. The first stop is that there are the International Financial Institutions — that is, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank.
Indeed, it is something that we are discussing with the other creditors and also discussions with Government, who are key to the process. So at this stage all I can say is that these discussions are ongoing.
Q: But how could the EU assist in debt clearance?
A: I think it’s too early to go there, there is a global agreement with other creditors, so it’s something that needs to be agreed with other parties.
Q: The Sunday Mail recently reported on the upgrading of dialogue between the EU and Zimbabwe from informal to formal. Please, explain the significance of this?
A: This is a very positive development. It is based on the Cotonou Agreement, which the EU has with African-Caribbean-Pacific States. It is a legally binding agreement that covers many issues.
There is a specific article there — Article 8 — which says we should have political dialogue between the EU and the countries under these organisations.
With Zimbabwe, we haven’t had this dialogue for several years; rather, we have had informal engagements. Obviously, member states have had their own engagement with Government interlocutors, but we haven’t had this setting for a dialogue, where you would have the EU state ambassadors and the EU delegation interacting directly with the Government in a formal setting.