Britain is looking alone and bewildered. Ever since the end of World War II, its foreign policy has rested on two pillars: Europe and the “special relationship” with the US. With Trump in the White House and the convulsions of Brexit, both pillars have fallen over. But just as the old saying comforts us—that tough times reveal your true friends—so these difficulties seem to have revealed a most unlikely supporter: Zimbabwe.
In an interview last week, the new president of the Southern African country, Emmerson Mnangagwa, suggested that “what they [the UK] have lost in Brexit they can come and recover from Zimbabwe.” It is easy to dismiss this as political point scoring. An economy the size of Sheffield can hardly fill the shoes of a market absorbing 43 per cent of Britain’s exports. But there is more to it. The statement is laced with the complicated dynamics which have characterised the relationship between Britain and its former colony since independence in 1980. To dismiss it would be to miss an opportunity for both Zimbabwe and the UK.
The statement is not intended to be literal. Mnangagwa has been accused of complicity in massacres on his own people, election violence and the looting of state assets but he is not stupid. He knows that Zimbabwe is incapable of offering an export market for Britain in any meaningful way. The collapse of the economy precipitated by former President Robert Mugabe’s expropriation of the commercial agricultural sector in the early 2000s has left Zimbabwe without foreign currency. Even if the 13 million Zimbabweans developed an insatiable appetite for British goods and services, they couldn’t pay for them.
Indeed, what Zimbabwe needs is exports, not imports. Some estimates point to unemployment in excess of 90 per cent despite Zimbabweans being the most literate population in Africa. To build presidential legitimacy, Mnangagwa needs to rebuild the economy. And to rebuild the economy, Mnangagwa needs investment which in turn, requires foreign partners. Mnangagwa’s statement is not so much an offer of help but a reassurance that Zimbabwe is open for British businesses.
Understood in this way, we are still left with two immediate questions. First: is he serious? Ever since Tony Blair rejected British sponsorship of Zimbabwe’s land-reform programme in 1997, the official relationship with the UK has been frosty. Temperatures sank below freezing when Britain imposed sanctions on Mugabe who, in response, withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth—a 52-nation club of mostly former British colonies. Being open for British business is a complete retreat from two decades of rhetoric.
“The first step would be to guide Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth—something which both Boris Johnson and Mnangagwa have hinted at”
But beneath this official rhetoric, an incongruent fascination with everything British has persisted among the Zimbabwean elite. UK properties, social clubs and universities are casually namedropped in the same conversation as anti-imperial rhetoric. Mugabe himself is rumoured to have said that if the Queen—who knighted him in 1994—wished to see him, the two could engineer rapprochement. With Mugabe gone, reopening the country to British business will align official policy with the establishment’s instinctive Anglophilia. As recently as April last year, the Zimbabwean Minister for Tourism described the strained bilateral relationship as a “family feud.”
The second and arguably more interesting question is: should Britain care about this invitation from Harare? Under normal circumstances, maybe not. But these are not normal circumstances. Bureaucrats and politicians from the rich rainy island in the North Sea are rummaging every drawer for something to cling on to once the European moorings come undone. The Commonwealth has featured prominently in these efforts. Buying 9 per cent of Britain’s exports and with a wealth of shared experiences and interlinked institutions, it is an obvious candidate for a partial, patched-up EU replacement.
In this context, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has presented a plan to strengthen trade with Commonwealth countries in Africa. He declared that “as we [the UK] leave the EU, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a more open and outward looking Britain and forge independent trading arrangements with growing economies around the world.”
Including Zimbabwe in these plans will not bring immediate economic benefits to Britain. But Brexit is not just a loss of trade; it is also a loss of political relevance. The coincidence of Zimbabwe’s and Britain’s reorientation on the international stage—though of course these reorientations, not to mention the countries themselves, are very different—offers an opportunity for the UK to show strength in one of the few parts of the world that might still look to the UK for leadership.
The first step would be to guide Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth—something which both Boris Johnson and Mnangagwa have hinted at. This would then be followed by financial support for the resurrection of the Zimbabwean economy—even if only to prepare it for the purchase of British goods in the future. Mnangagwa’s past dealings under Mugabe must never be forgotten. But they do not ultimately affect the calculus. His actions from now on do. In these early months of his presidency, constructive British engagement could be an anchor for positive change.
For Zimbabwe, concrete British acknowledgement of the new, non-Mugabe era would go a long way to help the ravaged country. For Britain, concrete British acknowledgement of the new, non-Mugabe era could offer a relatively cheap way of rebuilding credibility on a continent forging its way into the future. Maybe this is the beginning of a new special relationship. Like people, most countries are uncomfortable with solitude.