In the past few months, there have been increasing indications that the US, UK and EU are flirting with reconciliation – or at least a less stridently antagonist relationship – with the once internationally reviled President Robert Mugabe.
In March, for example, Western sanctions against some members of Mugabe’s inner circle were lifted after Zimbabwe’s constitutional referendum was deemed “peaceful, successful and credible” by the EU.
Some of these aides were even invited by the British government to London for a re-engagement meeting. Then, last month when Mugabe announced –unilaterally and somewhat provocatively– that Zimbabwe’s general elections would be held on the 31 July, the European Union and US were notably silent.
A similarly muted response would have been hard to imagine just five years ago when Mugabe’s international standing was at rock bottom.
There are a number of possible reasons behind the apparent thawing of the West’s icy stance towards Mugabe.
The first is that the president and his ruling ZANU-PF party have genuinely managed to reassure the West of their democratic credentials and that elections this time round will be free and fair.
However, this seems to fly in the face of the fact that there have been virtually no political reforms since 2008 and that ZANU-PF has already made public its intentions to change the new constitution were it to regain power.
For the real reasons into the possible shift in the West’s position on Mugabe, we may have to look to other factors.
Over the past few years, the Zimbabwean government has made some attempts to reach out to the international community. In these endeavours, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), have helped give Harare a friendly face.
Tsvangirai’s international tours and other diplomatic efforts have helped sanitise the Zimbabwean government, and his role as prime minister has allowed foreign powers greater flexibility to deal with Zimbabwe without being seen to be dealing with Mugabe.
However, Zimbabwe’s improved relations have in turn reflected well on the government as a whole. For his part, Mugabe may have also been hoping for painful relations with the West to heal over. His rhetoric against the British government, for example, appears to become more subdued compared to in the run-up to the 2008 elections.
The US and UK’s softened stance could be derived from an acceptance that ZANU–PF and Mugabe are here to stay. As surveys undertaken by Afrobarometer and Freedom House suggest, ZANU–PF not only enjoys a great deal of popular support in country, but this support has been increasing while the MDC’s has been declining.
Furthermore, as analyst Phillan Zamchiya has explained, even if the MDC were able to generate more willing voters than ZANU–PF in the next few weeks, it is likely that ZANU-PF would still be able to manipulate the result to ensure victory.
Given how deeply entrenched Mugabe and his party are in Zimbabwean politics, Washington and London may have calculated that unrelenting criticism would be futile and simply drive Zimbabwe into the arms of other interested parties such as China.
Following on from the last point, the West’s change of tack could be seen as a demonstration of realpolitik entrepreneurship. Western sanctions and the increasing involvement of other economic actors in Zimbabwe such as China – in part thanks to Mugabe’s ‘Look East’ policy in the face of those sanctions – has also left many Western countries on the back foot when it comes to Zimbabwe’s considerable mineral wealth.
Recognising that their sanctions did not work as intended, Western nations may now be trying to ease the way for Western companies to regain a stronger foothold in Zimbabwean economic affairs.
Since the two MDC factions – the MDC-T led by Tsvangirai, and the MDC-M led initially by Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara and now by Welshman Ncube – joined the coalition government, Western support for them has faded.
This is partly due to the corruption and undemocratic practices some MDC members have been accused of since taking office. Western governments may have realised that criticising Mugabe and ZANU-PF without extending similar disapproval to MDC members allegedly involved in similarly corrupt activities would be hypocritical.
Unwilling to denounce the MDC, Western powers may be consciously holding their tongues more when it comes to Mugabe too.
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush were the main architects of the policies which saw Mugabe’s government portrayed as a pariah state. Tony Blair relentlessly lobbied the EU to impose sanctions against President Mugabe. And his successor, Gordon Brown, intensified the assault on Mugabe’s regime.
Under the Conservative-led coalition government which took over in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron has taken more of a back seat on Zimbabwe, possibly due to the UK’s numerous domestic problems and a shift in foreign policy focus towards Somalia.
Some senior Conservative officials have even used a conciliatory tone towards Zimbabwe. Without lobbying from London, the EU has also become more circumspect in its criticism of Mugabe.
During the political crisis that engulfed Zimbabwe between 2001 and 2008, Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa at the time, tried to resolve the situation through an approach which was dubbed ‘quiet diplomacy’.
This soft approach was heavily criticised by the EU and US, and Mbeki was seen as reluctant to put pressure on his fellow ‘revolutionary cadre’ to institute political reforms. Unsure of Mbeki, the UK and US may have felt it necessary to engage more directly in Zimbabwean affairs.
Today’s South African president, Jacob Zuma, is seen as more assertive towards Zimbabwe. Indeed, on his recent trip to the South Africa, US President Barack Obama praised Zuma’s administration for reining in ZANU–PF and for confronting them on issues such as violence and intimidation as well as the lack of progress on electoral reform.
It is possible that the UK and US trust Zuma to take an effective lead role on Zimbabwe and so feel more comfortable taking a hands-off approach themselves.
Another reason the West might have toned down its stance on Mugabe and avoided openly expressing support for opposition parties is the realisation that such rhetoric could actually bolster ZANU-PF’s campaign and undermine the MDC’s.
In the past, Mugabe has been able to generate much popular support by denouncing Western interference as imperialist and painting the MDC as puppets of the former colonial regime.
Throughout the last decade, EU and US officials have told Mugabe’s government that it must bring an end to human rights abuses, corruption and political violence if it is to be rehabilitated internationally.
Yet despite the lack of political reform, the West has recently lifted sanctions, toned down criticism and engaged in some conciliatory language. The EU and US appear to be attempting to deal with Mugabe and ZANU-PF quite differently than from five years ago.
How long this will last, however, remains to be seen. Zimbabwean politics are in a precarious poised position and it is highly uncertain how the election will unfold. Rather than marking a whole new era of Zimbabwean-Western relations, the West’s softened stance is probably more part of a wait-and-see approach.
By Simukai Tinhu- Tinhu has a background in International relations (London School of Economics) and African Politics (University of Oxford and University of Cambridge). His interests are risk analysis with a special focus on African countries.
This article was reproduced with permission from Think Africa Press