Zimbabwe, though cash-strapped, is said to have devised a three pronged strategy to repair its battered image. The first is to hire public relations consultancy firms preferably in the United Kingdom and the United States to repair the damage.
The second is to appoint information attaches. At the moment the country has no information attache. The last one was recalled from Botswana in December 1996.
Although the local media has reported that the country is planning to deploy eight information attaches, The Insider understands that six are likely to be appointed. Top priority is being placed on London. The United Kingdom is the country’s second largest trading partner.
According to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, trade between Zimbabwe and the UK between January and November last year was $3.7 billion in exports and $3.3 billion in imports.
Second is South Africa, the country’s largest trading partner. Imports from South Africa accounted for $20.4 billion against exports of only $4.9 billion.
Third will be the United States which will have two, attaches, one in Washington for the US itself and the other in New York for the United Nations. Trade with the United States was $2.1 billion in exports and $3 billion in imports.
The other two attaches are earmarked for Brussels for the European Union, now a key trading block and one of the major donors, and Bonn for the Germany market. Germany exported goods valued at $2.1 billion to Zimbabwe and imported those valued at $2.8 billion in the first 11 months of last year.
The third strategy involves moving around ambassadors and high commissioners. London, again takes top priority with former European Union ambassador and permanent secretary, Andrew Mtetwa, earmarked for the post.
Mtetwa has been training diplomats in Harare during the past few months and seems to have the right connections. When there was argument over who should be posted to the key post in Pretoria, he was posted there while a solution was being sought.
Former high commissioner to London, Ngoni Chideya, reports say, may be posted to the United Nations while former cabinet minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi could be posted to Washington. Reports say Mumbengegwi would be overseeing Chideya.
The key South African post, sources say, may be given to former information secretary Margaret Muchada who is from the President’s Office.
But the main problem could that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is already in financial problems. Although it was recently bailed out with an injection of $86 million after exhausting its budget for 1999 of $391.3 million in the first quarter of the year, this is not likely to last.
The ministry’s budget was slashed from $866.6 million in 1997-98, an 18-month year, to $391.3 for the current year ending December. The major cuts were in salaries and allowances which were reduced from $520.1 million to $57.8 million.
Salaries per se were reduced from $119.5 million to $49.9 million but allowances were slashed from $396 million to $6.5 million. The diplomatic missions’ budget was only slightly reduced from $220 million to $193.4 million. The ministry says it needs $1.5 billion for expenses.
Chideya in a letter to The Herald explaining why the ministry had exhausted its budget says, when the budget was drafted, the exchange rate for 1999 had been expected to be $24 to US$1 but it had dropped to $37 to US$1.
He says the budget of US$16.3 million had been reduced to less than US$12 million. But he also pointed out that the ministry had reduced staff by 159 posts.
Questions have been raised during the past few months about the usefulness of Zimbabwe’s 37 missions. The embassies have been accused by Parliament of not promoting the image of the country or trade.
Foreign Affairs officials have been saying trade should be promoted by trade attaches who fall under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce which is reported to have only four such attaches.
Defending the image is the duty of the Ministry of Information which has no attaches. With the country seeking aid from the IMF, although it has said it is going to cut ties with the institution, it is difficult to see how they will raise the money required for this exercise.
Besides by recycling the same old diplomats, it is difficult to see how they can change the country’s image.
Muchada, for example, did not make efforts to get to know the media when she was permanent secretary for information, yet the whole process of trying to repair the battered image rests on influencing the media to focus on “positive” aspects of the country rather than the “negative” ones.