Saturday, 9 May 2020


Covid-19 has in a fundamental way transformed how countries conduct diplomacy and manage their international relations. In the case of Zimbabwe, the pandemic has stalled the country’s engagement and re-engagement initiatives that were beginning to bear fruit in terms of thawing relations with erstwhile adversaries. The Herald’s Deputy Editor Ranga Mataire (RM) recently spoke to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Dr Sibusiso Busi Moyo (SB) on how Covid-19 has affected the country’s re-engagement efforts and plans to rescue Zimbabweans who are stranded outside the country

RM: Let’s start by looking at the state of our embassies’ preparedness in light of Covid-19 and how the pandemic has in general affected the Government’s re-engagement efforts?
SB: Indeed, Covid-19 has affected everyone in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you are a diplomat or not. That is a fact. Our policy of engagement and re-engagement was in full gear. Our drive to invite Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), tourism and secure markets was on course, but alas the arrival of the coronavirus that has wreaked havoc has hampered efforts by the ministry and embassies. We have had to instruct embassies to scale down and conform to all the laws that are being effected in those host countries. The situation was that it was difficult even now to make a programme to go and meet anyone. So it’s true that our embassies are to an extent affected.

RM: Has the Government coordinated initiatives to repatriate citizens who could be stranded outside the country, especially in countries hard hit by coronavirus?
SB: Yes, actually the Government of Zimbabwe has begun the repatriation of our citizens stranded abroad following distress calls received throughout various embassies. As you are aware, the outbreak of this virus has resulted in most countries across the world closing their borders. Government has had to engage other governments to seek authorisation for our citizens who wish to return home to be granted passage.

In some cases, we are actually doing this on a reciprocal basis by allowing repatriation of citizens of other countries who are in our country. You will recall that we facilitated the repatriation of Pakistanis to Islamabad from our country recently who were coming from Zambia through Zimbabwe and to South Africa through OR Tambo International Airport.

RM: In terms of our citizens stranded outside the country; do you have any specific numbers and countries help is needed?
SB: Since the lockdown started, I think over 700 citizens have arrived from Botswana. Repatriation from our neighbouring countries continue and efforts are underway to improve communication and coordination channels with authorities there in Botswana to ensure that we at least organise the return of our citizens who are coming out of that country. Last week, the first batch of 20 citizens from Namibia was received in the country.

These returnees are quarantined at Mosi-oa-Tunya High School in Victoria Falls. Distress calls have so far come in from as far as China where about 300 nationals have registered for repatriation back to Zimbabwe. These are people who were caught by Covid-19, but most of the students who were at universities are fine.

We also have in the United Arab Emirates, a number of our citizens who have contacted our embassy in Abu Dhabi to register their wish to return home. Similarly, India has some Zimbabweans who had gone for medical treatment who had reached out to our mission seeking assistance to return home. The highest number of Zimbabweans seeking to return home is basically from the region. In this regard, we are currently engaged in negotiations regarding our nationals in South Africa who wish to return home.

Our diplomatic mission there has opened a web-link for all distressed nationals who wish to return home register. As at 1 May 2020, we were expecting to repatriate around 3 000 from South Africa. Furthermore, over 4 000 Zimbabweans in distress in that country have registered for food assistance and we are working with the Department of Social Welfare and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) so that we can assist them. We have also had a lot of Zimbabweans who are stranded in ships — those are working in ships.

For example, we received distress calls from our nationals who are currently at sea working for various international cruise liners and are seeking to return home. One such ship from USA; we were informed is currently heading to Cape Town and we have about 30 or so Zimbabweans on board. There is also a second one on its way, in which we are still to ascertain the number of Zimbabweans aboard.

RM: Do you have the exact number of our nationals in the United Kingdom wishing to come home?
SB: In UK we have quite a number, but our challenge at the moment even with many other countries like India is the lack of airlines.

RM: What is the latest update regarding the restructuring of embassies in terms of cutting costs by reducing the numbers and tailor-making them to suit the new thrust of the New Dispensation anchored on economic diplomacy?
SB: Well, in the diplomatic arena, the opening and closing of an embassy requires multi-stakeholder consultation. Announcing missions for closure might jeopardise the whole process before it even begins. So the disengagement process requires diplomatic engagement of the host country itself because they will say why are you closing the embassy. Is it because our relations are bad?

There are some internal administrative processes that need to be followed; advising staff to avoid shock of seeing information in the Press. However, you may wish to know that driven by our national thrust of engagement and re-engagement, we have definitely downsized a lot of embassies and we have also opened new ones.

We have downsized embassies and personnel so that they are repositioned in line with their new mandate. We recently deployed a lot of diplomats after a lot of rigorous training to orient them into understanding economic diplomacy. As we were doing that, we were opening other missions where we were identifying potential markets. We have opened embassies in UAE, Turkey and Rwanda and we are still in the process of closing some like in Singapore.

RM: Still on re-engagement; can you briefly outline how far as a country we have gone in rejoining the Commonwealth?
SB: First, let me tell you that the process of rejoining the Commonwealth was and is for the interest of Zimbabweans to benefit, but not to satisfy certain capitals. As a result of that, we indicated that we wanted to rejoin. So there is a whole process of rejoining that we have had to follow. We have done all the processes and as far as we are concerned, we have even managed to invite the Commonwealth Election Observer Mission.

It was an unprecedented move because legally, the Commonwealth cannot observe an election in a non-member state. But we managed to agree with the secretary-general Madam Patricia Scotland until she constituted a mission, which came to observe our elections. That was after my first visit to London when I met the now Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

We had breakfast together and he was upbeat as far as I was concerned about the desire to see Zimbabwe back in the Commonwealth. So the observation of the election was the first assessment and you recall that there was a second assessment mission. In fact, that second assessment mission came to Zimbabwe when I was in UK for the second time where I met the secretary-general. And on many other occasions, the secretary-general met President Mnangagwa in New York and everything was moving positively.

We then submitted issues to do with our Constitution and then finally, some capitals then decided to say our reforms were slow. Well, we told them candidly that it’s not that we are so hungry to be in the Commonwealth, but we thought we could just be together with our brothers whom we had been familiar with for a long time. But if some capitals are opinion makers in the Commonwealth, then it becomes problematic. What consoles us is that we have some countries in Africa, Asia and everywhere who are in support of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth.

RM: Are you positive that post-Covid-19, something positive might come out in regard to the Commonwealth?
SB: I don’t want to take that position. All I can say is that we are entitled to be there.

RM: Minister, in your assessment how are Zimbabwe-Britain relations likely to be in the post-Brexit era?
SB: I am surprised on one side, but not surprised on the other hand. It was UK which influenced the European Union (EU) to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. So naturally, the thinking is that when they get out of the EU, they would want to get out with their paperwork and that paperwork includes sanctions on Zimbabwe. On the other hand, we had been having a lot of bilateral relations and this has been in line with the assumption of office from the 24th of November 2017 when His Excellency President Mnangagwa made engagement and re-engagement the hallmark of his New Dispensation. And this positive interactive foreign policy has generated a multifaceted and palpable growth in Zimbabwe-Britain relations, which gives confidence that these bilateral relations are progressively moving towards normalisation, not towards retention of the illegal sanctions. So the evidence of the growing bilateral relations includes that at Britain’s request, Zimbabwe and Britain have just signed and ratified an interim East and Southern Africa trade agreement.

RM: What does that mean Minister? What is the significance of this agreement?
SB: We signed this agreement at the end of last year. There are groupings of nations in the Pacific and also Africa. Zimbabwe was apparently grouped within the islands of Mauritius and Seychelles. This positive characteristic gave confidence that our bilateral relations were headed for normalisation. Only last month, Britain became the biggest contributor (US$43,6m) to the Zimbabwe efforts to combat Covid-19 pandemic. Zimbabwe is most grateful and we appreciate that support and when we interact we speak as equal brothers, partners. In February 2020, the Government hosted a British government delegation that came to amicably negotiate the repatriation of Zimbabweans — who are on social welfare. And this was made possible by his Excellency President Mnangagwa. Such kind of cooperation is a welcome build-up towards the normalisation of our bilateral relations.

RM: So why this perpetuation of sanctions by the same Britain which you say was the instigator of the economic embargo in the EU?
SB: We have had incessant calls by Britain and other countries to institute various reforms and President Mnangagwa has embarked on implementing a wide range of reforms that also give confidence that the international community, including UK will welcome this as a basis not to continue the isolation of Zimbabwe. You will recall that even on the fiscal front, these reforms have resulted in the New Dispensation now progressively achieving monthly budgetary surplus as opposed to perennial monthly budgetary deficit. The recent rating by World Bank has also upgraded our position to number 51 out of about 170 countries.

RM: From what you are saying, it means there is hope that relations between Zimbabwe and Britain will turn for the good?
SB: Removing sanctions is a process not an event, but our expectations are that very soon we are going to have meetings between ourselves and the EU. These meetings are the ones that result in understanding of certain facts.  What complicated or dented the process that we had initiated was the changes that we have had in UK. We waited for the changes to settle in so that we could resume bilateral engagements. It’s usually easier to have virtual meetings with somebody you have met before.  At the moment, the focus of most leaders is on saving lives and it is not the ideal time to let someone refocus on something else.

RM: Lastly Minister, what is your general assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on Zimbabwe’s international trade and what plans are in place to capacitate companies in the post-pandemic period?
SB: I think generally; Covid-19 is a bad virus, but what I will assure you is that it has made everybody in the global village to speak to each other. Secondly, within nations, it has united nations.

Not only to unite nations, but to find time to reflect and rethink of opportunities and various interests, which are available as a result of Covid-19. In my view, Covid-19 impact is such that it closed borders and it means nations eat what they produce and that is why President Mnangagwa has quickly realised this balance — that we have to deal with Covid-19 simultaneously with the economy.

We need to put our hands together. A good example is that we are one of the few countries in the world that produce platinum second to South Africa and Russia. If we are to come together with South Africa, we can form an oligopoly and we will then have our own market; have our own bank; have one currency and that will be the basis of what I see Covid-19 is impacting on nations.

It is the spirit of collaboration. We must integrate our region. The regional integration agenda must be the top priority in SADC. The impact of Covid-19 must be looked at in terms of opportunities and then those opportunities must then be tackled as a united force. The unity that has been displayed during the course of this Covid-19 pandemic if it is maintained afterwards, this country will fly. Herald


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