INTERVIEW: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs on Zimbabwe elections; ‘a free and fair election is in doubt’
First, we are interested in understanding the U.S. government’s perspective on the upcoming general elections in Zimbabwe?
Well, I would like to recall that the president of Zimbabwe President Mnangagwa, has said repeatedly that he wants his country to hold free and fair elections. And we believe that would be the best path to promote peace and prosperity in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, we have seen a fact pattern over recent months that suggests that a free and fair election is in doubt. And I can give you some examples of why we are concerned about that possibility.
You may highlight your concerns.
Well, as you know, last month, new legislation called the Patriotic Act was adopted, and in fact, that legislation imposes restrictions on basic political freedoms agreed in Zimbabwe’s constitution, and African Union protocols and in UN protocols. And those include freedom of assembly that allows citizens and political parties to meet and prepare to engage in an election process, and it also includes restrictions on speech and expression both by citizens, political parties, and journalists. So those are the types of actions that concern us. We’ve also seen opposition political parties and citizens actively harassed and prevented from exercising their political freedoms that should be guaranteed by those regimes that I’ve described, the regimes under the Zimbabwean constitution, and as expressed by the African Union and the United Nations. So that’s why we’re concerned that the election won’t achieve the standard highlighted by the President.
But talking to officials in Harare, they are saying that the U.S. actually has a similar law that penalizes those who commit acts that can be deemed to be treasonous to the state.
I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. We do have legislation that shares the same name, but the content of the law is very different. And I think they may be referring to a different law. In the United States, we take very seriously the freedoms of assembly, the freedoms of expression. We have had our own challenges, as you have seen in recent years, in terms of conducting our elections. But we have institutions, for example, primarily our judiciary, as well as congressional investigative action to check on our own election activities. Because as President Biden has said, he believes that democracy is the best form of government to unlock the potential of every human being to treat all equal before the law and to pave the way for stability that allows economic development.
But is there any communication about these concerns between Harare and Washington?
Yes, we have conveyed those concerns in our discussions with the government. We’ve also talked about them publicly. I would say we have welcomed the invitation of the government for observers to the election, we will be having an observer team from our Embassy in Harare. And as well, it’s my understanding that there’ll be several international observers, for example, the Carter Center from the United States, as well as from the European Union and the African Union. And so, we hope that those observers are able to conduct their traditional duties to ensure that on the day of the election that voters are able to reach the polls freely, they’re not harassed, and that the electoral process is conducted in a way that reflects the actual vote.
Why is it important for Harare to have free and fair elections that are accepted by Zimbabweans and the international community?
Well, again, first, a free and fair election is what is expressed in the constitution of Zimbabwe, and what has been called for by the President. In our experience in the United States, and in our assessment of global experience, the best path for peace and prosperity is through a democratic system that respects all communities in a country regardless of ethnicity, regardless of religion, regardless of any other category, that everyone is treated equal, and allowed to participate freely in defining the future of their country. When you have political stability that results from a system such as I’ve described, then you have an opportunity to have good economic growth. We know and appreciate and respect Zimbabwe’s complicated political history in the 20th century. But we also know that Zimbabwe has a rich history of success, enormous human talent, [and] enormous natural resources. Zimbabwe has the potential to be a great leader in Southern Africa, and indeed to be a great participant in global conversations. So that’s what we would like to see for the people and country of Zimbabwe.
And let’s turn to political violence. We have just confirmed today that an opposition Citizens Coalition for Change supporter was killed in Harare, allegedly by ruling ZANU PF supporters. The Government of Zimbabwe has confirmed, the police have confirmed that they are also investigating. What is your take on the issue of political violence?
Well, obviously, I oppose political violence both in my own country, and in Zimbabwe and in any other country. You cannot have a functioning healthy democracy if people are intimidated by violence. I know we’ve seen examples earlier this year of political parties and citizens exercising their democratic rights, being detained, being beaten up by police forces. The example you’ve just described, a vigilante force by the political party, all of that is disturbing and should be unacceptable for a government and a society committed to a true free and fair election.
But the ruling party thing that Mr. Mnangagwa has been calling for peace and non-violence, is it not enough?
Well, I think the example you just cited and the examples I have cited suggest that his rhetoric is not yet being translated into action, and we would urge the government to follow the rhetoric outlined by the President.
Let’s turn to the overall US policy on Zimbabwe, of course, starting with the issue of targeted sanctions, that, of course, the government of Zimbabwe claims are sanctions against Zimbabwe. If you may explain this issue of sanctions, why they were imposed.
The sanctions were imposed because it was our assessment that the government was not living up to its constitutional text. So, the rights in particular for democracy in Zimbabwe, were being compromised. And once those rights are restored, we would be in a position to end the sanctions, but I have to tell you honestly, it is our assessment that it is really not U.S. sanctions that are having the biggest impact on Zimbabwe’s economy. The problem for Zimbabwe’s economy is decades of mismanagement, including corruption. Secondarily, the instability that we’ve seen is caused by repressive actions by the government that deters foreign investment, including from the United States. It also creates an environment which drives the people of Zimbabwe out of their home into neighbouring countries. So, those are some of the reasons why we would really like to see Zimbabwe get back to its own constitutional standard and contribute to political stability so that the country can get on track to improve its economy. I want to make clear that U.S. businesses are permitted to invest in Zimbabwe, so the reason they’re not doing so is not because of any sanctions, but because they don’t feel like they have a good partner in Zimbabwe, given the current conditions.
But is that not a problem Assistant Secretary because some economists argued that whereas Washington is trying to promote democracy, trade countries like China are investing in Africa. They are not concerned about the issue of human rights and the result is U.S. influence in Africa is actually limited.
Well, we do have a different model than the Chinese model. For example, if you are in business with the U.S. partner, with the U.S. private sector, generally speaking that partner should observe, for example, labour laws and have respect for the workers. It should respect environmental concerns and not degrade and exploit the environment, and it should not engage in corrupt practices so that there is a guarantee that any financial reward resulting from the economic activity of a U.S. company goes back to the people of Zimbabwe and is not taken out and put in another country. We also have a strong history of investing in the people of Zimbabwe. Over the past three years, for example, we’ve spent approximately $1 billion. Much of our programming goes to health assistance, particularly our signature PEPFAR program, which helps those dealing with HIV, AIDS, and helps develop Zimbabwe’s health system. We also provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, so we focus on people and processes.
So just to take you back a little, the only limitation to trade between Washington and Harare is definitely not the issue of sanctions, but issues to do with corruption because Harare argues that the reason why the sanctions were imposed is so that there can be a regime change.
No, I want to make clear that we do not support any particular political party or any particular candidate. We have no preference. We have a preference for a healthy electoral process. We want to see a free and fair election where the voice of the people of Zimbabwe results in the selection of their leadership, not the U.S. or any other external partner. Once that we see those kinds of conditions, then we will be able to remove the sanctions.
So at the moment you are not seeing any improvement because the government has also argued that it reformed some laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Well, I can only tell you that we see as I’ve described for you, the chilling effect of both recent legislation as well as conduct by government forces and other vigilantes that we fear will deter healthy political activity and corrupt the election process. I would like to say to that we really are concerned about the potential for political violence on the day of the election. So, my number one message today is our respectful request that the government of Zimbabwe and its supporters refrain from any violence against citizens trying to exercise their political rights. That is a concern for Zimbabwe. It is a concern for the United States. It should be a concern for any country in the world trying to hold a free and fair election.