U.S. Senators Call for More Economic, Political Reforms in Zimbabwe

Congressmen Coons and Jeff Flake chatting with businessman Joe Mutizwa
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A congressional hearing on Zimbabwe in the United States capital, Thursday, revealed the continued U.S. interest in Zimbabwe, but also the insidious suspicions against the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa by U.S. officials, following his disputed July 30 election victory.

Outgoing Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, who is behind the recent revisions to the controversial Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment Act of 2018, which lays out conditions of reform for Zimbabwe to regain full U.S. support, said the hearing aimed to evaluate the situation.

“The purpose of today’s hearing is to get a better understanding of the course Zimbabwe is on so that in the months ahead, Congress can evaluate U.S. policy options, and play a constructive role,” said Senator Flake, who was among the many foreign observers allowed to observe the elections.

Flake acknowledged what he called promising signs, such as the proposed budgets presented by the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank, as well as the promised repeal of two pieces of legislation deemed a threat to press freedom and also citizen rights to gather freely.

United States senators at a congressional hearing on Zimbabwe on Thursday.

“President Mnangagwa has pledged to push parliament to repeal two controversial measures passed by the (former President Robert) Mugabe regime that directly contradict Zimbabwe’s constitution, and for the first time in decades, democratic space is being opened in Zimbabwe,” said Flake, adding that “the corrupt shake downs that Zimbabweans faced on a daily basis for years, under the Mugabe era have been a thing of the past since his ouster.”

On the downside however, Flake referenced the country’s lack of strong economic performance and also harassment of opposition members.

“President Mnangagwa has largely been saying the right things, but some of the reforms however, have been slow to come. Zimbabwe may be open for business as is the slogan now, but foreign direct investment has not flowed into the country as many are still weary of the investment climate there.”

On the economy, Flake said “Zimbabwe’s economy has gone from bad to worse, leaving many with no access to cash … opposition figures and their families continue to be harassed at times.”

In referring to this, the harassment faced by opposition leader Tendai Biti was mentioned several times.

Echoing this position was fellow Republican U.S. Senator, Chris Coons of New Jersey, who too visited Zimbabwe during elections.

Coons said Mnangagwa’s rhetoric falls short of delivering real tangible reforms so far.

“There is indeed a significantly more open society and economy than there was under (former President Robert) Mugabe, but it is significantly short of what a free, fair and open society looks like, where rule of law dominates, where elections and opposition, elections happen regularly, opposition is free to speak, where press is truly unhindered,” said Coons.

“If you read a transcript of our meeting with President Mnangagwa, if you read transcripts of his speeches, if you read the editorial he wrote in the New York Times, he’s saying all the right things. Our challenge is the doing,” Coons stressed.

Zimbabwean businessman Joe Mutizwa
Zimbabwean businessman Joe Mutizwa

Representing the private business sector in Zimbabwe, Managing Consultant Joel Mutizwa of JMS Strategic Pathways in Zimbabwe, acknowledged the problems in Zimbabwe, but challenged the senator’s position on the lack of more aggressive reforms, which he said had Zimbabweans equally expecting a quick fix in what he termed, “a crisis of expectation”.

“People, having been in bondage for 38-years now want everything today. There is a palpable sense that in fact solutions must be proffered now, today, or yesterday if possible,” Mutizwa said.

Mutizwa said the reality on the ground was quite different, and piled praises on Mnangagwa’s bold efforts to fix the economy, and other fundamental issues, facing the country, namely, “fiscal indiscipline, current account imbalance, and unsustainable domestic and international debt, corruption, infrastructural decay, unemployment, deepening poverty and lack of economic competiveness across the economy.

Mutizwa credited Mnangagwa’s new, trimmed down cabinet “dominated by technocrats,” for turning around the economy. He cited revisions to the indigenization laws implemented by former President Mugabe, which restricted majority or 51% ownership of major sectors of the economy to indigenous Zimbabweans.

“Today as we speak, the law requiring any investor to cede 51% of their equity to locals has been removed. And what we have now is a situation where investors can come into any sector of the economy except for two: platinum and diamonds,” said Mutizwa.

He implored the U.S. to drop the sanctions on Zimbabwe, which the U.S. has said are targeted to only specific individuals and entities. Mutizwa said contrary to that claim, the sanctions present one of the biggest hurdles to Zimbabwe’s economic growth.

“Number one hurdle are sanctions,” said Mutizwa. “The sanctions are real. We hear talk that there are targeted sanctions, but the impact, the net impact of the sanctions on Zimbabwe is large.

Todd Moss
Todd Moss

“We are aware of course of the country risk which is associated with the negative that is painted as a result of sanctions. The risk premium in Zimbabwe is anywhere between 20 and 25%. We are aware of the trade restrictions – Zimbabwe is not able to access AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) for example, which many African countries are accessing at the moment.”

However, Todd Moss of the Washington-based Center for Global Development dismissed Mutizwa’s claims that the government is opening up the climate for investment, and that sanctions are hurting the country.

Moss, who urged the U.S. government to “be extremely cautious in engagement and use strategic patience,” also called for continued pressure on Zimbabwe saying the claims that sanctions hurt the country, was a “complete red herring.”

“The (Zimbabwe) government blames U.S. sanctions for their economic troubles rather than grappling with their own mismanagement and corruption,” said Moss. “Zimbabwe’s leaders cannot borrow, not because of U.S. sanctions but because they have not paid their bills and are now more than $5 billion in arrears, and blaming the U.S. is just another example of this government failing to take responsibility.”

Matthew Harrington
Matthew Harrington
Matthew Harrington

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Matthew Harrington, who also gave testimony before the senators, said the U.S. has welcomed the change in tone by the Mnangagwa administration and said he welcomed a better relationship with Zimbabwe.

“We want Zimbabwe to succeed and we would welcome a better relationship, but the ball is squarely in the government’s court to demonstrate it is irrevocably on a different trajectory,” said Harrington, elaborating that a better relationship was contingent upon the reforms that are spelt out under the revised ZIDERA.

“There are several steps the government of Zimbabwe could take, that would send a strong signal its own people and to the international community that it is serious about taking the country into a new more positive direction.

“First, it should repeal laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which have long been used to suppress the human rights of people in Zimbabwe … Second, the government should immediately end the harassment of members of the political opposition, it should drop charges against former finance minister and prominent opposition figure Tendai Biti and all those who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Third, the government should hold perpetrators of the August 1st violence fully accountable, and fourth, government should move quickly to ensure that legislation is consistent with the 2013 constitution.”

Some of the people who attended the congressional hearing on Zimbabwe ...
Some of the people who attended the congressional hearing on Zimbabwe …

To the above, Mutizwa said the government has already committed to repealing AIPPA and POSA, and that the government has already aligned 209 of the 299 statutes that were not in synch with constitution, while the remaining 49 were under reviews.

Additionally, said Mutizwa, Mnangagwa and his government has taken an unambiguous stance to rejoining the international community and clear Zimbabwe of the status of being a pariah state.

“We note, Mr. Chairman, a shift by the leadership of Zimbabwe, from a narrative of politics and hate speech that dominated the Mugabe era, to a narrative of economic engagement and economic progress.

Mutizwa said the country needs at least 12-18 months to transition to level expected by the U.S.

Other senators present at the hearing where Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey. – VOA