UK election: small bother rather than major worry for Zimbabwe

Rishi Sunak
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British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak this week called for a general election in the UK, triggering lots of speculation about yet another possible change at Number 10 Downing Street.

By Tichaona Zindoga

The United Kingdom has seen an extraordinarily high leadership turnover in the past one-and-half decades, with half a dozen Prime Ministers in the period.
July 4, the date proclaimed by Sunak as the date of the general election, is set to see a possible change, with Sunak likely to face a strong challenge from Labour Party’s Keir Starmer, who is being tipped to defeat the Conservative leader.

This is a prospect that has sent political heads turning in Zimbabwe, against the backdrop of rapidly warming relations between Harare and London. Zimbabwe and its former coloniser had finally managed to steady the diplomatic ship, and were about to enjoy an unprecedented era of smooth and sweet sailing.

Consider a recent newspaper article by President Mnangagwa’s spokesman, George Charamba, in State media recently.

Writing in The Herald, Charamba said: “I write this piece at a time when Zimbabwe’s bilateral relations with Britain have now improved, and seem poised for some promising and even hopeful phase.”

He also said the British Anbassador, Peter Vowles, was “making (the) right noises”, while, “Britain, too, has played her part, nobly”.

The once-estranged Britain had indicated her readiness to support Zimbabwe’s arrears clearance and debt resolution efforts, and supported Zimbabwe’s bid for readmission into the Commonwealth.

At the same time, there was an increase in UK investments in Zimbabwe, and to top it all Zimbabwe was “likely to play host to some high profile visit from His Majesty’s Government”.

According to Charamba, “These are sturdy strides and auguries to better bilateral times ahead.” For context, Charamba served under the previous administration of Robert Mugabe, Britain’s infamous bête noire, who carved himself a place as the champion of anti-British imperialism, a status he enjoys today. May his soul rest in peace!

Hold on, watch the space…

But is the diplomatic ship about to hit the iceberg and crash the party?

Professor Stephen Chan, once described as a listening post for the British establishment by none other than Charamba himself, gave a cynical comment following the announcement of the election and its implications for UK-Zimbabwe relations.

“A likely Labour win,” wrote Chan on social media platform X.

“The shadow Foreign secretary is David Lammy (a SOAS graduate) and one of his deputies, shadow Minister for Africa, is Lyn Brown. Pictures here. I advised Lammy. These two will have views on Zimbabwe. Not mine, but strong views in any case. Watch this spot. 4 July is not far off.”

The implication was that Labour, in the event that it wins July 4, will reverse the current diplomatic trajectory, and Chan’s intention was to spook the Government of Zimbabwe.

The implication was that Labour, in the event that it wins July 4, will reverse the current diplomatic trajectory, and Chan’s intention was to spook the Government of Zimbabwe.

The reason is partly because of the history between the Labour Party and Harare whose main markers included Labour Party’s reneging on funding land reform in Zimbabwe, its role in the formation of Zimbabwe’s once formidable opposition in 1999 that sought to dislodge the ruling Zanu-PF; UK’s instigation of the “Anglo-Saxon world” (or their kith and kin) to impose sanctions following the land reform programme.

Subsequently, Zimbabwe became a pariah in the West, while at home the Western backed opposition threatened to take power at every turn. Until it couldn’t.
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those heady days when Zimbabwe and Britain were at each other’s throats, best exemplified by former President Mugabe’s beef with Toby Blair, then UK premier. To Stephen Chan, those days are coming back, if or when, Labour Party returns. A good number of people think that way – and they are wrong.

The small matter of British elections

How much weight do the forthcoming elections carry?

To all intents and purposes, the elections are a small administrative issue among the Britons, with little impact across the globe, as Britain has significantly lost weight in international affairs, no matter how desperate Britain seeks to project itself.

Britain has become a lightweight on all major questions of the day: from the war in Ukraine, the Middle East to climate change. Even on the question of Africa where there is ongoing “scramble” by big powers, principally America and China, on how to engage the continent of the future, Britain is not a factor.

Soggy Sunak

It was, therefore, somewhat comical when Rishi Sunak on that soggy Wednesday afternoon outlined his foreign agenda, citing threats posed by “Putin’s Russia”, Middle East and global instability, migration as well as China “…seeking to dominate the 21st century by stealing a lead in technology”.

Sunak’s Britain has more weight and moral ground in football matters – even then with challenge from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar where oil sheikhs are pouring money into sport – and as a destination for poor peoples from developing countries seeking to work as carers of British aged population, than in any key issues that could determine the fate of today’s world.

That is to mean that economically, politically and militarily, Britain is not exactly the force it used to be. This status will not change anytime soon, including after the election given the quality of leadership and “governors” acting on behalf of the once-fabled empire, begging the question, can the real United Kingdom stand up? Instructively, Sunak did not even mention what Africa means for Britain, not that Africa itself – where Britain used to own colonies and wealth – cares much.

The truth of the matter is that, whoever wins this election is not going to matter. In the worst case scenario for Zimbabwe, the less-desired Labour win will NOT have the kind of impact it would have had 20 years ago. It will be a minor inconvenience, a small bother rather than a major worry.

Labour may seek to revive old rivalries with Zanu-PF to gain a semblance of moral uppity and self-arrogation, which to be fair is an expectation, but this will not be fatal. Harare will just resort to the default setting, antagonise Britain or simply ignore and move on with engagements with China, the Middle East and other alternative forces and markets. It will be Britain’s loss, as it squanders an opportunity to pivot to its former colony whose riches are making countries such as China stronger, especially through critical minerals that are pivotal for new energy and technologies.

Labour would have benefitted from a stronger local opposition with whom it has historical links, but that opposition is all but non-existent at the moment having undergone mortal changes. It would take a lot of money and courage to revive it to serve the purpose of fighting Zanu-PF.

From where I’m standing, Labour will have neither power nor resources to invest in the project that gobbled millions to no avail. This will likely sap any courage even from Stephen Chan’s SOAS proteges.

Essentially, Chan was being delusional and self-indulgent in trying to tell us Labour will be significant. They will not amount to anything other than raise few moral noises. On the scale of costs and benefits, it weighs heavily on costs.

This is what 14 years of water under the bridge – since Gordon Brown in 2010 – has yielded. Conservatives gave us David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Lizz Truss (who lasted 26 days) and Rishi Sunak in the intervening period.

If, by any chance, Starmer becomes Prime Minister, it will be a script that would have been flipped.

But same script, anyway.

This was first published here by the Review & Mail.