‘Inclusivity is essential to bridge the political divide’

EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe Philippe Van Damme

OUTSPOKEN European Union (EU) Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Phillipe Van Damme’s (PVD, pictured) eventful four-year diplomatic tour of duty to the country ends this month. The married father-of-five and grandfather, who describes himself as an “Africa-biased” development economist, returns to Brussels at a time Zimbabwe is making strides towards charting a new course after the landmark July 30 elections and through the strengthening of EU-Zimbabwe relations. Zimbabwe Independent (ZI) news editor Owen Gagare and reporter Nyasha Chingono sat down with Van Damme for a candid discussion on political, electoral, economic and international relations issues. Below are excerpts of the interview:

ZI: What was your mandate coming into Zimbabwe and did you achieve the goals?

PVD: I had a mandate where we had to lift what we call appropriate measures which obliged us to channel all of our developmental funds to civil society. The lifting of these appropriate measures was a way of re-engaging with the authorities of this country allowing us to programme all our development cooperation through a joint programming. Through that joint programming, we start a dialogue of policy issues and politically issues. So part of my mandate was to try and bring Zimbabwe back onto the international scene to the development of more coherent policies and more constructive political engagement. It’s for my bosses to assess what I have achieved or not achieved.

The bottom line throughout my professional work is trying to know a heritage of an inward looking, suspicious society and the anti-Western rhetoric of the past. It was not only anti-Western, but suspicion of whatever comes from outside. It took time to start breaking down these defensive walls and to engage in a constructive, open dialogue like you do in other countries. You may not necessarily agree but at least have that capacity to have an open, frank discussion on what are the challenges and remedies to these challenges and how we can accompany some of the policies. This has taken a lot of time and energy. So this country still suffers from this inherited suspicion from the outside, therefore lacks the normal human interaction based on an open dialogue. You see that throughout society.

We were just here to accompany reforms which government identified as important and essential to bring this country back to a sustainable growth and development path. But how to translate these policies on the ground and to bring different stakeholders to discuss these policies has been extremely difficult at all levels. Be it in terms of trade promotion or political dialogue, it has been extremely slow. Progress has been very slow and that means that much more needs to be done to invest in trust building measures.

ZI: Please share the highlights of your tour of duty as well as your frustrations and failures.

PVD: Wherever I have been, elections have always been a highlight where people queue before polling stations open where people are willing to express their democratic choice, and I find it always moving. People are ready for democracy. It answers all the Afro-pessimism.

On the development side, I recall meeting a very small community in Chimanimani, a women’s group, which has been supporting their community through commercial harvesting of baobab. I will never forget that because these people have found a way of growing baobabs which is not an easy thing. These women planted baobabs not for themselves, but for their grandchildren.

I was absolutely impressed that people have this long-term vision. They have the capacity to look down the road for what benefits the country. There is often that criticism that Africans do not look into the future; this breaks these clichés. People want democracy, people want long-term development and they want peace. I have encountered numerous fascinating people in this country and that will be my souvenir.

I am globally reputed for impatience, so the African time is a challenge for me. I refer to this slow progress in building confidence. I would have obviously preferred that we were able to move more quickly and break down these walls. To have people understand that if I’m being frank, it is to push the agenda and take up the challenges. To heal someone, you need to give the right diagnosis and that diagnosis may sometimes be severe but, without a severe diagnosis, you may not find the appropriate healing methods.

ZI: How have relations between Harare and Brussels evolved over the last four years.

PVD: I think of the last couple of years, in all fairness, the anti-Western rhetoric has dramatically slowed down and there are real efforts to build a more constructive and balanced relationship. At EU, we open channels of communication on all kinds of things. So our relations have really improved significantly. There is much more openness to discuss all kinds of issues of mutual interest in a more constructive way. You will see this as Zimbabwe tries to engage and retrieve their place on the international scene.

ZI: You are leaving just after Zimbabwe has held elections. What are your personal views of the electoral processes and the outcome of the polls?

PVD: I’m not used to making comments on ongoing political processes but, as you know, there has been an electoral observer mission that produced a preliminary statement so I think that preliminary statement should give you guidance. What I notice now, over the last couple of weeks, is that elections were highly emotional and the social media is highly emotional. It’s even more difficult to comment, so every comment is not seen from an objective point of view but from an emotional point of view. Everything is black and white in this country; everything it’s either the truth or a lie, nothing in between. That is also something that is linked to this extremely inward-looking society where there is no tolerance to nuance.

ZI: In its preliminary report, the EU electoral observer mission noted that “the elections were competitive, the campaign was largely peaceful and, overall, political freedoms during the campaign, including freedom of movement, assembly and speech, were respected”. The mission also observed that “the misuse of state resources, instances of coercion and intimidation, partisan behaviour by traditional leaders and overt bias in state media, all in favour of the ruling party, meant that a truly level playing field was not yet achieved”. How will this assessment affect relations between Brussels and Harare going forward?

PVD: The whole part of the results, counting, tabulation, was not yet integrated in the preliminary statement so we will have to wait for the final result to make an assessment. This assessment will be done by the (EU) council, with the 28-member states on the table. So it’s too early to draw conclusions. But it’s clear that this electoral process does not end on the polling day but what happens thereafter is also important. How we deal with the losing party, is it retribution or not?

Inclusivity is essential to bridge the divide. Do we have a place for others in the society? All this will impact on the assessment of our relations. What is important from this election is that this country is divided and I think the churches have pointed that out at various forums. So there’s need for the social compactness where people no longer feel alienated by their political class or by the policies taken and political choices. The losers are just people who expressed different opinions, not the winner-takes-all mentality. You have to build bridges.

Real democracy is respect for those who are losing. So the way this society will handle those who lost, the way the winners behave will be critically important. A report is forward looking; it makes comments on what happens and what went well, and makes recommendations to the future. They have to be addressed in light of the next election in 2023.

Regardless of what the courts say; again, the way in which the winner engages with the losers and the way the loser is willing to engage with winner; is critically important for the future of this country.

A democracy is built on the way the winners and loser are willing to interact. So disputes you find in every society, but it’s the way it’s handled that makes or breaks the credibility of those in power. We have consistently said that whoever wins should do so in a respectful way and whoever loses should do so in a dignified way. There have been incidents of human rights violations over the last couple of weeks, seemingly linked to retribution, punishment for wrong electoral behaviour.

ZI: At least seven people were shot dead by soldiers on the streets of Harare on August 1 2018. Have you engaged the government over the shootings and other human rights abuses?

PVD: We have engaged them on the events of the 1st of August and others following the events of August 1. We have all heard the firm commitments of Mr (Emmerson) Mnangagwa that if he wins the elections, he will install a commission of inquiry, which will include international experts. Hopefully, the results will be published.

ZI: President Mnangagwa accuses you of peddling lies about reports of gross post-election human rights violations. He also says you have apologised for those lies. What’s your comment?

PVD: As I said earlier on, why use all these terrible words of truth versus lie? I never spoke to the President. So whatever he knows, it’s through intermediary reports to him. Things have been reported to him. So these words are totally inappropriate if you are in a dialogue. The authorities know our position that these complaints should be taken seriously, that means that inquiries have to be opened and the victims of these human rights have to be protected.

ZI: What do you make of the post-Mugabe Zimbabwe? What has changed?

PVD: Yes, the political space has opened. The run up to the election, globally speaking, was peaceful. But there are still some problems as to an even access to the media, abuse of state resources and so forth. So there is progress but more can still be done, even on the economic field. Right words have been pronounced and we all understand that in the run up to the elections, it’s not always easy to implement these reforms which may be unpopular and painful but after the election whoever is in the power has to deliver.

ZI: Some commentators say the EU alongside other international organisations ignored the November coup in Zimbabwe. What is your position on the toppling of Robert Mugabe and the entrenchment of military involvement in Zimbabwe’s politics which some believe has resulted in an increase in human rights abuses such as those we saw on August 1?

PVD: Possible misbehaviour by some people may not be a direct result of events that happened in November last year. Before the events of November, this was a complex environment. It was one of the most emotive moments of my stay in the country, to see all these people come together. It was a feeling of national spirit which emerged again since Independence in 1980.

I think it was fair for the international community to recount that strong moment of emotions. It was not up to us to justify or unjustify the emotions. The region took a position and, who are we to take another direction? Of course, the events were ambiguous and that ambiguity makes it difficult to make a final judgment. It was not black or white and the nuances of grey I will leave it to others.

Fact File: Phillipe van Damme

  • 1979-1982: Master of Arts Degree in Economics, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium;
  • January 1986–August 1987: Lecturer, National Universtiy of Rwanda;
  • April 1988–April 1989: World Health Organisation, Tanzania junior expert, health systems research;
  • November 1989–October 1991: Plan International Belgium, deputy director;
  • November 1991–January 1997: Paribas Bank Belgium, senior corporate account officer (August 1995–January 1997);
  • August 1998–August 2002: European Commission delegation to Togo chargé d’affaires from March 2001–August 2002;
  • September 2009–January 2010: Head of co-operation, European Union (EU) Delegation to Niger;
  • February 2010-2014: EU Head of Delegation to the Republic of Guinea (Conakry); and
  • 2014-2018: EU, Head of Delegation to Zimbabwe.