Indo-Zimbabwe relations are largely timeless as trade between the two countries can be traced to the pre-colonial era. Last year, Indian Vice President Shri Venkaiah Naidu visited Zimbabwe and pledged to deepen relations with Harare. India is believed to be invaluable in the country’s new re-engagement drive under the new political administration. Our reporter Sharon Munjenjema spoke to Indian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mr Rungsung Masakui (RM) on current relations between the two countries, as well as his assessment of the socio-economic and political environment obtaining in Zimbabwe.
Q: You have been serving as Ambassador to Zimbabwe since 2016, what have been your priorities since you began your tour of duty?
A: My stay in Zimbabwe has been extended by another year by my government. Economic and bilateral relations between the two countries have always been there, but what I have been emphasising in the last three years is to string the endeavours and the efforts of the two governments together, where India and Zimbabwe can collaborate and create economic cooperation. But since Zimbabwe has been going through difficult times at the turn of the 21st century, I think it is now up to India to extend assistance in cooperation to help leverage the economic and political situation. Government-to-government cooperation has been in the form of lines of credit, loans, grants and the flagship programme that we have.
We have three lines of credit currently: Zambezi River to Hwange power station, the 43-kilometre pipe is being facilitated by the government of India. Second one is on Bulawayo power station. An agreement was signed for US$87 million and US$23 million was tendered because the initial money was not enough. The tender is still in process in India.
The third was announced during the visit of my Vice President, the Hwange power plant live extension of the six units, which is (valued at) US$300 million. The process got delayed because there have been elections in India, but it should pull through now that the cabinet has been sworn in. A tender process will follow and implementation will start after that.
Because the economy of Zimbabwe is mostly in the informal sector and also India’s situation is the same, that has been my focus in the last three years.
You know the Waterfalls area (Harare) where we have the vocational training centre, then there is the Indo-Zimbabwe Technology Centre that is housed by Harare Institute of Technology. We are shipping another US$2,2 million worth of machines for that centre this month.
Once they are here, our experts will come and start fixing them. This is an upgrade to US$5 million worth of machines brought in 2012.
Q: Having been here for the last three years, you witnessed the political transition that took place in November 2017, what is your opinion of Zimbabwe’s new political dispensation and its domestic policies?
A: I think that this new dispensation is one which you Zimbabweans have welcomed. What happened in November 2017 is something amazing which many of us have not seen in any part of the world. The change was peaceful. When the leadership took over they came up with several plans to take the country forward. First, the holding of elections which were opened up to all people outside the country, including India, interested in coming to observe. I think that was an election with a difference because of the openness. It was commendable and a departure from previous practices. I think that this was a very free and fair election. As far as the elections are concerned, I think that he (President Mnangagwa) walked the talk. When the counting was done I was there, staying up to early hours of the morning. It was coordinated well.
Q: And what is your assessment of the political environment in Zimbabwe?
A: I find it very polarised. Political rivals are not enemies. If ruling party and opposition party consider themselves enemies, that is a clear sign of going in the wrong direction. In India we just had elections. The kind of words exchanged during debates were very intense, but once the elections are over, that’s it. The opposition party candidate lost and he accepted it and congratulated the incoming president. Even before the election commission announced the results, he noticed and congratulated the winning party. But here it is totally different. Yes, all political parties have the right to contest the results in a court of law, and this was done.
There is a provision in the constitution outlining how to address that dissatisfaction of the results and it was done. But after going to the Constitutional Court, the court made its ruling in the full view of a global audience following the proceedings. When the court makes its ruling, why can’t they just respect that? It is unthinkable that after the court makes a final ruling, the opposition party continues to fight the legitimacy issue again and again, yet they have accepted to work in Parliament.
This is not in the spirit of democracy. You can criticise the policies of a government — that’s a political right — but if you keep questioning legitimacy, that is unthinkable. Political rivalry is not enmity.
The President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) is making efforts to create dialogue platforms with the opposition parties; it’s a way forward. But it is difficult for the dialogue to succeed if the main opposition party is not part of it.
The space is there for them to join in – the President even formally recognised the office of the opposition party leader . . . that is what is happening world over. Political parties all over the world have differences, but when it comes to fundamental issues of nation-building, they come together. The ruling party here is making all efforts to move forward, but the opposition party does not want to negotiate — they are going out to the UK and the US and negotiating with them. I don’t know how that is a way forward. I don’t know how other people can come here and solve your problems.
Q: At the centre of President Mnangagwa’s foreign policy is the mantra ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’. Do you consider the business environment in Zimbabwe conducive for investments?
A: I think the Finance (and Economic Development) Ministry has liberalised (the)exchange rate. I think this is a temporary phase and it will stabilise. I have seen an IMF report saying the value of the RTGS will go down, but it will come up in the early months of 2020.
Q: What do you think about Government’s economic reforms that include the ease of doing business reforms?
A: When we talk about ease of doing business, let’s not talk only about things like how many days it takes to open a business, but about other things like the currency issue, a liquidity crisis that people cannot invest and take their money back. Let’s talk about power cuts: how can businesses operate if there are frequent power cuts.
All political parties, not just the ruling party, need to support this endeavour. It’s incumbent to the responsibility of the country to go forward. Everyone needs to come and support these reforms. If the ruling party goes down, everybody goes down.
Q: India currently has a strong presence in the pharmaceutical sector in Zimbabwe. Are there any prospects for more economic synergies and investments in the sector?
A: You are right, but right now we are only exporting and distributing. There are a lot of interests expressed to start packaging and manufacturing here by Indian firms. Ultimately they want to produce here. Other areas we are present, they have more than 80 percent market share.
I have been meeting these guys on a regular basis, and they say it’s not just about profit but also a responsibility to put a product on the market.
Education is also another area. And the scholarships we have, the Government of Zimbabwe is paying 50 percent, while the Indian government is paying another 50 percent. Under this arrangement, they have sent more than 200 students in technical areas.
I have also spoken to some Indian corporates here in Zimbabwe and you are the first person I’m talking to about this. I told them that is the time to give back and as part of your corporate social responsibility, why don’t you give a few numbers of scholarships, let’s start with five to go India or even some to study here.
One of the companies has agreed to sponsor five students to go to India, I’m yet to finalise the arrangement and make a formal announcement. Another big corporate has also agreed to sponsor five students who will study here in Zimbabwe.
The scholarship will be continuous, five students will be sent every year at tertiary level, mostly in technical fields. I don’t want to disclose their names right now.
Q: What is the latest on the $3 million drugs deal?
A: The initial slot of the $3 million worth of medicines has come through and it’s worth $250 000. It will be towards Cyclone Idai victims for now. The remaining is still under procurement.
Q: What is the update on the Ekusileni Hospital project being facilitated by India’s Shadar Group of Institutions?
A: Many Zimbabwean patients are going to India, so we thought that we can bring in some doctors, experts and even hospitals. First is the Bulawayo one, which the Shadar Group has come to do. They are waiting for clearance and once that has been established, they will come in and start doing their work.
We are also exploring the possibility of having a facility, infrastructure so that some interested parties which we already have can come in and build a hospital in Harare. We are looking at a hospital, but we haven’t found infrastructure yet. These will be private firms.
Initially, they find a local partner, Ministry of Health (and Child Care) and they bring in expertise. After coming here and seeing the facilities here, they may bring in funds, which is what they have done in Bulawayo.
The Shadar Group initially said they won’t bring in any funding, but now they are ready to inject money into the project. This is about perception. The last three years, what I have been struggling with is a negative perception about Zimbabwe, which is created by external forces out of the country and even from within, if you see your media.
The negative perceptions are generated on a daily basis. They (things being written in the media locally) are not staying here; they are spreading out of the country as well. If you ask any average Indian in India about Zimbabwe, the perception is very negative, so Shadar said, no, we will only bring expertise. But after coming here and seeing the environment first hand, interacting with authorities, they are saying we are ready to bring even funds.
In Harare, the Apollo Hospitals is excited to come in. Initially they will bring expertise and management, but you never know what could happen after the first stages. They are a huge chain. They should have no problem bringing in millions of dollars worth of machines.
Q: In 1987, a Joint Commission Agreement between Zimbabwe and India was established but only four meetings have been held so far. Is there any desire on India’s part to change this going forward?
A: The last one was held in 1996, I am working with the Foreign Office to revive this. Last time when my Vice President came, there was also a discussion about how we want to take our relationship to new heights. That’s what our leaders have been saying.
That can only happen through engaging in bilateral mechanisms at the level of foreign ministers, hopefully that can happen very soon.
India and Zimbabwe have been collaborating at international fora in many issues and Zimbabwe has supported to India’s candidature in many fora. We also support Zimbabwe’s readmission into the Commonwealth.