Zimbabwe-Rwanda ties and the politics of contradictions

In 2016, I attended a major African Union (AU) conference, which was held in Rwanda at the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC) in the capital.

In recent years, Rwanda has hosted a number of key regional and international conferences, which have afforded many the opportunity of a firsthand experience of its remarkable journey since 1994. Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s stature as a market economy has positively attracted investment for the country.  In the end, it appears that the remarkable story of the Asian Tigers is being re-enacted in Rwanda under extraordinary circumstances.

In Kigali, the symbolism of our venue, the KCC, was incisive. It is one of the landmark buildings in the country.

At night the building illuminates itself with a mixture of colours which appears to mirror the country’s rejuvenation after the genocide.

Before my visit to Rwanda, I had read about the country’s remarkable journey, courtesy of two articles by Nigerian writer Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu in which she applauded the country’s cleanliness and for being a “corrupt-free zone of Africa”, in a ringing endorsement of the country’s systems of governance that promote transparency.

During my two-week stay in Kigali, one thing became certain: that Zimbabwe’s continental and even global positioning was tied to the personality of Robert Mugabe. When I spoke to Rwandese citizens, there was a reverence to Mugabe as a “strong leader” renowned for his black empowerment drive and of course his fiery speeches which appeared to resonate with the sentiments of developing states.

Despite being revered across the continent, it must be remarked that Mugabe presided over the destruction of a once thriving economy. In their platitudinous laudation of Mugabe, they drew similarities between him and President Paul Kagame. In Western media, both Mugabe and Kagame were often portrayed as “authoritarian” figures clamping down on the democratic space in their countries.

Despite his adulation even among the Rwandese I spoke to, there was a contradiction, especially given that Zimbabwe and Rwanda relations were literally non-existent until 2017!  Between 1998-1999, the two had found themselves fighting on opposing sides, during the Second Congo War.  Zimbabwe’s entry into the Democratic Republic of Congo was a consequence rather than a cause of the bad blood with Rwanda. The cause was the infiltration of the Hutu Power ideology –of which the genocide against the Tutsi has origins – into Mugabe’s inner circle. Relations were heavily strained on the belief that Robert Mugabe was sheltering genocide fugitive Protais Mpiranya for his involvement in the genocide.

With the dethronement of Mugabe by the military in November 2017, an opportunity availed itself to restore and officialise ties between the two countries.  A few weeks before, Mnangagwa had been fired by Mugabe and had to flee the country via Mozambique to South Africa. Upon his return to Zimbabwe on 22 November 2017, Mnangagwa, who was still enjoying some endorsement from across the political divides spoke about a “new and unfolding democracy.”

In remarks which appeared to author a new dispensation, there was hope that a Rwanda-like story would emerge in Zimbabwe.  However, the 2018 election and the prevailing socioeconomic and political circumstances have dashed this hope. Even with the pronouncement of reforms, security services openly fired rounds of live ammunition during post-electoral violence on 1 August 2018 and later on in January 2019 as youths took to the streets to protest against the rising cost of living.

Despite the difficulties which Mnangagwa has faced at home, he has enjoyed a lot of goodwill from President Kagame. In 2018, President Kagame was one of the few leaders outside the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region who attended President Mnangagwa’s inauguration. In his reciprocation of the good gesture from Rwanda, President Mnangagwa attended Rwanda’s national independence celebrations in Kigali mid last year. These obtaining gestures have further been officialised with the opening of embassies across the two nations last year. In Kigali, Zimbabwe is represented by Professor Charity Manyeruke who was with the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Political and Administrative Studies before being parachuted to the diplomatic job.

Prior to her Kigali appointment, Manyeruke had been part of the Kgalema Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry (COI) which was set up to establish circumstances that led to the post-electoral violence on 1 August 2018, which saw the death of six civilians and scores injured. At COI, Manyeruke endured criticism and attacks from from opposition figures who attacked her close liaison with the ruling Zanu PF, which they perceived would compromise her independence and credibility in establishing the circumstances of post-electoral violence.

Being Zimbabwe’s point person in Kigali, she is preoccupied with promoting economic ties with Rwanda. Zimbabwe has pronounced its gravitation towards commercial diplomacy as opposed to investing much energy on the political front, without much benefit to its citizens. In Rwanda, Zimbabwe is interested in learning how the country became a key destination for investment.  President Mnangagwa sees a tangible manifestation of his “Open for business” slogan, which he has tried to sell back at home, albeit with much difficulty. The economy continues to face challenges. Incomes remain low while job losses have become the order of the day. The irony of being open for business is lost with the meandering queues for fuel and long power cuts at a time the country wants to find itself once again.

Instead of addressing the fundamentals first, Zimbabwe has resorted to lectures from top officials in Rwanda, which will not work given the debilitating internal conditions in the country. While in Rwanda in 2016, we were amazed at the work which the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) had done, under the leadership of Claire Akamanzi.We were drawn to how the RDB has made it a painstakingly easy exercise to open a business in Rwanda. Now, a number of African nationals are flocking to Rwanda to open businesses. Zimbabwe has tried the same, but bureaucracy and other bottlenecks continue to inhibit the ease of doing business reform in the country.

The bottlenecks that characterise opening a business in Zimbabwe have paved way for corruption. In 2015, Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote came to Harare to invest close to $1.5 billion across a number of sectors. However, nothing materialised after some cabinet ministers had requested bribes from him to facilitate processes. While the new dispensation under Mnangagwa came with much vigour, not much has changed however. Unfortunately, this is at a time the country aspires to be another Rwanda.

In March 2018, President Mnangagwa was in Kigali where he attended the AU Extraordinary Summit for the signing of the Continental Free Trade Area in Kigali (AfCFTA). There he also entered into discussions with Akamanzi, in which he sought to understand how the country has managed to raise Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a very short space of time. So generous was Akamanzi that arrangements were made for her to come to Harare and address cabinet ministers, top bureaucrats and captains of industry while the media made headlines from this key diary.

But were they listening? Were they listening when Claire spoke about the importance of transparency and accountability in changing local and foreign perceptions? Were the cabinet ministers listening to the good news of Akamanzi, which appeared sour, given their massive involvement in graft which has cost the nation millions of dollars?

Were they listening when Claire reminded them about strong institutions, as opposed to a charade of formations created to convict those who are corrupt, only to be allowed to get away scot-free soon after?

Even before the demise of Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa had already begun to attract some goodwill. Whilst on a state visit in China in 2015, Mnangagwa appeared on China Central Television and remarked that Zimbabwe was lagging some fifteen years behind other nations within SADC.  Though he was ultimately venerated as a Deng Xiaoping, or as another Kagame, given the remarkable journey which Rwanda has travelled, Mugabe however remained intransigent in his refusal to hand over power on the basis of not having a successor, despite his failing health.  

Even though he pronounced himself as a reformer, Mnangagwa continuously faces challenges to redeem himself. The West continues to call for the installation of democratic values which he promised. Sanctions remain intact. In 2018, Mnangagwa made his first attendance at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. President Kagame who has done the right things was also there, while Mnangagwa who wanted to do good, was merely saying the right things.

The difference between Rwanda and Zimbabwe is that the latter appears to be posturing at every given opportunity without much work to convince investors to come and set up businesses in Zimbabwe. Attracting investment requires the creation of positive perceptions first from the domestic constituency. Investment will not come from gallivanting across the breadth of the world, without tangible improvements towards political, social and economic reforms which guarantee that business establishments, whether local or foreign, will thrive.

Last year, President Kagame was interviewed by popular Zimbabwean media personality Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa, ahead of Rwanda’s independence celebrations. Upon being asked for a piece of advice on what Zimbabwe needed to do to fix its problems, President Kagame directly pointed out the need to “win the support of locals” first before getting endorsements from foreigners. In Mnangagwa’s approach to doing things, there has been much focus on rhetorical promises about signing mega deals and getting validation from external partners.

In the end, Rwanda and Zimbabwe have embraced each other in pursuit of economic gains. However, Zimbabwe does not yet appear ready to replicate the Rwandese miracle back home.

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