The sixth session between the leaders of the European Union and the African Union being held in Brussels is not only important in general for both continents, but in particular for Zimbabwe and especially in its continued drive to be treated as an ordinary country.
For both continents the need for the best possible ties are obvious. We are neighboring continents separated by the narrow Mediterranean Sea and for a few thousand years have been important markets for each other.
Geography is not something that can be altered. Poverty, security issues, and other crises in one tend to impact on the other and that traffic is not one way.
Even in the last century, the World Wars, although they started in Europe, impacted heavily on Africa. In fact, the First World War ended in Zambia several days after the last bullet was fired in Europe and Paris was liberated in the Second World War by an armored division containing a lot of Chadian troops.
There are in those dreadful mass war cemeteries in Europe a fair number of graves with African names on them. Africa needs a peaceful Europe just as much as Europe needs a peaceful Africa.
There was an unpleasant period when the relationship was grossly unequal with colonial exploitation and desperate efforts to color the map of Africa with the imperial colors of a handful of European powers, but for most of the continent that was more than half a century ago and even for the last holdouts of the colonial era, like Zimbabwe, generations have grown up in the new era.
We are largely in an era where we should be co-operating and building our trade relations to ever higher levels.
There is still the remnants of a tendency is parts of Europe to look at interference in Africa, as Zimbabwe is fully aware. Sometimes this support is welcome, generally through the UN. And that has, at its best, been two ways.
We have cases when UN-backed peace missions in both continents have included police or troops from the other. We have seen Zimbabwean police included in the UN missions during the Balkan crises and European contingents have been included in UN missions in Africa.
But it must be stressed that these successful cases all involved the UN and countries rallying around the initiatives by regional groups in both continents to sort out a serious crisis in their home area.
The sanctions against Zimbabwe did not meet either criteria. Africa and SADC, the relevant regional grouping, have been consistently opposed and no one bothered to involve the UN on the perfectly obvious basis that they could not get even the ordinary voting majority; vetoes would not have been involved.
The Second Republic’s foreign policy has been focused on building good relations with everyone and then using these to build trade and investment ties. While Zimbabwe has never ignored the illegality of sanctions and other coercive measures, President Mnangagwa, his two Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and his economic ministers have been stressing the practical building of relations. And this has been steadily working.
The fact that President Mnangagwa is in Brussels as an ordinary African president, without any debate let alone major diplomatic offensives to bar him, shows just how far the relationship with the EU and its member states has dramatically improved in a short period under Zimbabwe’s engagement policy .
While the EU sanctions regime is still in place, that engagement has seen considerable practical relaxation which now needs to be upgraded to the final step of formal removal. It needs to be put, like colonialism, into the history books and be of more interest to history scholars than to practical political and business leaders.
The fact that Britain, the main driver of European sanctions early in the century, is no longer a member of the EU should make the full normalization process simpler, easier and quicker.
But even Britain is mellowing, as President Mnangagwa’s visit to Cop 26 in Glasgow last year showed when he was given the “normal” diplomatic treatment and had opportunities to meet some very influential people.
That has already seen almost normal diplomatic activity for example from the US embassy with the charge d’affairs doing the normal routine diplomatic rounds that heads of mission do as part of their daily work.
Most European Union heads of mission started that process hence earlier the need to build on this progress to set the trend of ending sanctions, rather than just suspending or relaxing sanctions.
Zimbabwe is not looking for special treatment. But we are confident that if we are treated as an ordinary country we can compete when it comes to trade and investment. Our economic reforms, our administrative simplification, our anti-corruption drive and the cleaning up of our statute book are moving us up the ladder of “ease of doing business” and we really want to go a lot further up that ladder.
We are perfectly aware that no one running a business can be forced to trade or forced to invest, and we know that we have to do our part to make it clear that we are looking for the normal commercial deals of business to business and are prepared to make that process as simple and as easy as possible.
But we are also aware that while business people in Europe are quite able to look at how they can upgrade commercial ties for mutual benefit, they do not need to be gazing over their shoulder at special “Zimbabwean contact rules” and need to be able to access the normal trade finance and the normal banking services that oil international trade and investment.
It is these financial restrictions and sanctions that are damaging and move the sanctions regime from the claimed targeting to a far more general and damaging imposition on the whole population.
The President’s trip to Brussels will obviously accelerate the normalization process, the only question being how quickly this happens. But his practical approach and willingness to listen will give him the needed open-minded access that will make that process as fast as possible.