Zimbabwe - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 15 November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 3:38, 15 November 2017

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to an Urgent Question in another place on the current situation in Zimbabwe:

“In the early hours of this morning, soldiers from the Zimbabwean army deployed in central Harare, taking control of state television, surrounding government ministries and sealing off Robert Mugabe’s official and private residences. At 1.26 am local time, a military officer appeared on state television and declared that the army was taking what he called ‘targeted action’ against the ‘criminals’ around Mugabe. Several government Ministers, all of them political allies of Grace Mugabe, are reported to have been arrested. At 2.30 am, gunfire was heard in the northern suburb of Harare where Mugabe has a private mansion. Areas of the central business district have been sealed off by armoured personnel carriers.

Our embassy in Harare has been monitoring the situation carefully throughout the night, supported by staff in the Foreign Office. About 20,000 Britons live in Zimbabwe and I can reassure the House that so far we have received no reports of any British nationals being injured. We have updated our travel advice to recommend that any Britons in Harare should remain in their homes or other accommodation until the situation becomes clearer. All our Zimbabwean and UK-based embassy staff and their families are accounted for. I will say frankly to the House that we cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead, and we do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not. We call for calm and restraint.

The events of the past 24 hours are the latest escalation of months of brutal infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, including the sacking of a vice-president and the purging of his followers, and the apparent positioning of Grace Mugabe as a contender to replace her 93 year-old husband.

Honourable Members on all sides of the House have taken a deep interest in Zimbabwe over many years, and I pay particular tribute to the courage and persistence of my friend—and I can say that—the honourable Member for Vauxhall, who has tirelessly exposed the crimes of the Mugabe regime, visiting the country herself during some of its worst moments. This country, under Governments of all parties, has followed the same unwavering principles in its approach to Zimbabwe. First and foremost, we will never forget the strong ties of history and friendship with that beautiful country, accurately described as the jewel of Africa.

All that Britain has ever wanted for Zimbabweans is for them to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections. Mugabe’s consuming ambition was always to deny them that choice. The House will remember the brutal litany of his 37 years in office: the elections that he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents; and the illegal seizure of land, leading to the worst hyperinflation in recorded history—measured in billions of percentage points—and forcing the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar. All the while, his followers were looting and plundering that richly endowed country, so that Zimbabweans today are, per capita, poorer than they were in 1980, leaving many dependent on the healthcare, education and food aid provided by DfID.

Britain has always wanted the Zimbabwean people to be masters of their fate and for any political change to be peaceful, lawful and constitutional. Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa. There is only one rightful way for Zimbabwe to achieve a legitimate Government, and that is through free and fair elections held in accordance with the country’s constitution. Elections are due to be held in the first half of next year, and we will do all that we can with our international partners to ensure that they provide a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future. That is what we shall urge on all parties, and I will speak to the Deputy President of South Africa later today.

Every honourable Member will follow the scenes in Harare with good will and sympathy for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people, and I undertake to keep the House updated as events unfold”.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 3:42, 15 November 2017

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating as a Statement the Answer to the Urgent Question, and I of course wholeheartedly support the actions of the Government: protection of all civilians, including the 20,000 British citizens, is obviously the first priority. I see that recent press reports say that a delegation from South Africa was refused entry into Zimbabwe. Can the Minister tell us a little more about the contacts with not only South Africa but the African Union on the ongoing situation and the need to protect civilians? Can he further tell us that there will be discussions to ensure that the whole of the African Union will ensure that the elections scheduled for next year will be free and fair, and open to all people in Zimbabwe to participate in?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

First and foremost, I thank the noble Lord for his support for the Government, which reflects the continuing position of Her Majesty’s Opposition on this important issue. On delegates from South Africa being refused entry, I am aware of various media reports. I cannot give him a factual answer, but I will certainly follow that up. As I said in repeating the Answer, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be speaking to the Deputy President of South Africa. We will get an update and I will update the noble Lord and the whole House accordingly.

The noble Lord makes a valid point about the African Union. In that regard, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is due to travel to the next meeting of the African Union—in Ivory Coast, I believe —which takes place the week after next. Events may move on—they are very fluid on the ground—but I am sure that, in the conversation and discussion that takes place in the interim and at that meeting, Zimbabwe will be a priority issue.

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I, too, confirm our support for the Government’s efforts in this regard. This morning, the Movement for Democratic Change Senator David Coltart said that the military has complete control over the media, and that

“this has all the marks of a coup”.

The MDC is committed to respecting the constitution and is against its breach. Do the Minister and his colleagues support its call for the military to restore order as soon as possible and, if the need arises, for the impeachment of Robert Mugabe?

What assessment has been made of the potential impact of the military takeover on our ongoing commitments in Zimbabwe, which are varied and deep? Has the Minister spoken to his counterpart in DfID about this yet?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

First, as I have already said, the situation is unfolding and fluid, so we are unclear how things are on the ground. I welcome the noble Lord’s support, and that of his party, on this important issue.

In terms of what happens hereafter, I am also aware of contacts made between the South African Government and Robert Mugabe, and reports on that are coming through. Our primary objective is to ensure that all British citizens are safe and know how and where to make contact. Communications remain open with our embassy on the ground and we are in contact with the ambassador. What happens in the next few hours, tomorrow and in the following days is all very much to be determined. However, we will of course work with not just DfID partners but all departments across Her Majesty’s Government and, as I have indicated, allies and supporters in neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa, to ensure stability in the country. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that we are calling not just for restraint but for law and order to retain a semblance. We have seen that there is peace at the moment, and hope that that prevails. No matter what their sentiment, we call on all citizens of Zimbabwe to continue in that respect.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwark The Bishop of Southwark Bishop

My Lords, the Minister is only too aware both of the United Kingdom’s historic links with Zimbabwe and of the difficult relationship with ZANU-PF; that is reflected in the Statement, which has won support around the House. Speaking as chair of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Zimbabwe round table, I pass on the concern of Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe that any transition should not be allowed to lead to a reoccurrence of conflict in a country that has suffered much. I ask that the UK offers help sensitively and purposefully where it is possible to do so, supporting key stakeholders who are committed to a peaceful transition and who are prepared for it.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I thank the right reverend Prelate. Let me assure him that, of course, we welcome input and insight into the situation on the ground. He raises the issue of the important role of Church leaders in Zimbabwe, which will be an important element in ensuring the peace and security that we all wish to be sustained in Zimbabwe. The role of the Church in that regard will be crucial.

Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the arrests of the G40 hierarchy, which I hope will herald a new dawn and a new chapter for Zimbabwe in building confidence in the country. Is the Minister aware that the most likely immediate scenario is that Emmerson Mnangagwa will become the interim President for the next 90 days and, at the electoral college scheduled for next month, a Government of national unity will be formed with Morgan Tsvangirai as the Prime Minister? While we all call for free and fair elections as soon as possible, is the Minister aware that the most likely situation is that elections will be delayed for a couple of years until economic security and stability is restored in the country?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The noble Lord will appreciate that I will not speculate on who may or may not lead Zimbabwe. It is a fact that Emmerson Mnangagwa, to whom he referred, was removed as Vice-President by Robert Mugabe and the current Administration. As to what happens thereafter, we expect, hope and desire first and foremost that peace and stability prevails. Of course, there is a constitution to be respected. It would be premature for me to speculate on any delays in elections scheduled for next year, or indeed on whoever in the coming days will be at the helm of government in Zimbabwe.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer to the previous question. It would be premature to welcome any change of Government, because we do not know what form that Government will take. I speak as a former resident of the country. I ask him to ensure that, when consideration is given to what may happen in the coming months and years, we recognise that there are several hundred thousand Zimbabweans resident in South Africa and in other countries around Zimbabwe. Therefore, any instability that occurs in Zimbabwe may have serious implications for the other countries in that part of the continent.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I thank my noble friend, who speaks very aptly. We have always been concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe and its impact on the surrounding regions. I alluded to this in the Statement but, irrespective of which party has led the Government and notwithstanding the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe, we have stood firm and side by side with the people of Zimbabwe. We have seen from recent economic conditions on the ground and in the situation under Robert Mugabe’s leadership that the people have suffered dreadfully. However, at the same time, the British Government, irrespective of political colour, have stood resolute in supporting Zimbabwe’s citizens. We continue to provide £80 million per annum in bilateral support, in crucial areas such as education and health, and it is important that that support has continued irrespective of who has led Zimbabwe.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s Statement, can I gently correct him? South Africa is the jewel of Africa—not Zimbabwe. More seriously, could he investigate why the fearlessly investigative online newspaper the Daily Maverick had its chief reporter in Zimbabwe, Richard Poplak, detained and then put on a plane out of Harare? Is there now an even greater attack on press freedom in Zimbabwe? Could he investigate that, because it is a worrying development? Given the instability, we need journalists in there to tell us the truth.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

On the second point, I shall write to the noble Lord as appropriate. On his first point, there are many jewels in Africa, and that is probably where I shall let the matter rest.

Photo of Lord Spicer Lord Spicer Conservative

The danger of these sorts of discussions is that the impression is given that we have responsibility for what happens in Zimbabwe. Obviously, we have some responsibility for the 20,000 or so British citizens who are there—but do we have the capability to rescue them if necessary?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

Our first priority is our own citizens, and I have already alluded to the fact that we have made sure that we are in communication with them and retain that. We have given them advice to stay in their homes, because that is important; we do not know what the prevailing situation will be. In our general responsibility not just to Zimbabwe but across the world, it is right that Britain as a country, with regard to both our history and our current positioning, remains engaged and involved, whether through our support through DfID or other political and humanitarian support. That shows that we are a responsible Government on the international stage; I strongly believe that, and long may it continue.