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Zimbabwe - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:17 pm on 31st January 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Goschen Viscount Goschen Conservative 2:17 pm, 31st January 2019

My Lords, this House and another place have taken a close interest in Zimbabwe over many years, reflecting the close ties and shared history which exists between our two nations. There is a great deal of support and good will here towards Zimbabwe and its people, and a universal wish to see peace and prosperity return to that great land.

After the intense period of strife which led in 2017 to the removal from office of Robert Mugabe, there was real optimism that a turning point had come for the economy and for the lot of the ordinary citizen. That is why we have all been so alarmed to see the situation in Zimbabwe get worse and not better since that time. The simple facts are that the agricultural sector was decimated by the farm invasions, and what was once a highly productive farming operation now lies largely fallow. The result is that Zimbabwe, which was once a net exporter of staples including maize, wheat and soya, and of cash-crops such as tobacco and flowers, now has to import almost everything and has little foreign currency with which to do so. What money there is has been largely lost to corruption.

The net result has been rampant inflation and chronic food shortages, including of staples such as bread. I understand that, at this very moment, because of the low level of domestic production of wheat and a lack of foreign currency, bread is now hard to find on the streets of Harare. The Government have introduced a synthetic currency in the form of bond notes and have attempted to control some prices but, because of shortages, the black market is prevalent in every commodity from cooking oil to basic medicines. Everything is difficult to get hold of and everything is very expensive, particularly for the ordinary citizen.

As we know, the Government recently doubled fuel prices through duty increases, which caused panic on the streets among the ordinary people, who have endured great suffering and who knew from bitter experience that the inevitable consequence of fuel price increases would be a knock-on effect on the availability of the very basics of life. Fuel is needed to transport people to work and to bring foodstuffs into the city. In an economy absolutely on the edge, that tips people over.

The protests seen on the streets of Harare were not politically motivated or organised but were driven by fear, desperation and ordinary people’s concern that they are not able to feed themselves and their families. But any protest whatever has been treated as an act of aggression against the state and has been met with violence. There have undoubtedly been credible, well-publicised, desperately troubling reports of the state using the army and the other security forces against its own citizens and of murder, rape, torture, beatings and intimidation. This has particularly taken place in the townships at night. People have been lifted from their homes. People have resorted to sleeping in trees and in the bush to try to keep themselves safe. This is being done well away from the eyes of foreign journalists and diplomats.

The rule of law, which survived for such a long time under extreme pressure, appears very largely to have broken down. There are many reports of magistrates sending people to jail without trial, and many people have been severely injured. In the important debate yesterday in another place, Harriett Baldwin, the Minister for Africa, referred to a report of more than 1,000 arrests having been made. In a particularly sinister development, the internet was shut down during the height of the disturbances, meaning that people could not communicate domestically or internationally, and many areas of business came to a standstill.

The real tragedy of this situation is that it is entirely a man-made crisis. This has been brought about not by natural disaster but by greed and corruption. Where there is corruption, repression invariably follows to protect entrenched interests, and where there is repression, the economy and the ordinary citizen suffer, as they have done in Zimbabwe for decades.

I draw a comparison with Zambia, where I lived and worked for a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In those days, Zambia’s economy was in a pretty poor state, despite relative political stability. Essential commodities were scarce and the basic infrastructure was very fragile. People were poor. However, all the commodities and goods one needed were available for sale in Zimbabwe, the roads were well maintained, the policemen smart and well disciplined, and tourism was thriving, and all this despite the legacy of the civil war. There was an extraordinary period after Mr Mugabe came into office where the country exceeded expectations, before the rot set in.

I shall continue the comparison with the country I know much better, Zambia. It had a peaceful transition of power at the ballot box in 1991, when Kenneth Kaunda was defeated by Frederick Chiluba in the general election, and democracy has prevailed since then. Very shortly before I left Zambia, I remember driving on the roads and seeing people joyfully holding up their fingers as a sign of the hands of a clock. They were saying “the hour has come”. Democracy came, and since then there have been democratic elections. The result has been the liberalisation of the economy and the attraction of investment, including in the retail and hotel sectors. Many farmers were welcomed into Zambia from Zimbabwe and encouraged to set up new production.

There is absolutely no reason why, with the right political will, Zimbabwe could not again be a prosperous, thriving economy. It has significant natural resources, a benign climate, huge agricultural potential, wonderful tourism opportunities and great people. The international community is standing by to help Zimbabwe rebuild itself, and the UK and the broader international community could give tremendous support in the rebuilding of critical state functions and capability—what is known as nation-building. Whoever leads the country out of this terrible state has the opportunity to make their mark in history: the history of Zimbabwe and that of post-colonial Africa. However, this can come only with a profound commitment to reform of the rule of law, economic management and democratic liberty.

So what can be done? The answer undoubtedly lies in a firm, multilateral response from the Commonwealth, the United Nations, SADC, the African Union, South Africa and indeed the European Union. However, it remains the case that on the world stage many countries look to the UK to take a leading role, given the depth of our understanding of the country and the closeness of our contacts. It is clear that the Government of Zimbabwe want to rejoin the Commonwealth, and it is equally clear that there is no question of them doing so without significant reform. Will the Minister set out the agreed position of the Commonwealth towards Zimbabwe potentially rejoining in due course? What discussions has he had with his counterpart Commonwealth Ministers? What discussions have Her Majesty’s Government had with the South African Government and with other members of SADC? Does the Minister agree that the credibility of neighbouring countries, in particular South Africa, will be judged by their response to this crisis? For too long other leaders have decided to look the other way, but that is to be complicit, and as long as this situation prevails, the reputation of the region will continue to suffer. Will the Minister tell the House the result of the EU-African Union bilateral to which he referred in answer to the Private Notice Question asked by my noble friend Lord Hayward last week?

Some might ask why we should care, as surely this is someone else’s problem. We should care very much because we can help, because the humanitarian situation is so bad and because we can play a significant role in coalescing international opinion to try to deliver change in that wonderful country where the footprints of the United Kingdom are still to be seen in the sand of that land. I thank all noble Lords who are going to speak in this debate.