Not Free, Not Fair, Not Credible: Did Britain Back a Zimbabwean Autocrat’s Re-election?
When Zimbabwean soldiers shot civilians during riots against alleged election-rigging on August 1, 2018, many Zimbabweans were horrified—but they weren’t surprised.
The previous November, the dictator Robert Mugabe, whose 37-year rule was marked by brutality, rigged votes, and economic collapse, had been overthrown in a military coup. With the coup leaders’ support, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) quickly announced that Mugabe’s right-hand man and former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa—always ambitious, occasionally insubordinate, and widely loathed as the regime’s ruthless enforcer—would assume the presidency he had long coveted.
Mnangagwa was Zimbabwe’s spy chief during Gukurahundi, a series of mid-1980s massacres that targeted the Ndebele minority and killed an estimated 20,000 people. Two decades later, in 2008, Mnangagwa coordinated a campaign of terror conducted by the army and pro-government militias. The violence won Mugabe’s re-election—but only after more than 180 people, mostly supporters of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) party, were murdered.
In November 2017, thousands celebrated Mugabe’s ouster in the same streets of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where Mnangagwa’s army would spill blood less than nine months later.
Early in his presidency, Mnangagwa promised reforms. In January 2018, he traveled to Switzerland and assured the World Economic Forum that Zimbabwe was “open for business.” He also promised “free, fair, credible elections, free of violence” within months.
Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial power, welcomed Mnangagwa’s commitment to change. And as Mnangagwa pledged, Zimbabwe held an election on July 30, 2018.
Mnangagwa officially won a second term as president, defeating M.D.C. leader Nelson Chamisa. But election observation missions backed by the U.K., U.S., and European Union (E.U.) concluded that the vote was not free or fair.
The post-election violence killed six, and the months prior to the election saw intimidation, state-media bias, and abuse of government resources—all in favor of Mnangagwa and his party, ZANU-PF.
But to many Zimbabweans, then-British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing seemed at best unconcerned by these warning signs. Some in the M.D.C. and Zimbabwe’s independent media and civil society thought Laing, and possibly the British government, wanted the authoritarian Mnangagwa to win the election.
New President, Old Zimbabwe
Despite Mnangagwa’s worrisome history, foreign governments, including Britain’s, had reason to believe he could be an improvement over Robert Mugabe—mostly because that was a low bar to clear.
Mugabe assumed power when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980. For 20 years after that, despite his proclaimed Marxist and African nationalist leanings, he maintained positive relations with Britain and other Western countries.
But by the late 1990s, Mugabe turned against the West. Starting in 2000, he encouraged his supporters to seize Zimbabwe’s commercial farms—a legacy of colonial rule—from their predominantly white owners, at times with violence.
Simultaneously, Mugabe’s government violently repressed the newly formed M.D.C. opposition, civil-society groups, and independent newspapers. The regime also misused state funds, scared off investors, and tried to fix these problems by printing more money, leading to the world’s worst hyperinflation.
Zimbabwe’s drop in economic prosperity under Mugabe was dramatic. Per capita GDP was lower in 2011 than in 1981, according to World Bank data, and a 2014 government survey found that only 5.5 percent of workers had formal jobs.
Mugabe blamed Western countries—which imposed sanctions on ruling party heavyweights, including Mugabe and the future president Mnangagwa—for Zimbabwe’s ills. This strategy extended beyond economic woes: In 2008, Mugabe’s then-information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, attributed a cholera outbreak to British biological warfare.
It was unsurprising, then, that the U.K. was glad to see Mugabe go. “We were hopeful, I think, that if Mnangagwa was serious about being different, this was an opportunity to reset,” said Conor Burns, a British member of Parliament (M.P.), in an interview with The Politic.
Fifteen months later, however, that opportunity has all but disappeared. Under Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s economy has continued to falter, and the country now faces a severe cash shortage. In mid-January 2019, mass protests against fuel-price increases were met with a merciless crackdown by security forces: the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum recorded 16 deaths, 26 abductions, and 81 gunshot injuries over three weeks.
Soldiers raped women and broke the legs of opposition activists. The government ordered two internet shutdowns and detained more than 900 people, justifying arrests mostly by alleging violence or looting during the protests.
Addressing the U.K. parliament at the end of January, British Minister of State for Africa Harriet Baldwin strongly condemned the crackdown as “all too reminiscent of the darkest days of the Mugabe regime.”
On February 5, Baldwin said Britain “would not be able” to support Zimbabwe’s application for readmission to the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of 53 countries that are mostly former British colonies. (Mugabe had unceremoniously withdrawn Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in 2003, and Mnangagwa had been eager to rejoin.)
At least until the election, however, Mnangagwa seemed to have the support of one key British diplomat: the ambassador to Zimbabwe, Laing, whose term in Harare lasted four years and ended in September 2018. Laing did not respond to requests for comment sent to the British high commission in Nigeria, where she is currently posted.
The Ambassador and the Scarf
Some politicians in both the U.K. and Zimbabwe suspected that Laing sided with Mnangagwa in last year’s election. Burns and fellow British M.P. Kate Hoey visited Zimbabwe in May and June to observe election preparations, and Burns said the visit program, organized in part by the British embassy in Harare, “definitely had a very strong pro-ZANU-PF, pro-Mnangagwa slant.”
Burns said, “There is no question in my mind at all that…our British ambassador in Harare at the time was very biased towards President Mnangagwa.” Burns noted that when Laing traveled to London in March 2018, she was photographed wearing the same scarf, patterned in the colors of Zimbabwe’s flag, that Mnangagwa had worn at the World Economic Forum in January.
ZANU-PF adopted the scarf as campaign regalia, and according to Hoey and Burns’ report, Laing’s decision to wear the scarf in London caused “huge offence” among Zimbabweans the M.P.s met.
But Celia Rukato, who designed the scarf, told The Politic it was originally meant as a symbol of national pride and not partisan preference. Rukato said of Laing, “When she wore it, I took it as trying to say, ‘Zimbabwe’s got a bright future.’”
For Laing’s critics, the scarf photo was only one instance of her alleged bias. “That was the physical manifestation,” human rights lawyer and former M.D.C. Senator David Coltart told The Politic.
When Zimbabwean Foreign Minister S.B. Moyo visited the U.K. in April 2018 to tout his government’s narrative of a post-Mugabe “new dispensation,” Laing accompanied him.
“I found [that] extraordinary,” Coltart said. “I’ve never seen any other ambassador of any country in Zimbabwe, certainly, in the last 30 years do that.”
Xavier Zavare, who serves as the secretary for administration of ZANU-PF’s diaspora branch in the U.K., dismissed the opposition’s complaints as “funny, weird, misinformed, ignorant allegations.”
Zavare said the M.D.C. mistook Laing’s “noble way of engaging” with the ZANU-PF government for bias.
“The opposition in Zimbabwe, they feel they’ve got an entitlement to being supported by foreign ambassadors, especially from Western countries,” Zavare told The Politic.
Coltart acknowledged that in public statements, Laing was “very diplomatic, she couched her language very carefully. She was always at pains to say Britain did not have any favorites.”
But he continued, “It became clear through private meetings, one-on-one conversations, that certainly the approach of the ambassador was to favor Mnangagwa.”
“A Blind Eye”
Why might Laing have wanted Mnangagwa to win re-election, as some allege?
Eddie Cross, a former M.D.C. M.P. who has informally advised Mnangagwa’s government, told The Politic that Laing was concerned about stability and considered Mnangagwa the “only credible center of power” in Zimbabwe after the coup.
“She didn’t hold Nelson [Chamisa] in high regard at all,” Cross added.
It is unclear how much Laing’s alleged personal preference might have affected British policy. “I can find little evidence that she softened the stance of the British government,” said Cross.
Even so, Burns said that “elements of the [U.K.] Foreign Office, unquestionably led by the ambassador…were turning a blind eye when it was becoming blindingly obvious that all was not well with those elections.”
According to the London-based publication Africa Confidential, Laing and her husband Clive Bates held a pre-election meeting in July with Zimbabwean civil-society groups receiving British funding. The NGOs alleged that they were “encouraged to focus less on the risk that ZANU-PF would use the state and the military to rig the election and more on the risk that the opposition would ‘spoil’ the election to protest electoral irregularities.”
In the end, it was the government, not the opposition, that sent troops to shoot civilians on August 1. Soldiers then harassed and beat M.D.C. supporters for days afterward, and later in August, Baldwin said the U.K. was “gravely concerned by the violence and human rights violations.”
For Ben Freeth, a white farmer tortured by pro-ZANU-PF militias during the land seizures, Britain’s realization that Mnangagwa’s government could be as brutal as Mugabe’s should have come much earlier.
“We’ve got exactly the same monster still in power,” Freeth told The Politic. “Nothing has changed.”
Before the Coup
Kholwani Nyathi, editor of Zimbabwe’s The Standard newspaper, believes Laing was partial to Mnangagwa even before he was president.
Speaking with The Politic, Nyathi recalled a meeting with Laing a few months before the November 2017 coup. At the time, a fierce battle to succeed Mugabe was dividing ZANU-PF.
Mnangagwa was vice president, and Mugabe’s wife Grace, the country’s first lady, was Mnangagwa’s most powerful enemy. Although she never said it, Grace Mugabe was widely believed to hold her own presidential aspirations.
Nyathi said that in the meeting, Laing “sounded to be really forcing a line that Mnangagwa is the person to work with, and she wanted our opinions around that.”
ZANU-PF’s opponents have alleged a years-long close relationship between Laing and Mnangagwa. “When he was vice president, Catriona Laing had already started working for Mnangagwa, if not working with him,” said Jealousy Mawarire, currently a spokesperson for the opposition National Patriotic Front party, in an interview with The Politic.
Mawarire said Laing requested to meet him in October 2016, when he was working for a different opposition party, Zimbabwe People First.
“She purported to want to understand how the Zimbabwe People First was faring as a political party,” Mawarire remembered. “But to my surprise, when she came, all the questions, everything that she wanted to know was whether Mnangagwa had chances of succeeding Mugabe.”
Guided by Laing, the British were “arguing that Zimbabwe needs a strongman,” said Tendai Biti, a senior opposition figure, when speaking with South Africa’s Daily Maverick newspaper in 2016. “By that they mean a man called Emmerson Mnangagwa, who suddenly is a reformer.”
British journalist Martin Fletcher reported from Zimbabwe in 2016. “Almost anyone you spoke to in the opposition camp told you as a matter of course that the British were well-disposed towards Mnangagwa. It was a sort of conventional wisdom,” he told The Politic.
Britain Changes Course
After the M.D.C. was founded in 1999, Mugabe accused Western countries, and especially Britain, of backing the opposition party as part of a regime-change plot.
In 2004, when then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the U.K. parliament, “We work closely with the M.D.C. on the measures that we should take in respect of Zimbabwe,” Mugabe’s allies seized on the slip to attack the M.D.C. as a “British puppet.”
But the M.D.C., then led by Morgan Tsvangirai, failed to unseat Mugabe in three consecutive unfair elections.
“It became clear that ZANU-PF was so entrenched that they would probably not give up power,” said Alex Magaisa, a former advisor to Tsvangirai, in an interview with The Politic. “And I think that in about 2013 or 2014 or thereabouts, or maybe earlier, [Britain] decided to change course and decided to work with a faction of ZANU-PF which they thought would be progressive or pragmatic.”
Catriona Laing arrived in Harare in 2014. “I don’t think that any ambassador works in a vacuum,” former M.D.C. Senator Coltart said, explaining that he thought Laing received “broad instructions” from London on how to approach Zimbabwe’s political scene.
According to Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at SOAS University of London who told The Politic he maintained “good relations” with Laing, the rivalry in ZANU-PF between Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe was a crucial factor in the ambassador’s thinking.
According to Chan, Laing believed “a very great deal more pragmatism was likely to come out of Mnangagwa’s camp than out of Grace Mugabe’s camp.”
But the coup would have taken place regardless of Laing’s opinion, and in Chan’s view, once Mnangagwa was president, the Foreign Office simply sought to work constructively with him as a national leader.
M.D.C. supporters accusing Laing of helping Mnangagwa win re-election were “just searching for things that don’t really exist,” Chan said.
Open for Business
Blessing-Miles Tendi, a professor of African politics at the University of Oxford, believes that preferring Mnangagwa over Grace Mugabe—as most foreign diplomats in Zimbabwe did—was not logical.
“You want to think in terms of lesser evils,” Tendi told The Politic. And for Tendi, the lesser evil was Grace Mugabe.
Tendi pointed to Mnangagwa’s role in Gukurahundi, in the 2008 election violence, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war at the turn of the century. The Zimbabwean military intervened in the war and worked with ZANU-PF-linked businessmen to illegally mine and sell Congolese diamonds. A 2002 United Nations report identified Mnangagwa as a key figure in the Zimbabwean “elite network” responsible for the plunder.
“[In] the darkest episodes in Zimbabwe’s history, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s name is central,” Tendi said. “Not Grace.”
But Mnangagwa was perceived, both domestically and internationally, as a pro-business pragmatist potentially capable of reviving the economy that Mugabe had run into the ground.
Magaisa, the advisor to Tsvangirai, found it plausible that the U.K. was eyeing business opportunities in mineral-rich Zimbabwe. (Magaisa did not have a “firm opinion” as to whether Britain favored Mnangagwa in the 2018 election.)
In March 2018, Mnangagwa’s government relaxed a Mugabe-era law that limited foreign ownership in multiple sectors. “Investment opportunities in Gold, platinum, coal, chrome, nickel, copper, lithium, tin, tantalinte [sic], iron ore, coal bed methane, natural gas, and more,” advertises the website of the Zimbabwe Mining Investment Conference 2019, scheduled for August, where Mnangagwa will be the guest of honor.
“Britain is also facing its own crisis with Brexit, and if they leave the E.U., they’re going to have to chart their own course,” Magaisa said. “And I think that Zimbabwe and other countries around the world will become more and more important in terms of business.”
But Cross and Tendi reasoned that for the U.K., any benefits of post-Brexit trade with Zimbabwe would be negligible. Though vast, Zimbabwe’s mineral reserves are largely undeveloped, and the current cash crisis makes the country an especially risky bet for foreign firms.
“You can get this stuff anywhere else for less hassle,” Tendi said of Zimbabwe’s natural resources.
If not economic benefits, Britain may have sought influence in its former colony—but with Mugabe reviled across the British political spectrum, improved relations with Zimbabwe were off the table until Mugabe was out of office.
Julia Gallagher, a professor of African politics at SOAS University of London, explained the British government’s logic: “If we get anyone other than Mugabe, we can then begin to explain how we’re justified in re-engaging.”
Tendi added that, in his view, Brexit did encourage Britain to embrace Mnangagwa after the 2017 coup, just not in the most obvious way.
“It’s not so much about trade, markets, or anything like that,” Tendi said. “If you bring Zimbabwe in out of the cold, and Britain is seen as facilitating that…the symbolism that Britain still has a role outside the E.U. has significance.”
But Britain has been accused of supporting Mnangagwa’s ambitions once before: in 2002, long before Zimbabwe’s coup, and when Brexit was still a fringe idea.
A British-backed Succession Plan?
In 2002, Zimbabwe faced inflation and impending famine, and M.D.C. leader Morgan Tsvangirai lost his first unfair election to Mugabe, although the opposition did not recognize the result, and Western countries condemned the election as severely flawed.
Retired Zimbabwean army Colonel Lionel Dyck and then-commander of the Zimbabwean military General Vitalis Zvinavashe drew up a plan under which Mugabe could cede power—to Mnangagwa.
In December 2002, Dyck approached Tsvangirai and Geoffrey Nyarota, the then-editor of the independent Daily News, which was strongly critical of ZANU-PF. Tsvangirai and Nyarota received different stories about the succession plan from Dyck, but both involved Britain.
According to Tsvangirai’s version of events, published in a February 2003 article by South African journalist Allister Sparks, Dyck wanted to discuss Mugabe’s potential retirement, and he also told Tsvangirai that an officer of the British intelligence service, MI6, had asked Dyck to make his initial approach to Zvinavashe, before the plan to put Mnangagwa in charge had been laid out.
Dyck, who now lives in South Africa, declined to be interviewed for this story. But Tendi, who said he has known Dyck for seven or eight years, believes Dyck was not acting on behalf of British intelligence.
“He detests everything British,” Tendi said, explaining that working for MI6 would involve too much politics for a professional soldier like Dyck. “He doesn’t like dealing with the Brits at all.”
In Tendi’s view, Dyck, motivated in part by his business interests—at the time, he ran a landmine-clearing company called MineTech—approached Zvinavashe with hopes of finding a peaceful solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis.
“I was not planning to kill Mugabe,” Dyck explained in a 2012 interview with Tendi. “I wanted to arrange a safe retirement plan for him and stop the country’s economic decline.”
Also in December 2002, South African M.P. Patrick Moseke, claiming to negotiate on Mnangagwa’s behalf, requested to meet with David Coltart of the M.D.C. in Johannesburg. There, Moseke proposed to Coltart that the M.D.C. could get token representation in a unity government led by Mnangagwa.
The opposition refused to play along. “The feeling within the M.D.C. was that the approaches were designed to co-opt the M.D.C. as a minority player in a process to sanitise the ZANU-PF regime and leave it in power,” Coltart later wrote in his autobiography, The Struggle Continues. On December 18, 2002, Tsvangirai released a statement condemning “this dirty plan…endorsed by ZANU-PF, the British, and the South Africans.”
In 2008, Nyarota wrote that Dyck told him of talks with Tsvangirai’s rivals in the M.D.C., Welshman Ncube and Paul Themba Nyathi, about a plan that would “sideline both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.”
Dyck wanted the Daily News to support the plan, but an unimpressed Nyarota exposed it in the paper instead, with a hint of a British connection.
“It is understood Dyke [sic] has also established contacts with…politicians in London in a bid to canvass support for a new ZANU-PF-military driven political agenda,” the Daily News reported on December 19, 2002.
In his interview with Tendi, Dyck said that he had sought support for the succession plan—it remains unclear which version—from both the U.K. Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department. “It was interesting, talking to the Brits and Americans, that they were quite happy for ZANU-PF to continue in power as long as Mugabe was not there,” Dyck recalled.
Dyck “didn’t say that there was anything close to universal support for Mnangagwa” in the Foreign Office, Tendi noted.
But Ibbo Mandaza, who was the editor and publisher of Harare’s Sunday Mirror newspaper when it reported the succession plan story in January 2003, is convinced of a link between suggestions of British backing for Mnangagwa in 2002 and the allegations that dogged Catriona Laing last year.
In a 2014 editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent, Mandaza argued that Mnangagwa’s rise in ZANU-PF was a victory for Zimbabwe’s “securocratic state”—the country’s military elite. “Our army was trained by the British,” Mandaza told The Politic.
British advisors trained the Zimbabwean army between 1980 and 2001. In 2017, Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, conducted an analysis of Foreign Office cables from the period of the worst Gukurahundi massacres, in early 1983. She concluded that both British diplomats and military advisors were well aware of the Zimbabwean army’s atrocities yet chose to downplay them, believing Mugabe’s government was an important strategic partner for the U.K.
Coltart, who defended dissidents during Gukurahundi as a human rights lawyer, does not think Britain’s current policy toward Zimbabwe is motivated by cold political calculus.
While acknowledging Britain’s economic interests, Coltart took care to note the historical, artistic, and sporting ties between his country and the U.K.
“It’s a multifaceted relationship between Britain and Zimbabwe,” Coltart said, “and I think both sides would like to restore that relationship.”
But for some in Zimbabwe’s opposition, civil society, and independent media, trust in the U.K. is already gone. An editorial comment published on February 7, 2019 in the independent daily NewsDay—no friend of Mnangagwa—denounced the British government’s “self-serving” condemnation of the January crackdown.
When Zimbabweans wanted a free and fair election, NewsDay’s editors reminded readers: “[T]he British told anybody who cared to listen that Mnangagwa was the man of the moment and required international support.”
The editorial called for dialogue in Zimbabwe and, from Mnangagwa, reform. “To the British, please leave us alone,” it concluded. “[Y]ou have already failed us when we needed you most.”
Corrections: April 8, 2020
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Zimbabwe experienced the world’s worst hyperinflation, neglecting the 1946 hyperinflation of the Hungarian pengő.
In addition, the earlier version described an alleged exchange in 2002 between Lionel Dyck and Geoffrey Nyarota, the then-editor of the Zimbabwean independent newspaper, Daily News.
The description was based primarily on an account written by Nyarota in 2008. In his account, Nyarota wrote that Dyck told him of talks with Morgan Tsvangirai’s rivals in the M.D.C., Welshman Ncube and Paul Themba Nyathi, about a succession plan that would “sideline both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.” According to Nyarota, Dyck wanted the Daily News to support the plan, but Nyarota “blew the plot in the newspaper” instead.
After the publication of The Politic’s article, The Politic encountered information that casts doubt on the credibility of Nyarota’s account.
In January 2004, Nyarota wrote a letter to Ncube and Nyathi accusing them of involvement in Dyck’s plan.
A February 3, 2004 article published by NewZimbabwe.com claims, “Last December, NewZimbabwe.com exposed how Nyarota was briefing against Ncube and Nyathi.”
The NewZimbabwe.com article quotes Ncube and Nyathi denying the accusation in Nyarota’s letter and quotes Nyarota as saying, “If it wasn’t for [NewZimbabwe.com’s] overzealous intervention the allegations levelled against Nyathi and Ncube by Col. Dyck in November 2002 would have remained a secret in my heart.”
The Politic has not been able to verify the accuracy of this NewZimbabwe.com article. Mduduzi Mathuthu, the website’s then-editor, told The Politic he did not remember any details of the events in question. Nyarota maintained to The Politic that his 2008 account was correct and that he had exposed Dyck’s plan in the Daily News in 2002. However, The Politic was unable to find a record of any Daily News article mentioning a plan like the one referenced in Nyarota’s 2008 account.