For many, life in Africa is moving forward. Recent development indicators published by the World Bank show that in Sub-Saharan Africa GDP has risen every year since 2000, averaging 5.8% annual growth. Those are quite remarkable figures given the turbulent global economic environment of the last decade. The irony however is that probably the richest and most heavily resourced country of all within the region has benefited so few of its people and savaged so many. I am, of course, talking about Zimbabwe.
In 2008 there was a palpable expectation from the citizens of Zimbabwe that they were, finally, going to be able to vote for change in their country and alleviate themselves from three decades of a tyrannical regime. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe and his party, ZANU PF, had other plans. Despite every indication that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won by a landslide, a run-off was set with Robert Mugabe after the vote count conveniently recorded Tsvangirai as falling just short of the 50% required to form a Government. Over the next two months Mugabe and his Zanu PF supporters unleashed a campaign of terror and violence across the country, unparralled in its brutality even by Mugabe’s standards. Many opposition supporters were killed, and others – including Tsvangirai himself – were so savagely beaten they were left unrecognisable.
In the end, Tsvangirai fell on his sword to prevent any further killings of his supporters and Mugabe was once again declared the victor and the power sharing Government of National Unity was formed. Five years later, the Government of National Unity has certainly improved the situation in Zimbabwe; there have been four years of steady economic growth following 10 years of economic contraction, inflation has been reduced from 231,000,000% to less than 4.5% and last month a new constitution – which includes limited presidential terms – was approved. Much of these achievements are down to the efforts of Tendai Biti, the Zimbabwean Finance Minister. With both parties now accepting that the Government of National Unity has run its course, the country once again stands at cross roads.
One longstanding MDC supporter recently said , "we really are on the edge here. We have an opportunity now to kick on from the last five years work and get Zimbabwe back on its feet and back to prosperity. If we can once again become a viable destination for foreign investment, and get business working again, then all Zimbabweans will benefit. If we see what we saw in 2008, or a ZANU victory then God help us. We’ll be forgotten, and end up like the DRC." And it's because of this very real concern that it is so important we, the British Government, and the wider international community, particularly SADC and South African President, Jacob Zuma, do everything we can to ensure the upcoming polls are bonafide and as the people want. This means international election observers are critical, as is ensuring all political parties will be held accountable for their actions, as Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire.
The recent passing of the new constitution in Zimbabwe is reassuring, but it is right for the MDC leadership to demand certain reforms are implemented prior to the country going to the polls, most notably amongst the security sector where worrying signs have already started to emerge that intimidation seen in 2008 is resurfacing.
Whilst there will be some who think Zimbabwe should no longer be a priority for the UK’s foreign policy, particularly with recent news of chemical weapons in being used in Syria, a nuclear North Korea and the threat of Islamic rebels spreading across North Africa, that is to miss a vital point. Where do you think countries like Iran and North Korea are turning to for uranium and other resource supplies? Where do you think the millions of dollars of diamonds revenues are going? We need to look at the longer term and problems around the corner.
The upcoming elections do not just offer the people of Zimbabwe hope, they offer the UK a chance to show it remains very much at the forefront of global foreign policy; with a democratically elected Government in power, Zimbabwe can be a major strategic ally to the west. Let’s remember, after all, that the average Zimbabwean is far more interested in a decent education, Manchester United and Nike trainers than they are with religious extremism or the development of nuclear arsenals. It is important we ensure there are free and fair elections so the people of Zimbabwe can decide.