On the occasion of Zimbabwe’s 41st Independence Day, Zimbabwe’s envoy to Ankara Alfred Mutiwazuka said his country is “a friend to all and an enemy to none”. Speaking to Anadolu Agency exclusively, Ambassador Mutiwazuka highlighted the Sothern African country’s post-independence journey, and the current foreign policy. He said Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has seen the country make significant progress, improving governance, opening up domestic political space, upholding the rule of law and property rights and steering the country toward a new era. Noting that “Zimbabwe is open for business”, Mutiwazuka also commented on Turkey-Zimbabwe relations, current developments in the country as well as the ongoing pandemic and its effects. Excerpts:
On April 18, 1980, Zimbabwe gained its independence from the UK. What is the significance of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day?
Alfred Mutiwazuka: Let me start by saying that I am proud to say that I hold a historical fact of being the first resident ambassador of Zimbabwe to Turkey, which is a model country. Let me also just wish everyone a happy Ramadan as we also enjoy our Independence Day. Now, going back to the history of the country. You know we got independence on April 18, 1980, and we used to be called “Rhodesia”.
We are a former colony of the British empire. Most of the countries in southern Africa were colonized by the British, so you would find that we speak English in most of the southern Africa. But, Zimbabwe had to fight a protracted armed struggle in order to achieve independence. It was not easy for the British colonialists to let go Zimbabwe. This is very important, because we still have challenges of interference in my country. Most importantly because of the resources. Zimbabwe is rich in resources like minerals, agriculture, and the best sunshine in the world. Even the British leadership used to get fresh meat from Zimbabwe on a weekly basis.
Now having said that, we went to Lancaster House conference, having a unilateral declaration of independence from former Prime Minister Ian Smith, and as a result there was an agreement with the British empire which gave birth to this country called Zimbabwe.
As we speak now, we are going to have 41 years of self-rule, self-independence. For us, we are very much excited by the fact that we have been able to determine our own destiny as a country. But this has come at a cost. Like I indicated earlier on, you will find that most of the former colonial masters still have so much interest in our country.
My country endured more than 20 years of economic sanctions from the Western countries. Why I want to mention that is because when we went to the Lancaster House negotiations, which gave birth to Zimbabwe, the most emotive issue was that of land.
You’ll find that prior to independence, about 80 to 90% of the land, the productive land, was owned by a few people, mostly white people, white commercial farmers. Majority people were confined to what we called tribal trustees. As a result, when we went to negotiations with the British government during the Lancaster House conference, we agreed that after a certain period, the principle which we agreed to at Lancaster, which was called the “willing seller, willing buyer principle” in terms of farm acquisition would be applied for a certain period. Then after that the government can move in and take the land.
But what happened then was all confusion because of successive changes in terms of the British leadership led by conservatives. I think it was very deliberate. It was a signed agreement, but they decided to withdraw from that. So, the major problem was that the British government failed to fund the land reform program. So this gave birth to a situation where majority of the people in the country grew restless.
So this is the background to our independence. Zimbabwe was a breadbasket of the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region. We used to produce food to feed the whole of southern Africa. We used to export a lot of our minerals, we used to export a lot of our goods. But as time went by and the land reform program began, biting sanctions were imposed. This affected almost every sector of our economy. So the new government, the new dispensation, is now trying to readdress all those challenges which are the issues of human rights, governance, rule of law, reforms in electoral acts and so on.
I can now tell you safely that this has been a wonderful time for the past three years. My new president is getting a lot of kudos from the international community. As a very clear example, we did have a presence here in Turkey, but after the new president came in 2017, his first assignment was to open Zimbabwe for business. He saw Turkey as our savior in terms of economic relationships. That’s exactly where we are now. We want to celebrate what we have achieved in the past 40 years. We want our own destiny, we decide what we want. We also have friends, so this is exactly where we are.
Since its independence, what are some areas that Zimbabwe has made progress in all these years and what are some areas it is striving to strengthen and enhance?
I can mention one area where Zimbabwe has made significant progress and it is the education sector. As we speak, Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is about 93%. We are number one in Africa, according to UNESCO, in terms of the literacy rate. If you go to Zimbabwe today, you can speak to anyone in English or in local languages.
We have about 12 provinces, and there are schools and a university in every province. Some of the provinces have two universities. In every part of the country, you will find a primary and a secondary school. There are also technical colleges. So we have made education as the core issue in terms of our development.
We have also made progress in agriculture. Again, like I mentioned the issue of land reform. Of course, there was a flight of experienced farmers, who knew how to farm the land. But when they left, we also had some people who worked on the farms and had that experience. So agricultural sector didn’t suffer that much in terms of production.
We’re able to produce food, we are still able to export some of our food. But the only problem we had in successive years is that of drought. Zimbabwe relies mostly on rain, which comes around October, November, December. If we don’t have rains, then we suffer.
We also have another sector called the energy, which supplies electricity to the country. It was very good after independence. The government’s policy to ensure that every Zimbabwean has access to electricity and access to water, put pressure on the few power generation facilities.
The government launched a rural electrification program where people in the rural areas could also access electricity. But then, the major points of energy production, like our Kariba Hydroelectric Dam and the Hwange Thermal Power Station did not meet the requirements of the new dispensation and the new economy, because everyone wanted to produce and everyone wanted access to electricity. Thus, the government was able to access international finance, and there is a rehabilitation process ongoing at Hwange Thermal Power Station.
When I came to Turkey, I realized that we can also make use of the expertise of Turkish business people’s solar production. They’ve got solar facilities here. I have visited some of the firms and I think we can share that too because in Zimbabwe we also have sunshine throughout the year. We can benefit from solar energy.
The other area of success has been our health sector. Like I said, when the government came in the few health facilities, hospitals, and clinics were meant for a few people. As they decided to extend all these facilities to all the people, there was pressure. But the government was able again to have a hospital in every province, we call them provincial hospitals, and clinics in small locations or suburbs. And they made sure that health services are free for all people. That was quite an achievement by the government.
Then, of course, we also talk about the issue of international relations. Zimbabwe at that time, before independence, was an isolated country. We decided that we needed to join, what we call, the community of nations. We did that, and we have been active participants in international organizations, particularly the UN, the African Union, SADC and other international financial institutions. I can tell you our presence in those international bodies has been quite impactful. We have had quite a lot of interactions and engagement with those particular institutions and this has helped us in some way also to avoid the very dangerous fate of sanctions.
So, in short, I wanted to actually share with you the successes of the past 41 years, not to say that we have failed in other sectors. It is just a question of when we proceeded with our land reform program and then we started getting a lot of “battling” from the Western countries. Definitely, our economy suffered. And as it suffered, other sectors also followed. So we realized that by the end of 2016-2017, when the new government, now led by President Mnangagwa, decided that we needed a new vision for the country. We decided to change the course in 2017, and this is exactly where we are.
So, whatever problems we had in terms of the land reform program, I can happily inform you that that has been settled because the current government signed, what we call, the global political agreement with the farmers who their farms. There is an issue of compensation for these farmers, and this is an issue which is also being addressed at international level. My greatest hope is that once this is settled, the remaining sanctions, especially from the Americans, will be removed. Then Zimbabwe can move much faster in terms of economic development.
Is there any cooperation with Turkey in the area of education?
We value the relationship with Turkey. In fact, prior to our opening an embassy in Turkey, we were privileged to have scholarships, extended by the government of Turkey through its institutions. And as I speak to you right now, I think we have about 165 of our Zimbabwean students attending schools in Turkish universities, courtesy of scholarships. So, that program is ongoing.
On a side note, when I presented my credentials to His Excellency President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November 2019, he addressed the same issue [of cooperation in education]. I said: “Your Excellency, we have got so much pressure in terms of university students, and dropouts from high school. We don’t have enough universities.” And he asked: “So what do you want me to do” and I said maybe you can absorb most of our students who should go to university. He increased the number of students who are going to study in Turkey from 20 to 50 immediately. I really was quite excited. Thus, the collaboration is there.
You talk about the Maarif Foundation, and we are working on a legal framework like a MoU [memorandum of understanding]. We are already looking into it so that they can set up their schools in Zimbabwe. We are also having Yunus Emre Foundation to teach Turkish language, right now with my colleagues here, we are learning Turkish language. So that collaboration is already ongoing. We are also looking at partnerships between local universities… So many faculties of cooperation, engineering, agriculture, ITC and so on. We have got the framework, but unfortunately because of the current COVID-19 regulations there has not been much movement.
Within Turkey’s policy of “Opening Up to Africa”, the country opened its embassy in Harare in 2011. Since then, bilateral relations and the frequency of high-level contacts have increased between the two countries. How would you evaluate the current status of relations between Turkey and Zimbabwe?
AM: We established diplomatic relations with Turkey on June 21, 1982.Tthe Turkish embassy in Harare was doing wonders before we even came here, so some of the agreements which are at the signing level were done even before we came here to Turkey as an embassy. So, we are working on that and it should be fully realized. The Turkish embassy in Harare since 2011 has been able to really penetrate in terms of making known the foreign policy of Turkey and also what they are in Zimbabwe for. Zimbabweans began to talk about Turkey. They had heard about Turkey but the physical presence of the embassy made an impact.
We have benefited from the Zimbabwe-Turkey partnership or even the Africa-Turkey partnership. What we have done now as a country is that we have opened an embassy here, and have in operation the Zimbabwe-Turkey business council. This is a very effective strategy in terms of doing business in Turkey and Zimbabwe.
An agreement has already been signed between the Turkey’s foreign relations board and one of our confederation of Zimbabwe industries and the two are working together to ensure that businesses are able to share information.
Let me tell you that Turkey as a country is very popular in Zimbabwe. You talk of Turkey, and people say they want to go to Turkey because of the quality of goods. We have been importing a lot of our finished products because of the sanctions. The quality of finished products from other countries is comparatively poor, but when these products come from Turkey everyone wants to buy. I should take this opportunity to call on the Turkish businesspeople to think of doing big investments in Zimbabwe. Please let’s have your finished products, more of those finished products in Zimbabwe. Right now, we are in need of products from Turkey because our industry has been incapacitated.
We don’t have industry running, we don’t have manufacturing sector running because of sanctions. We cannot access capital, we cannot get modern equipment and machinery to do the manufacturing we used to do and as a results there is shortage of certain goods. I always call on our businesspeople to come to Turkey, attend business forums and conferences so that they can see what they want and make arrangements to get these finished goods. So in that respect, I can say the presence of Turkey in Zimbabwe was very useful.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect bilateral relations? Was there a goal set for the relations and if so, did they both reach their goals?
I must admit that when we came to Turkey as an embassy in October 2019, we have been working very hard to ensure that certain projects, certain areas of cooperation are realized as quickly as possible. But COVID-19 came in 2020 and our plans to arrange high-level official visits between the two countries were affected. That would have been very important because when you see and talk to each other, you get a quick understanding which then results into an MoU or an agreement. Unfortunately, that failed.
Last year, my minister of foreign affairs was supposed to attend Antalya Diplomatic Forum, but because of COVID-19 he could not come. The Turkey-Africa partnership moot was also put off because of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected everyone. We were also hit the way just like any other country. But it also depends on the health delivery system we have at home. My country is under sanctions, which also hit the health sector, resulting in shortages of drugs and equipment. The COVID-19 came like a death certificate for everyone… Fortunately, the government was able to intervene, securing the material which was needed. I can assure you that my president and the government was able to contain the pandemic in line with the WHO protocols.
We are also happy because there are many lessons learned during the time of COVID-19. One of the lessons was how to do business in the new normal that is online business, Zoom meetings and so on. This is what we have been doing to ensure that we keep the lines of communication open between the two governments. This has been very effective. We have been holding meetings between government departments here and our counterparts in Harare. We can even sign an agreement through a Zoom meeting and that’s exactly what we are doing.
There are a number of companies here in Turkey which are keen on working in Zimbabwe in sectors like energy, infrastructure, highways, and shopping malls. We are already working on agreements in this regard.
What are some areas Zimbabwe looks to cooperate in with Turkey, especially with a bilateral trade volume that reached $17.7 million in 2019?
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As I told you earlier, one of major sanctions from the EU is arms embargo on Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is a former British colony, so all our products, military equipment were imported from the UK. So, when they put sanctions on Zimbabwe, that was the end. Due to sanctions, you can’t get spare parts, can’t fly the aircraft, can’t drive the vehicle.
But, of course, the government managed to do one or two things, keeping the military activities in operation. This is one area which I have been religiously talking to my colleagues here from the defense industry. There are three companies I have talked to. They are into business of vehicles, armored vehicles, drones and tanks. Some of them are going to Zimbabwe as soon as possible to talk to their Zimbabwean counterparts.
We found an opening in Turkey because of the products… I am happy about it because we are not bound by the EU sanctions on Zimbabwe, we are able to do business in that respect. As a result, our counterparts said yes they can go to Zimbabwe and look at what we have and maybe modernize our whole military equipment which I found very interesting… They were supposed to move to Zimbabwe last month but because of COVID-19, there were some changes. But I am hoping that in the next two months they will be able to go and meet the relevant technical people and see how we can move on.
In terms of volume of trade, it is not very exciting. I think the latest figure I got was like $20 million which is just a figure in terms of what we can do. His Excellency Erdogan challenged me when I met him. He said ambassador now that you are here you have work to do, when you leave this country I want you to hit $100 million volume of trade between both countries. I said, His Excellency, I’ll do it and he told me how to do it. He said from now on ensure to work with the chamber of commerce, Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK) and also with the business councils.
This is exactly what we have been doing, I can tell you that we are getting good results. The only problem is the issue of COVID-19 … Turkish business people want to go to Zimbabwe, they want to see what is available, they want to trade with Zimbabwe. The agreements are in place. We already have legal instruments in place so that they are able to operate with confidence and protected in terms of investments. I have a duty, I have to grow this relationship between Turkey and Zimbabwe. I hope that with all this support I’m getting from the government of Turkey, the businesspeople will be able to do it. The volume of trade is very low, we need to improve it.
Last month, the Zimbabwe government said it aims to vaccinate 10 million people against the novel coronavirus. How many people have been vaccinated so far? Is the vaccination campaign welcomed by the general public?
The issue of COVID-19 has been a problem. There were so many myths surrounding COVID-19. Some said it’s just a flu and it will go away tomorrow … But it turned out to be quite a challenge for all governments. I must proudly say that my government has done very well in terms of vaccination, in terms of containing the pandemic. We were the first in Africa to receive the SinoPharm vaccine from China and also the SinoVac. The vaccination program is going on very well.
The vaccination had its own problems in my country because so much false information is circulating on social media. Apparently, people believe in these conspiracies theories, so there is resistance … We have resistance even from health workers.
The last statistics I got was that we are now at number eight among the Africa countries that are vaccinating people. We were the first country in the world to move to a tourist resort called Victoria Falls to vaccinate people and tourists in that whole town. I know Turkey has a very good tourism sector and I wish this exercise can be carried in touristic places. I must also thank the Turkish government for vaccinating all of us… Thank you very much.