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What role for the Commonwealth in Mnangagwa's New Zimbabwe?

Following his successful re-election in August, Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa will no doubt be thinking about the kind of country that he wants Zimbabwe to be. When his five year term comes to a close in 2028, what kind of country will Zimbabwe be?

World-class tourist sites such as the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, Lake Kariba, and Victoria Falls will draw adventuring travellers from across the globe. Those who come in by air will be greeted by Harare Airport’s new international terminal, opened as part of a $153 million expansion project. Those who come overland, from nearby South Africa or Botswana, will find the process seamless, making use of the new smart gates that will be installed at all overland points of entry within the country.

The most famous of those tourist sites, Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, will be serviced by a new seven-star hotel, financed and delivered by CBZ Bank and Swiss developers Mabetex Group. Sitting within the Masuwe Special Economic Zone, it will be equipped with state-of-the-art conference facilities, a spa, and a new high-end medical centre, to ensure adequate accommodation for all kinds of traveller.

Victoria Falls will also serve as the new special Economic Zone of Zimbabwe, where foreign investments will be afforded international legal jurisdiction similar to other successful models around the world.

Travel through the countryside, and you’ll see the fruits of a diverse, growing economy; it will be easy to see why Zimbabwe was once known as the breadbasket of Africa. A variety of crops – cotton, sugarcane, bananas, and more – will support local small-holding farmers, both black and white.

Lithium, meanwhile, will be the backbone of the country’s burgeoning mining sector. The production and refinement of this in-demand mineral is to be supported by a raft of international investment in the vast, rich Bikita minerals mine. Bikita has reserves amounting to some 10.8 million tonnes of lithium ore, at a time when increased demand for batteries will doubtless drive-up lithium prices; in turn, investment in the sector will provide employment and opportunity for local people.

Look beyond the decade-old negative headlines, and you’ll find that this is precisely the Zimbabwe which is already beginning to emerge. Notwithstanding the difficulties of the early 2000s, the country is firmly back on its feet, and ready to realise its immense potential.

For most Zimbabweans, membership of the Commonwealth is a part of that vision. The Commonwealth represents Zimbabwe’s long-standing cultural, commercial, and interpersonal ties to the global Anglophone community, and serves as an invaluable forum for north-south engagement.

Zimbabwe, like its neighbours, uses English common law as the basis of its legal system, and the English language as its lingua franca for commerce and administration. Until 1987, its political system was founded on Westminster Parliamentary principles, and Zimbabweans continue to cherish many of those principles today. This country shares centuries of history with other members of the Commonwealth and has cultivated a series of strong modern relationships within the bloc. Look at a map of the Commonwealth in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe’s absence is conspicuous.

These Commonwealth ties persist into the modern day. President Mnangagwa conducted his legal studies in Zambia, and was admitted to the Zambian bar in 1976; his LLB, meanwhile, was accredited through the University of London. Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube was educated at the University of Cambridge, before lecturing in both Johannesburg and London. Between 1 and 3 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, with a further 130,000 in the UK, 65,000 in Australia, and around 50,000 in Botswana. The list of connections goes on and on; Zimbabwe’s story is the Commonwealth’s story, and vice versa.

We eagerly await the findings of the Commonwealth Election Observation Group, led by Ambassador Amina Mohamed. We hope that they will echo the positivity expressed by Professor Luis Franceschi, following his visit to the country in 2022. Professor Franceschi noted that Zimbabwe had made “significant progress in its journey”. There is a clear head of steam building behind Zimbabwean readmission, catalysed by member states who recognise that Zimbabwe is a natural fit for this international family.

We must recognise that these two ideas – Zimbabwe’s economic transformation and its membership of the Commonwealth – are two pieces of the same puzzle. These concepts go hand-in-hand and should be viewed as a complement to one another. Economic development should be coupled with political and diplomatic renewal. After all, history teaches us that states which trade together can also negotiate with one another, reducing the likelihood of diplomatic discord.

In particular, the UK has a series of opportunities to deepen its economic ties to Zimbabwe, for the mutual benefit of both parties. It should view these steps as an opportunity, and as part of Zimbabwe’s journey towards Commonwealth membership. Couple British private sector and technical expertise with Australian mining know-how and the vast capital reserves of India, and the Commonwealth could be a force for economic good in tandem with its work on upholding the rule of law and good governance.

First, the UK should consider investing in Zimbabwe’s lithium supply chain. As Britain moves to carve out a space for itself in the battery production world, it should recognise that it will need a considerable supply of lithium, which is an increasingly important part of energy supply chains, given its central role in the production of batteries.

Britain’s new £4bn battery gigafactory in Somerset must be accompanied by a secure supply chain of the requisite critical minerals, and prospective reserves in Cornwall have yet to bear fruit. The fact that the Bridgwater factory is being backed by Indian giants Tata Group only adds to the Commonwealth dimension in all of this.

Second, UK Export Finance should consider supporting Zimbabwe’s agricultural industry, providing it with the financial and logistical support needed to make the sector commercially successful. Currently, exporting from Zimbabwe can prove challenging and expensive, given the country’s location; despite improving harvests of goods that should prove lucrative, a lack of access to seaports has stunted the sector’s growth. Support from UKEF could turn this stumbling block into an opportunity; rather than seeing the country as landlocked, the right investment in transport infrastructure would allow us to see Zimbabwe as a country at a crossroads. The potential advantages of neighbouring four different countries, each with their own large domestic markets and their own avenues for export, are huge.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the UK and other developed states within the Commonwealth should work with Zimbabwe’s government to strengthen the legal environment for private investors. The incredible story of Rwanda’s recent development should highlight the fact that investment can be truly transformative – but only with the right structural and institutional foundation. Investors must feel that their assets are legally secure and must be able to vindicate their rights in free, fair, impartial courts. Drawing on the expertise of internationally recognised legal hubs such as London and Singapore should be a priority for Zimbabwe; in turn, the British can rest easy, knowing that their private companies’ interests will be protected.

Get this right, and Zimbabwe will enter the Commonwealth as an economically integrated and fast-growing member of the family. It will stand finally alongside some of its oldest, dearest friends as a constructive member of that global community of Anglophones. After twenty years in the wilderness, isn’t this the kind of Zimbabwe that we should all want to see?

This article has been co-authored by H.E. Col. Christian Katsande (Ambassador of Zimbabwe to the UK), Prasad Bhamre (Canadian investor), Korab Toplica (British investor), and Marc Holtzman (Chairman, CBZ Holdings).

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