Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

Harare — Zimbabwean  President Emmerson Mnangagwa was  embroiled in a war of words with EU ambassador Timo Olkkonen this week as relations between Harare and western countries continued to sour over the banning of opposition protests.

Since 2017 Zimbabwe and the EU have been working to repair relations after the fall of former president Robert Mugabe, who was notorious for his anti-West rhetoric. But the détente has cooled as a dramatic exchange of words erupted on Tuesday.  

Mnangagwa promised a new dispensation that would do away with Mugabe’s repression of opponents but has failed to deliver. In response, western countries have refused to lift sanctions they argue target only certain Zimbabweans.

Over the past few weeks, Zimbabwe’s government has ruthlessly cracked down on opposition activists and imposed a blanket ban on demonstrations, leading to international condemnation.

“Zimbabwe must genuinely show that it has clearly broken from the past. Unfortunately we are witnessing developments that have put constitutionalism and the rule of law in question.

"People’s civil rights and the right of freedom of assembly and also the right to free legal processes when accused of a crime must be respected,” Olkkonen told a meeting to launch an anticorruption drive in the capital, Harare.

Olkkonen told Mnangagwa that Zimbabwe must stop the crackdown against peaceful demonstrations.

During his address, Mnangagwa shot back at the EU ambassador tersely suggesting that the ambassador had chosen the wrong platform to express his views.

“Ambassador, you referred to the human rights, however, this platform was for corruption. May I urge civil society to restrict themselves to their mandate,” the president, who took over government with the help of the army, said.

On Tuesday, the EU, US, Australia and Canada issued a hard-hitting statement condemning the Harare government’s repression of the opposition. But government spokesperson Nick Mangwana said that the embassies were promoting unlawful demonstrations.

Olkkonen responded to Mangwana’s remarks by telling the president that the EU’s support to Zimbabwe hinged on the government upholding the rule of law.

“Our diplomatic office was accused of ignoring the importance of upholding the constitution. I can assure you your excellency that nothing could be further from the truth. Adhering to the constitution is the basis of the EU’s cooperation with Zimbabwe.”

Political analyst Alex Magaisa said the government must drop its “head-in-the-sand approach” if it wants to re-engage with the West.

Magaisa said the diplomatic tiff was not healthy for Zimbabwe, which is seeking a bailout from western countries to settle its arrears with international financial institutions.

“The regime is comfortable with the head-in-the-sand approach of its Sadc allies and is uncomfortable with the criticism from western countries. The G7 countries from which finance minister Mthuli Ncube wants a bailout package are largely the same that are critical of the regime,” he said.