HARARE – A top UK envoy began a two-day visit in Zimbabwe on Monday to gauge its progress in its re-engagement with the international community and assess the human rights situation, a rare visit by a top UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) leader in a decade.
Karen Pierce, UK FCO chief operating officer, is expected to press Zimbabwe to adhere to its international commitments under the Lima Plan.
Zimbabwe’s Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last year proposed an arrears repayment plan at the IMF/WB annual meetings in Lima in Peru where consensus was reached with creditors on a repayment strategy which entailed the clearance of the country’s $1,8 billion arrears.
Britain, Germany, France, US and others are part of the Paris Club — a forum where Zimbabwe’s debt to the international financial institutions (IFIs) is discussed and agreement is reached on how to manage that ballooning debt.
While in Zimbabwe, Karen, the most senior FCO visitor to Zimbabwe for several years, will meet with influential Zimbabwean women and representatives of the business community, as well as a call on the deputy Foreign minister Edgar Mbwembwe and members of the opposition. During her visit, Pierce — who has previously served as ambassador in Afghanistan, ambassador to the UN in Geneva and deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York – will gain more insight into the operations of the British Mission in Zimbabwe.
“We are excited to be hosting one of the FCO’s most senior officials and to share with her some of our successes as the Britain Mission in Zimbabwe,” UK Ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing said yesterday.
“She will also have a chance to meet with the business community, learn about the British Mission’s impact on Zimbabwe’s development and meet government and opposition figures. “Karen’s visit is particularly important because the UK, driven by our manifesto commitment to stand up for human rights and the rule of law, wants to see Zimbabwe return to a more normal relationship with the international community.”
Presently, multilateral financial institutions are barred by law from extending loans to Zimbabwe because of outstanding debts. Clearance of the arrears is anticipated to pave way for lines of new capital.
Zimbabwe — saddled with an external debt of over $7 billion — has just settled the IMF’s $124 million in arrears accrued since 2000, but still owes another $600 000 to the AfDB while an additional $1 billion is characterised as WB debt.
To honour these arrears, Zimbabwe is borrowing from the Afrexim Bank in Egypt while it clear the IMF arrears by drawing rights of about $130 million from the Breton Woods institution.
Relations between the UK and Zimbabwe have moved to a new level in the past two years as London seeks to revive relations with a key ally in southern Africa, but the socialist nation’s zero-tolerance approach to its detractors remains a sticking point.
The UK has been intensifying efforts in building stronger ties with Zimbabwe in reducing poverty, helping in health, education, environment, energy and recently has been giving cash transfers to help the most vulnerable, including older people, vulnerable children and people with disabilities — to boost its influence.
Through the Department for International Development (DFID), the UK has also made an additional £40 million contribution resulting in a total contribution of £55,6 million ($73,3 million) to Zimbabwe’s drought mitigation.
Diplomatic ties between the UK and Zimbabwe soured during the turn of the century over charges that President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party had rigged elections and used violence to cling to power.
Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader who has held power since independence in 1980, insists London treats Zimbabwe as its colony and seeks to maintain influence in the mineral-rich country. British conglomerates have also divested from Zimbabwe during the 2000-2008 period at the height of an economic crisis, put off by Britain’s frosty ties with its former colony after Mugabe’s often-violent grab of commercial farms belonging to white farmers.