The US should have lifted economic sanctions against Zimbabwe earlier, the African country’s president said, as he seeks to fix a broken economy and attract international investment.
"We feel that we are almost two decades behind in terms of development as a result of economic sanctions that have been imposed on us," Emmerson Mnangagwa told The National in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
“We are saying, 'Yes, we wish that these sanctions would have been removed yesterday by those who have imposed sanctions on us', but beyond that we should not put our heads in the sand and cry.
“We should, with the resources that we have, do our best to attract global finance into our economy.”
Surrounded by his delegation of ministers and military officials, Mr Mnangagwa said the country was putting two decades of isolation behind it and pursuing “a policy of engagement and re-engagement so that again Zimbabwe can be embraced in the community of nations".
But asked if the administration of US President Donald Trump had spelt out what reform was needed to lift sanctions, he said there was “no basis at all” and that he would not act to please another country just to see sanctions removed.
“We cannot say that there is something which we must do to satisfy America,” Mr Mnangagwa said. “Our concern is to do those things that satisfy the needs of our people.”
US and EU sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe in 2001 and 2002 over reports of government breaches of human rights and the rule of law.
They have since remained, despite Mr Mnangagwa’s ascension to the presidency in 2017, ending the 30-year rule of Robert Mugabe.
The sanctions were renewed by Mr Trump in January and the new Zimbabwean president is still a target.
But they are just one indicator of Zimbabwe’s economic malaise. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has a young population and a bounty of platinum, which is used in making smartphones and electric cars.
But its fortunes faded during Mr Mugabe's rule.
In November 2017, the military toppled the ruler, and his deputy Mr Mnangagwa was named president amid celebrations.
After elections, Mr Mnangagwa was given the job of charting a new course for Zimbabwe and convincing international investors that things had changed.
It was a considerable challenge, given his background as a Zanu-PF revolutionary and Mr Mugabe’s former bodyguard then vice president.
Mr Mnangagwa is open about the challenges the country faces.
While he is “very anxious to leapfrog” the country's neighbours who have overtaken Zimbabwe during the Mugabe era, he said the country could not do it “on the basis of our domestic resources".
"We don't have the financial muscle to fulfil our vision,” Mr Mnangagwa said.
He impressed at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2018 after promising to open up Zimbabwe’s economy, although he cancelled his trip this year when protests broke out in his country.
During his first year in office, Mr Mnangagwa has focused on tackling corruption, improving the business environment and reclaiming Zimbabwe’s lost billions.
After an amnesty for stolen funds taken out of the country, he said more than $825 million was returned in three months last year.
“I believe that some is still out and we will continue to probe,” Mr Mnangagwa said.
He said there were still people coming forward quietly, wanting to declare their assets abroad.
Mr Mnangagwa said the Finance Ministry was working out how to bring back the assets but they would not necessarily publicise every case.
“It has been difficult to fight corruption because it has entrenched itself,” Mr Mnangagwa said.
“We don't even know who we are talking to – are they corrupt people or not – but we are fighting it.”
While the economic challenges are the most serious issue facing the country, his vision is more far-reaching.
“We want to build a Zimbabwe we want, a Zimbabwe we can be proud of,” Mr Mnangagwa said. “We should not condemn ourselves to poverty, condemn ourselves to isolation.”
He spoke of the great need to give hope and inspiration to the younger generation.
But the dream of a new Zimbabwe was challenged in January when mass protests over a surge in the price of fuel drew violence from security forces and a military response.
Mr Mnangagwa said peaceful protest was allowed in Zimbabwe but violence and destruction, such as burning police cars and damaging civil property, is not.
When that occurs, “the only people we can call in is the army to stop the destruction and bring law and order", he said.
Mr Mnangagwa said there had been “no crackdown on free speech” in January and the response from the military had come from a lack of “security to deal with demonstrations” after “two decades of isolation and sanctions”.
“If there is a political and economic jurisdiction in our region where free speech reigns freely and supreme, it is in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Mr Mnangagwa drew parallels with the Yellow Vest protests sweeping France, a major challenge as President Emmanuel Macron nears the halfway point of his five-year term.
“The French police use water cannon and they use batons, but we don’t have those things,” he said. “We need to acquire them so that we can deal with civil disturbances.”
Asked if he has the full backing of his people and the Zanu-PF – which is reportedly suffering internal divisions – Mr Mnangagwa pointed to his election victory in July 2018, when he won 50.8 per cent of the vote in a crowded field of 23 candidates.
Maintaining support among Zimbabweans amid criticism from the vocal Movement for Democratic Change will probably require swift economic improvements.
And with investment from the US and Europe hard to come by, Mr Mnangagwa said he was happy to look elsewhere.
He said that economic relations were excellent with Russia and China, countries that had supported and armed Zimbabwe in its struggle for independence from Britain in 1980. Ties are also strong with Brazil and India.
He insisted that when it came to corruption, his government was prosecuting people from the top echelons of society to the very bottom.
But asked if that would include Mr Mugabe, Mr Mnangagwa said he would be treated like anybody else.
“We will not take charges against Robert Mugabe because he is Robert Mugabe," he said. "If he has committed any crime he will not be spared.”
“The rule of law must apply to everybody in Zimbabwe.”