Shankar Kumar | November 28, 2017 | New Delhi
Is China behind the fall of Zimbabwe’s longest serving leader Robert Mugabe? The whole African region and the European continent are abuzz with speculation that toppling of the Mugabe government occurred at Beijing’s bidding.
It took place soon after army commander Constantino Chiwenga's return from China, which is not only a major arms supplier to the Southern African country, but also providing training to its military personnel on a regular basis for decades. It has built Zimbabwe’s first highly specialised professional military college, National Defence College in Harare.
In fact, military-to-military contact between the two countries is very strong, except for the recent time when the Mugabe government showed some indifference to China’s investment and defence overture, especially on the sale of aircraft and weapons which Harare was not willing to purchase despite a push from Beijing. In that circumstance, experts familiar with the Harare-China engagement say it is hard to rule out an unhappy Beijing shaking hands with the Zimbabwean army commander in seizing power from 93-year-old Robert Mugabe.
China's association with Mugabe dates back to the 1970s when the former supplied arms and ammunition to the Mugabe-led guerrilla forces during the country’s war for independence. Those who are familiar with Zimbabwean war say that China also used to fund the guerrillas in their fight against the British colonisers. After independence in 1980, Zimbabwe, led by Mugabe, rewarded China with economic incentives. Apart from becoming one of the key investors, China also became the second largest trading partner of Zimbabwe. In 2015 alone, China poured as much as $450 million worth of investment in Zimbabwe which was more than half of the total foreign investment in the African country.
During his November 10 visit to China, Chiwenga not only met top military officials, he had also held meeting with Chinese defence minister Gen Chang Wanquan and others. Such developments need to be investigated, as it could not be possible that the visiting Zimbabwean army commander would not have discussed political situation of his country with Chinese authorities. Grace Mugabe, the 52-year-old wife of the ailing Zimbabwean president, was inching closer to be declared as her husband’s successor in the country’s power struggle where vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa was fired on November 7 in order to make way for the country’s first lady. Three days after this development, Zimbabwean army commander Chiwenga undertook his visit to China. Only after his return from China, Zimbabwe plunged deep into political chaos.
Since then, Africa’s political atmosphere is rife with speculations about Beijing’s hand in the land-locked Southern African’s sudden political change resulting in deposed Mnangagwa, known by his nom de guerre as “crocodile”, being made as the next president, while Mugabe and his feisty yet ambitious wife Grace put under house arrest. They have, however, since then been released from their house arrest, but strangely, Beijing refused to issue any statement on the deposition of Robert Mugabe, the dictator who presided over his country for 37 years and received unflinching backing from China even as he was notorious on human rights record. He is alleged to have silenced those who opposed him. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people were massacred during his over three decades of rule. In this activity, his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa was an equal partner. He is considered to be as ruthless and corrupt as his mentor and predecessor.
But Beijing’s silence is enough to indicate that it would be more than happy with the ouster of Mugabe. A few days before the incident, Global Times, China’s influential English tabloid expressed its concern over the long-term safety of Beijing’s investment in Zimbabwe. “Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has also fallen victim to Mugabe’s policy and some projects were forced to close down or move to other countries in recent years, bringing huge losses,” Wang Hongyi, a research associate at China’s Institute of West-Asian and African Studies, said. “Bilateral cooperation didn’t realize its potential under Mugabe rule,” Hongyi added, suggesting categorically that China was not happy with Mugabe’s presence. On the other hand, experts say that despite being despised by his countrymen, Mnangagwa would be more than a humble pawn in the hands of Chinese authorities.
In him, China would find a facilitator of an arrangement through which Zimbabwe would be turned from all-weather friend to a client state forced to accept cheap Chinese goods and investment. Already, Zimbabwe is reeling under 90 percent unemployment and poverty. The over three-decade rule of thumb by Mugabe saw the Southern African nation turning from prosperity to its wretched poverty. Once the breadbasket of Africa due to its advantageous natural resources, Zimbabwe is now recognized for high inflation, repression of minorities and hunger. Between 2007 and 2009, the country’s currency spiraled out of control so much so that common man would need loads and loads of Zimbabwean dollars to purchase a loaf of bread. It is feared that China will use this situation to its benefits by pouring in investments and in return fleece the country of its natural resources. China, it is feared, will back Mnangagwa to its hilt even to the extent of orchestrating his misdeeds. And it will be done through the Zimbabwean army which is highly corrupt, yet enjoy strong patronage from Beijing. The situation is worrisome. This serves as a wake-up call for the international community as there are several European, Asian and African nations which have clamored for Chinese money and investments for their development. But they should know that China needs just a pin-size space for itself in any place outside its boundary and it will turn it into a big hole when opportunity comes.
History shows that China first brings money to a country and then influences its decision-making system before finally taking control of its natural resources or turning it into a full client state. Narrating the occupation of Tibet by China in the 1950s, the Regent of Tibetan government in exile Lobsang Sangay recently told Governance Now that the Chinese first showered silver coins on his forefathers and grandmothers, laid highways and then rolled tanks over them to complete the process of Tibet’s control. Sri Lankans have begun to feel what Zimbabweans are witnessing currently. Their country was submerged with huge investments by Chinese for ports, airports, roads and railways. Sri Lanka was offered loans at 5 to 6 percent interest to build these infrastructural assets. After failing to pay money back to China, heavily indebted Sri Lanka has offered its deep sea Hambantota port on 80 years lease to Beijing. It is so much under debt that it is finding it hard to run smoothly the affairs of governance.
While Harare’s problem is that it is cut off from the West and other countries of the world, but luckily Colombo has friends like India, Japan, Australia and America to ease it out of its crisis. Yet the situation is alarming. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal need to realize that they are not far away when they will turn into another Zimbabwe. Although Nepal and Pakistan after Myanmar became another foreign countries to give mild slap to China after a hydro project in the Himalayan nation and dam project in Pakistan were scrapped, but they should know that trappings of money have risks involved in it. China doesn’t pour investment in any foreign nation without its pound of flesh. The sooner it is learnt, better it is for the safety of the world and its stability. Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka are beginning in China’s process of enlarging its octopus grip over the world.
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