As the first international trip of his Presidency, beyond Southern Africa, Zimbabwean leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s junket to Davos’ World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland last week, was bound to generate some hype, news-sheets and insights.
Given the opposition, MDC Alliance, got the first international audience in the US Senate after President Robert Mugabe’s ouster in November 2017, Mnangagwa’s side felt pressure to get on an international forum, which could allow him to outline his vision and or give assurances about the legitimacy of his rule.
The second intention, though it has been publicly downplayed, could be, for the new leadership, more necessitous than the first.
The outcry and outrage, which met the opposition’s explanatory trip to the US in December 2017 was largely because the new administration felt they had the sole right to speak on behalf of Zimbabwe, even though their rise to power was a matter of controversy in itself.
Thus, from the start they attempted to show the WEF in Davos as the real deal, at least also different from former President Robert Mugabe’s wasteful globe-trotting to every and any meeting abroad, where he was not limited by the travel restrictions, often known under the controversial term sanctions.
So the new President, naturally sought to have a smaller contingent than Mugabe would have taken, while including some social media-busy technocrats who had been contracted under circumstances which later raised eyebrows, even with some known apologists of the ancient regime.
It was also through these social media-savvy members of the Davos delegation we also got to know, with little effort, who were the two gentlemen in Europe and US, who had facilitated the WEF trip.
Equally, we got the fact the President had no “media training”, had had “little time to prepare” and he had been “grilled” or greatly handheld by his close comrades for the Davos performances – finer details, which we would have not known under Mugabe’s secretive protocol.
But, with that as well, a debate ensued especially on social media about the potential role of Zimbabwe’s diaspora in the country’s development.
Some were thinking the exiles are being unfairly rewarded ahead of those who have been loyal to the regime (also incorrectly read country), while others thought these members of the Zimbabwean citizenry are being unfairly lampooned, when they have globally relevant skills and their own intention is just to work for “our country.”
The State media as usual, created unrealistic expectations from the WEF trip as pointed out by a number of people, as it reported almost, if not exactly, with the tone of the Mugabe days, where propaganda almost always went overboard.
An overly inflated picture they had painted, like the insinuation that Mnangagwa was the first Zimbabwean politician to go to Davos’ WEF, ended up being disputed.
It was, however, the main event in Switzerland an interview titled, “An Insight, An Idea with Emmerson Mnangagwa”, which generated the biggest debate, after he failed to apologise for the Matabeleland massacre, also known as Gukurahundi, in a performance characterised by other questions such as free and fair elections, and the status of white commercial farmers.
There was also immediate disputation to the President’s claim that elections could be held earlier than July with legal experts, calling the position constitutionally unsound.
By and large, the President gave technical answers in his interviews, which, in the most part, looked like avoidance of direct responses and gave his performance an air of equivocation, or evasiveness, which obviously his hosts, would have easily picked.
If they did, as one suspects with their vast experience, they will adopt a wait and see attitude, until they have developed enough confidence with the Zimbabwe administration, and, in any case, the trip itself was a confidence-building measure than anything else.
It also emerged Zimbabweans care about their leader’s body language, as there was a lot of talk about the President’s postures in the meetings in Switzerland, which left some people bothered and others slightly amused.
To their credit, the Mnangagwa delegation appeared to show some purpose and team spirit, and did have a number of engagement meetings, whose outcomes however will reveal themselves in the course of time.
Equally, interesting was the build up to Davos itself, with a lot of hype back at home and of course some points of bother when their defeated G40 opponents appeared determined to ruin the Davos party as Jonathan Moyo appeared in a BBC interview making sensational claims about the military operation in November and Patrick Zhuwawo made vain threats to besiege the Davos meetings.
The establishment is obviously breathing a huge sigh of relief afterwards, now that no such drama ever occurred, although questions of the legitimacy of the new government produced by the “soft coup” in November will remain precarious.
This is despite the fact that with the Lunch with the FT (Financial Times) interview with Alec Russell and the town-hall meeting with the Global Shapers Community youth, as well as social media blitz, the regime put up a big PR effort.
What still deflated the Davo hype was the unfavourable comparisons made between the delegations of Zimbabwe and South Africa, while those wary of economic neo-liberalism whispered that the country was not for sell.
As he returns home, also after his first African Union (AU) meeting in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia as well, President Mnangagwa is aware that his biggest hurdle both to power retention and legitimacy is yet to come, in the form of the general elections this year.
If Mnangagwa’s presence at the WEF created a lot of expectations among his followers, it certainly created more expectations in the international community for his government to deliver free, fair and credible elections as per his promises.
While President Mnangagwa and allies have made their intentions to engage the international community clear (rather out of survival instinct), the question of national healing and reconciliation, which are repeatedly haunting this regime, point to the equal importance of real engagement and normalising relations with aggrieved parties at home.