Outgoing United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe Bruce Wharton left the country this past weekend as he had completed his second diplomatic mission term.
Ambassador Wharton was first assigned to Zimbabwe in 1999 and he served until 2003. He returned in 2012 the same year that Barack Obama’s was re-elected for a second term as president of the United States.
One of his last public appearances before his departure was a Tweetable hosted by 263Chat at the new Moto Republic Hub which was moderated by Nigel Mugamu popularly known as Sir Nige. The main topic of the discussion was the state of relationship between Zimbabwe and the United States of America (ZIM-US relations) and Wharton did give his government‘s position on the state of Zimbabwean politics and economy.
His first admission was that the Zim-US relations have been strained for a while and one of his ambitions when he returned in 2012 had been to change that.
“I remember in my first meeting with President Mugabe telling him that my ambition was to mend our relationship back to normal and I said that I can’t do that by myself, we needed to be partners”, said Wharton.
Although the relations between Washington and Harare have not returned to normal, Wharton feels he made progress in improving the communication between the two states.
One of the obstacles to mending the relationship according to the Ambassador had been the way the Zimbabwean 2013 harmonised elections had been handled. According to his government, they were not credible.
“The election of 2013 frankly in my view did not meet the standards of Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act nor did it meet the standards of the SADC guidelines to elections, it fell short,” responded Wharton to question from the audience on what Zimbabwe had to do to hold credible elections.
He justified that his opinions were only technical concerns and further explained that America was not giving Zimbabwe new rules but only asking the country to follow the rules it set for itself in the Electoral Act. Wharton however commended the fact that the 2013 elections were peaceful compared to those held in 2008 and he acknowledged it was a big positive step for the country’s reputation.
Another positive move made by Zimbabwe during Wharton’s stay was the adoption of the new constitution. He advised that its full implementation and capacitation of the independent commissions would ensure that the effort does not go to waste. In Wharton’s remarks, this has the potential to improve the image of the county to increase the country’s credibility in both its foreign diplomatic and business relations.
Despite his admission that he wished he had have done better in improving the relations between the two countries, Wharton alluded to the support being given to Zimbabwe as a sign that there Zim –US relations are on the right path to normalcy.
US support to Zimbabwe
Over the years the US has continued to support Zimbabwe’s health sector through the funding of Voluntary HIV Testing and Counselling Centres (VTCs) and the provision of antiretroviral therapy in Zimbabwe. Annually the American government spends not less than US$120 million on Zimbabwe’s health sector. In the past year the amount increased by US$35 million.
Support to Zimbabwe has also been coming through youth programmes that include the Zimbabwe Works programme which is being sponsored by both the American and Swedish governments. The programme aims to capacitate young people with entrepreneurial skills and resources as well as improve their competence on the job market.
Zimbabwean youth have also been beneficiaries of the Mandela Washington Fellowship (YALI) a programme that allows young Africans to go through mentorship and training for a period of over six weeks at different institutions in the USA. Next year a total of 60 Zimbabwean youths are expected to be part of the programme which is a 100 per cent increase from the 30 that have been part of the programme in the past two years. However, the fact that Zimbabwean youths are not allowed to apply under the Public Management track shows that America still does not have confidence about Zimbabwe’s performance in that area.
Ambassador Wharton could not guarantee the continuation of this particular programme after 2016, as it depended on whether the next American President would want to continue with it or not. He was however confident that support for youth programmes would continue in one way or the other.
US sanctions on Zimbabwe
Like in most discussions on Zim-US relations sanctions were also discussed during the Tweetable. The Ambassador admitted that the United States still has imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe but dismissed the fact sanctions were responsible for the economic meltdown. He referred to the ‘black Friday’ of 1997 and argued that when the value of the Zimbabwean Dollar fell by 75% in one day, it was a result of certain government policies. In his argument he also acknowledged that Zimbabwe had managed to grow its economy by 25% between 2008 and 2010 despite the fact that the country was under sanctions during that period.
Ambassador Wharton referred to the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) which he defended, as merely steps that Zimbabwe needed to follow in order to get the economy back on track. Respect of property rights, a clear compensation plan for white commercial farmers who were displaced during the land reform are some of the conditions stated in the document by the American government. ZIDERA also states that Zimbabwe has to set up technical conditions that allow free and fair elections to be held in the country. Wharton argued that these terms do not hinder any economic progress in Zimbabwe but are only terms that could be beneficial to the country if they are followed. This was in response to a question from one the audience members which inquired on how much money had been lost in potential trade as a result the economic sanctions imposed by the US on Zimbabwe.
Despite having to work in the midst of strained relations between Zimbabwe and his country, Ambassador Wharton expressed intrest to return to Zimbabwe even on unofficial business. He said his stay in Zimbabwe had been characterised by good relations with friends and experiences he would love to re-live.
All images provided by the United States Public Affairs Section (PAS) in Zimbabwe.