Harare – Britain has been forced to take the unusual step of insisting that it is not “bailing out” cash-strapped Zimbabwe following a media row over revelations that a former cabinet minister had held secret talks with Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa.
News that Peter Mandelson had held talks with Chinamasa in Harare in mid-February sparked anger online – and accusations that the former colonial power was willing to “prop up” President Robert Mugabe’s government, which is mired in a fresh economic crisis and growing social unrest.
Britain is much more used to accusations that it is funding and managing opponents of longtime leader Mugabe, who is 92 and has been in power for 36 years.
A series of emphatic tweets from UK envoy Catriona Laing – who attended the February meeting – were obviously not enough to stop the speculation. A statement published on the British government’s website on Monday says of Mandelson’s visit: “There was no discussion of loans or transactions of any nature with Minister Chinamasa. The meeting focused on the economic reform agenda.”
The statement continued: “No UK taxpayers’ money has been or will be used to directly fund the government of Zimbabwe… Lord Mandelson’s visit was not funded by the British government.”
Mandelson now works for an investment bank.
Zimbabwe’s finance minister was in London, Paris and Brussels in July as part of attempts to re-engage the West and raise more than $1bn to clear debt arrears with the World Bank.
Protest pastor Evan Mawarire, the founder of the #ThisFlag movement, told the Atlantic Council in Washington last week that any new lending to the Mugabe regime from banks would reinforce Zimbabweans’ feelings that “we’re on our own”.