In the early hours of this morning, soldiers from the Zimbabwean army deployed in central Harare, taking control of state television, surrounding Government ministries and sealing off Robert Mugabe’s official and private residences. At 1.26 am local time, a military officer appeared on state television and declared that the army was taking what he called “targeted action” against “criminals” around Mugabe. Several Government Ministers, all of them political allies of Grace Mugabe, are reported to have been arrested. At 2.30 am, gunfire was heard in the northern suburb of Harare where Mugabe has a private mansion. Areas of the central business district have been sealed off by armoured personnel carriers.
Our embassy in Harare has been monitoring the situation carefully throughout the night, supported by staff in the Foreign Office. About 20,000 Britons live in Zimbabwe, and I can reassure the House that so far we have received no reports of any British nationals being injured. We have updated our travel advice to recommend that any Britons in Harare should remain in their homes or other accommodation until the situation becomes clearer. All our Zimbabwean and UK-based embassy staff and their families are accounted for.
I will say frankly to the House that we cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead. We do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not, and we call for calm and restraint. The events of the last 24 hours are the latest escalation of months of brutal infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, including the sacking of a vice-president and the purging of his followers, and the apparent positioning of Grace Mugabe as a contender to replace her 93-year-old husband.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken a deep interest in Zimbabwe over many years, and I pay particular tribute to the courage and persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—I will call her my hon. Friend—who has tirelessly exposed the crimes of the Mugabe regime and visited the country herself during some of its worst moments. The United Kingdom, under Governments of all parties, has followed the same unwavering principles in its approach to Zimbabwe. First and foremost, we will never forget the strong ties of history and friendship with that beautiful country, which has been accurately described as the jewel of Africa.
All that Britain has ever wanted for Zimbabweans is for them to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections. Mugabe’s consuming ambition has always been to deny them that choice. The House will remember the brutal litany of his 37 years in office: the elections that he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents; and the illegal seizure of land, which led to the worst hyperinflation in recorded history—measured in billions of percentage points—and forced the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar. All the while, his followers were looting and plundering that richly endowed country, so that Zimbabweans today are, per capita, poorer than they were in 1980. This has left many dependent on the healthcare, education and food aid provided by the Department for International Development.
Britain has always wanted the Zimbabwean people to be masters of their fate, and for any political change to be peaceful, lawful and constitutional. Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa. There is only one rightful way for Zimbabwe to achieve a legitimate Government, and that is through free and fair elections held in accordance with the country’s constitution. Elections are due to be held in the first half of next year, and we will do all that we can, with our international partners, to ensure that they provide a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future. That is what we urge on all parties. I shall be speaking to the deputy President of South Africa later today.
Every Member will follow the scenes in Harare with good will and sympathy for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people, and I undertake to keep the House updated as events unfold.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his deep and passionate response to what is a very fluid situation. This is clearly a significant tipping point for the power balance in Zimbabwe, and although it is not a coup in the sense that the military want to run the country, it is a coup to ensure that former Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa takes over.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that changing from one ruthless leader to another ruthless leader will not help to create the conditions that can lead to genuinely free and fair elections in the coming year, and will not solve a dire economic situation in which thousands of people are destitute and food is scarce? Many people in Zimbabwe and the international community will welcome the removal of the Mugabes if that is the outcome, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the former vice-president is probably the one person in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe, and that he was responsible for the massacres of at least 20,000 people in Matabeleland shortly after Mugabe took power in 1980? Does he recognise that Mnangagwa, as head of Joint Operations Command, is widely viewed as having co-ordinated ZANU-PF’s campaign of torture, murder and repression in the lead-up to the rigged run-off in the 2008 election?
Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on Zimbabwe will not change overnight, and that we will not jump in to welcome Mnangagwa should he take over right away? What more will the Government do to help ensure that free and fair elections take place and to give warm support to those who are struggling inside Zimbabwe to raise the flag of true freedom? Will the Foreign Secretary make representations to the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and South Africa to press ZANU-PF to allow genuinely free elections, and not just to accept another strongman dictator?
Finally, will the Foreign Secretary recognise the importance of listening to the voices of the huge Zimbabwean diaspora here in the United Kingdom, many of whom sought political asylum, but want nothing more than to see their once prosperous country flourishing and free?
I renew my tribute to the campaigning of the hon. Lady. She has been tireless over many, many years and has spoken passionately, accurately and perceptively about this subject, as she has again today.
It is too early to comment on the outcome of these events, or to be sure exactly how things will unfold. The situation is fluid, and I think it would be wrong for us at this stage to comment specifically on any personalities that may be involved, save perhaps to say that this is obviously not a particularly promising development in the political career of Robert Mugabe. The important point is that we—including, I think, everyone in the House—want the people of Zimbabwe to have a choice about their future through free and fair elections. That is the consensus that we are building up with our friends and partners, and I shall be having a discussion with the vice-president of South Africa to that effect later today.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Has he by any chance asked our own military command to engage with the chief of the general staff of the Zimbabwean armed forces, and encourage him to put troops back into barracks and allow a democratic process to take place?
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing it.
Events in Zimbabwe have moved incredibly quickly over the last 48 hours. As recently as Monday, here in the Chamber, I referred to the abuse of power by Grace Mugabe; two days later, that power appears at the moment to have been taken away, although the situation seems highly volatile.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the 20,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe will be given all the assistance that they need during this dangerous period? I understand that in the past, at times of great tension, there have been Cobra plans for British nationals to be evacuated if necessary; I wonder whether thought will be given to such a process on this occasion.
I hope the Foreign Secretary agrees with me that three key points of principle apply to these events. First, a descent into violence and reprisals from any direction in the dispute must be avoided at all costs. Secondly, if all that this represents in the long term is the replacement of authoritarian rule by one faction by authoritarian rule by another, that hardly constitutes progress. Thirdly, we know that the only way forward is for the Zimbabwean people to choose their own Government and shape their own future through elections that are free, fair, peaceful and democratic. Whatever happens in the coming few days and weeks, let us keep that ultimate goal in mind.
In September last year, Dr Alex Vines of Chatham House published an excellent study of the scope for a peaceful transition beyond Mugabe. He warned that western Governments were too complacent about the status quo, and had failed to create a dialogue with different factional leaders and the kingmakers in the military. I shared Dr Vines’s concerns with my parliamentary colleagues at the time, and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary himself was equally concerned. May I ask him what the Foreign Office has done over the past year to establish a dialogue with Mr Mnangagwa—or whichever of the factional leaders who will, along with the military, now be in charge? We must all hope for a more constructive relationship with them than we had with Mr Mugabe, and we must urge them to take the correct path towards democracy and peace.
I agree very much with what the right hon. Lady has said, and I thought that her earlier remarks on the subject were very commonsensical. She asked about British nationals in Zimbabwe. As I said in my response to the urgent question, there are about 20,000 of them. The FCO crisis centre has been working overnight to ensure their welfare, and, to the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports so far of any injuries or suffering. I talked earlier to our head of mission in Harare, who said that, as far as he understood, UK nationals were staying where they were and avoiding trouble, and I think that that is exactly the right thing to do.
The right hon. Lady asked about our representation in Harare, and about UK engagement with the political process in Zimbabwe. All I can tell her is that most observers would say that we have a more powerful representation in Harare than in any other country. We have an excellent ambassador and an excellent high commissioner, and we engage at all levels in Zimbabwean politics. I think that this is one of those occasions on which the right hon. Lady and I are absolutely at one about what we want UK representation to achieve: to encourage the people of Zimbabwe on their path towards free and fair elections next year.
I can confirm to the Foreign Secretary that we do indeed have excellent diplomatic and aid staff in Harare.
If this does indeed presage a move towards easier times—and I do, of course, accept the caution issued by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge, along with me, that the British Government have unfinished business in Zimbabwe? Will he assure me that they will offer further assistance, if they can, to help that wonderful country and its remarkable people, both black and white, in their transition to—we hope—a better Government and a more prosperous state?
I thank my right hon. Friend, notably for his recent mission to Zimbabwe. I was very interested to hear of his meetings there. I know that he personally, in a way, incarnates the historic ties between our two countries. He knows whereof he speaks. Zimbabwe has fantastic potential. It is a country with a very well-educated population, and it has a great future if it can secure the right political system. That is all it takes. They have fantastic natural resources, and my right hon. Friend can be absolutely reassured that the UK Government—who, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said just now, contribute about £80 million or £90 million in DFID spending—will be continuing to invest in Zimbabwe and its future.
I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for raising this important issue.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law are the best way to guarantee secure and sustainable development? Does he also agree with me about the importance of the role that the NGO sector will have to play in the future of Zimbabwe—and also organisations such as the British Council, which does an outstanding job across the world? What support does he believe can be provided to them in the future? Finally, what discussions has he had with his counterparts in the region on today’s events?
The British Council will certainly be involved in the life of Zimbabwe and giving its people the opportunities to which they are entitled. In the last few hours I have been concentrating mainly on liaising with our embassy in Harare, but in the course of this afternoon I will be talking to the South Africans, who play a crucial role in the future of Zimbabwe, and who can be indispensable in making sure it has free and fair elections next year.
Although we have great fondness for the Minister for Africa, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary for deciding to come to the Dispatch Box to update the House on this important issue?
While it would be tempting to rush towards a Government of national coalition to provide stability, will the Foreign Secretary advise caution? We should see through the ZANU-PF conference planned for December. Elections have been planned for August, but there has already been talk about bringing them forward to February and March. It is important that those elections take place, that ZANU-PF goes through a proper process, and that they are multi-party elections, to make sure that there is the stability required to move forward.
My hon. Friend brings a wealth of experience to this subject, and he is absolutely right. The message I am trying to get over to the House this afternoon is that we should not jump the gun; we should not jump to conclusions about exactly how things are going to turn out in the course of the next few days, or even hours. My hon. Friend is extremely sensible to urge caution.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
My constituent Petronella Mahachi, originally from Zimbabwe, came to see me only on Friday, and has asked me to ask the Foreign Secretary about the forthcoming elections. What practical steps will the UK be taking to ensure that they are free and fair, especially in respect of the participation of international bodies that can guarantee the security and democracy of those elections?
Clearly, there is a great opportunity here for the international community to come together, perhaps under United Nations auspices, to ensure there are free and fair elections. We will be making sure the UK Government are in the lead, as we would expect, in ensuring that the people of Zimbabwe have that opportunity.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this could be the beginning of the end of one of the most flawed regimes the world has ever seen? Does he also agree that the key priority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just pointed out, is having a pathway to free and fair elections? Also, what is going to be done to try to recover the many billions of dollars stolen by Mugabe and his cronies?
The first priority is free and fair elections, and then to get the Zimbabwean economy back on its feet so that the great natural potential of that country can be unleashed. That should, I am afraid, come before any attempt to take back huge sums from a country that is already in the throes of bankruptcy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments, and commend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on her endeavours on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe in this House during the time that I have been a Member—and before then. Mugabe has expanded his bank accounts at the expense of the citizens of Zimbabwe. He has left a trail of bloody murder, broken hearts, empty bank accounts, stolen land, poverty and a denial of citizens’ democracy and liberty. What can be done to return the monies and the stolen lands to those they were taken from?
I agree passionately with what the hon. Gentleman says about the larceny and despoliation of farmers—white, black, everybody—in that country. I saw it myself, as I am sure many other hon. Members have: some 17 years or so ago, I went to a place called Mazowe, not far from Harare, and saw the ZANU-PF thugs terrify an elderly couple in their homestead and then relentlessly seize their land. I am afraid that couple are now no longer with us; they passed away, as, sadly, is the case with many other farmers in that country. There is no easy way to make restitution for their loss and suffering. The important thing is to concentrate on the future of Zimbabwe, which has incredible economic potential. Get it back on its feet and invest in the country; that is the best way forward for Zimbabwe.
The UK, in the year to March I believe, supplied £80 million or £90 million and has helped educate possibly 80,000 children and supplied sanitation for 1.4 million people. We are in the lead in trying to help the Zimbabweans and in alleviating the humanitarian crisis they face as a result of the economic mismanagement in that country. The caution my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) urges is absolutely right as it is too early to say whether there is an opportunity in this situation, but if there is, DFID and all the organs of UK foreign and overseas policy—of global Britain—will be there to serve.
This is clearly a developing and concerning situation in a country that is already beset by human rights abuses and economic turmoil as a result of Mugabe’s tyrannous reign, but Zimbabwe is approaching a crossroads, and it could continue down its disastrous path with new faces at the top. What steps does the Foreign Secretary think need to be taken for the pressure to transition to turn into an opportunity for Zimbabwe to embrace a positive democratic future?
The timetable has been well spelled out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). We need to go forward now with the ZANU-PF conference and then the elections scheduled for next year. It is crucial that they should now go ahead and be free and fair. At this stage, it would not be right for us to speculate about personalities; what matters is that the people of Zimbabwe have a free and democratic choice.
I appreciate that events are very fast-moving, but will the British Government work closely with the African Union to try to get it to put pressure on Zimbabwe, both not to continue as an authoritarian state and to respect human rights, particularly of those from overseas, such as from Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. The AU is an increasingly important and valuable interlocutor in Africa, and I have a good relationship with Mr Faki, president of the commission. I will be going to the AU summit in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire next week, and I have no doubt that Zimbabwe will be top of the AU agenda in Côte d’Ivoire.
Constituents have been in touch with me this morning regarding the worrying situation in Harare. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary give that the Foreign Office will continue with its excellent start at communicating with residents in the UK who are terribly worried about what is happening in Zimbabwe?
I say to the 20,000 UK nationals in Zimbabwe and to the 200,000 Zimbabweans here in the UK that, as far as we know, no one is under any threat at the present time. The important advice that we continue to give to those in Zimbabwe is to stay in their homes wherever they are and not go out on to the street—do not get into any trouble. To the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports of any suffering or any violence against UK nationals in Zimbabwe.
I recall the 21 December 1979 Lancaster House conference and the British military and civilian involvement in setting up the regime in Zimbabwe. We actually established Mugabe in power. Will we consider using military and civilian assets to help any kind of election? Hopefully, this time, we will get it right.
I admire my hon. Friend’s spirit. I have no doubt that we could do such a thing if we needed to, but a better option would be to work with the Southern African Development Community and the African Union under a UN framework to ensure that we deliver free and fair elections. That is probably better at this stage.
There are reports that Grace Mugabe is out of the country—possibly in Namibia. Building on the important role that regional organisations such as SADC and the AU have to play and on the roles of the Foreign Office and DFID, what steps can the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that any possible instability in Zimbabwe does not spread to the wider region?
Most of us would see the outcomes for Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule as heartbreaking, and it is clear that future decisions about who governs the country must be taken by ballots, not bullets and military coups. What discussions will the Foreign Secretary have with the Secretary of State for International Development about building Zimbabwe into a democratic and prosperous country?
DFID will certainly want to support the transition, and I hope that it will be a transition to a free and democratic country. The people of Zimbabwe have suffered for too long, and it is fascinating to see quite how many Members want to ask questions on this subject, about which the British people really care. For many people, this is a moment of hope, but it is too early to be sure that that hope will be fulfilled, so we need to work hard now to ensure that there are free and democratic elections next year.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for taking this urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). For far too long, the British Government have been unwilling to speak out against the political events in Zimbabwe, and I hope that that will change in the coming months and years. The Foreign Secretary has already mentioned the British people with families in Zimbabwe, and I have a member of staff who is from Zimbabwe and his family are rightly worried about what the future holds. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that he will keep the House updated? There is no need to for him be dragged along here to tell us what is happening; just keep the House up to date and make sure that we play a proper role in ensuring a stable and democratic future for all the people of Zimbabwe.
The British military have long been a force for good in inculcating recognisable values, an ethos and the law of armed conflict in militaries throughout southern and east Africa, including Zimbabwe. What British military assets are currently engaged in security sector reform in Zimbabwe? What does the Foreign Secretary envisage for the future?
To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that we are engaged in that way in Zimbabwe for historical reasons that I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. If we can achieve the reform that we want and if Zimbabwe goes down the path that is now potentially open to it, that is not to say that the UK could not in the future be engaged in exactly that kind of assistance.
I am grateful to my colleague from the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe for securing this urgent question. I share the view that Zimbabwe cannot move from having a despot in charge to having a bampot in charge, and I hope that we can see early free and fair elections.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary regarding Zimbabwean nationals who may be due for return to Zimbabwe? There is clearly a volatile environment in Zimbabwe at the moment, so it is important that he has that conversation with the Home Secretary.
Many people in the UK and, indeed, in this House will have friends and family either currently living in or with close links to Zimbabwe, and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) referred to the diaspora. Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the UK, working with our international partners, will be at the forefront of seeking a democratic and prosperous future for Zimbabwe? We should seize this opportunity as one that does not come around too often; it is a chance for us to make a difference.
Absolutely. That is the key point. This is potentially a moment of hope, and many people in this country will be looking at it in that way. We must ensure that we do not jump the gun and that we are not premature, which is why I have been cautious with the House today. However, my hon. Friend can be absolutely certain that if our hopes are fulfilled, the UK will be at the forefront of helping to turn Zimbabwe around.
If there is to be a transition, I share the Foreign Secretary’s hope that it will be peaceful. Does he know whether the opposition parties have had any involvement in recent hours, or if there is capacity for the opposition parties to be involved in any transitional arrangements? Or is it too early to say?
The answer is simple. We can work with our friends and partners, with the African Union and with SADC to get their agreement, which I am sure will be readily forthcoming, that the best future for the prosperity of the people of Zimbabwe is to have free and fair elections. That is the way to unlock the wealth and prosperity of the country.
I am grateful for that question. I am fixed to talk to the vice-president of South Africa at the earliest possible opportunity, but I must regretfully inform the House that I have not had much time to talk to any others. As I said to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), the South Africans will be crucial in this.
I was an election observer in Zimbabwe in 2000, when Mugabe stole the election from the Movement for Democratic Change through persecution and brutality, and for my sins I have been banned from Zimbabwe.
Not only have the farms of black and white farmers been destroyed in Zimbabwe, but corporate governance across the piece has been destroyed. There will be a stage when we need to re-engage to rebuild that country, because Zimbabwe should be feeding most of Africa; it cannot even feed itself now. There will be a time to engage, but it probably is not yet. We have to be ready to get in there and put the situation right, because Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with lovely people, and it has been absolutely destroyed by a madman.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has been to Zimbabwe, and he is right in his analysis of what went wrong. I remember seeing how fantastic farms were ruined, with irrigation systems melted down to make saucepans, or whatever. It was an economic catastrophe, for which the people of Zimbabwe are now paying.
The best way forward is through free and fair elections. As my hon. Friend has experience as an election monitor in Zimbabwe, I wonder whether it is too much to hope that he might volunteer to go back next year to monitor the free and fair elections we hope to see.
I have read the Foreign Secretary’s excellent book on Winston Churchill, and he will be familiar with the great words of our great former Prime Minister:
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The Foreign Secretary is committed to seeing Zimbabwe back as a democratic state. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, and it withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003. As Zimbabwe goes back to being a democratic state, it would be great to see it become part of the Commonwealth again.
Will the Secretary of State confirm the UK’s commitment to the people of Zimbabwe and to ensuring that their future is strong and prosperous? Zimbabwe is a former member of the Commonwealth, so does he have any intention of speaking to other Commonwealth leaders about exerting their influence and support to help us to ensure that reality for Zimbabwe?
The Commonwealth, along with the other multinational, multilateral institutions I have mentioned, can play an important role in encouraging Zimbabwe on that path. We have a wonderful Commonwealth summit coming up in April 2018, as my hon. Friend will know. April might be too early to welcome Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth, but the summit may be a useful moment to bring Commonwealth nations together to exhort Zimbabwe to set Commonwealth membership as a target.
Zimbabwe a National Emergency—ZANE—is a wonderful charity based in Witney that provides much needed care to the people of Zimbabwe. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that he will have any discussions necessary with the charitable sector to ensure that, during this period of political instability, much needed aid still gets through?
I have had the good fortune to meet representatives of ZANE over the years, as I am sure have many hon. Members on both sides of the House. ZANE does fantastic work, in common with other voluntary organisations that have kept the flame of hope alive for 37 years. Now is the moment when there really could be a new dawn. There is an opportunity and a moment of hope. We must not overdo it, but we must foster and sedulously protect what could be a real opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe.
As my right hon. Friend and others have said, events in Zimbabwe are very much in flux. Events are fast-moving, and we do not quite know how they will end. Will he confirm that the United Kingdom sees the future of Zimbabwe as a prosperous country playing an active role in the region? Does he agree that, if we are seeing the end of Mugabe’s rule, that is a much more realistic prospect and something about which we can be very hopeful?
I am worried that in my last answer I slightly overdid the note of hope, because hopes have been disappointed so many times, but there is hope. There is now a real chance that things will change in Zimbabwe, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. Everybody will have to work hard together to achieve it, and there will have to be free and fair elections. Nobody on either side of the House wants to see simply the transition from one unelected tyrant to another. No one wants to see that; we want to see proper, free and fair elections next year, and that is what we will be working towards.