This made Ambassador Laing’s perceived backing of Mnangagwa profoundly problematic. The perception among some in ZANU-PF and Zimbabwean intelligence community was that Mugabe’s long-time foe was attempting to influence the presidential succession.
In February 2016, I warned in African Arguments that “the United Kingdom’s bias for Mnangagwa may prove a kiss of death for this long-time presidential aspirant”.
It was not just among the ruling party, however, that Laing’s approaches were heavily criticised.
Zimbabwean opposition parties accused the Ambassador of openly backing Mnangagwa while propping up “the incorrigible regime in Zimbabwe”.
Think tanks, the British media and public intellectuals also attacked the diplomat for allegedly helping the government secure an international financial bailout as part of a plan to re-engage the country and facilitate the rise of its preferred candidate.
The UK should have recognised that associating itself with Mnangagwa would provoke heated domestic opposition because the controversial Mnangagwa has a long history of human rights abuses and violence.
As Minister of State Security in the Prime Minister’s Office, he played a leading role in massacres committed by the state in southern Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
Mnangagwa was instrumental in the violence around the June 2008 presidential runoff, a strategy of force which eventually led the opposition’s Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from the vote.
And according to a UN-commissioned report, Mnangagwa was also involved in the massive illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo war (1998-2003).
The UK’s diplomatic mission in Harare attempted to address its public relations calamity by issuing statements playing up its humanitarian activities and commitment to human rights and democracy.
But this did little to assuage its critics, as demonstrated by repeated critical analyses from an increasingly diverse range of commentators.
The approaches of the UK’s diplomatic mission in Harare have now completely unravelled.
Mugabe’s government is reluctant to implement necessary reforms, as evinced by its lack of consistent economic policy and refusal to reduce expenditure on an oversized civil service.
Moreover, contrary to London’s calculations, Mnangagwa will not be taking over from Mugabe.
The nonagenarian president has so far outmanoeuvred all his internal challengers and intends to run for another term in 2018.
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