Mugabe in Japan folly

Yamamoto: Mugabe in Japan - folly on the international affairs chess
board? by Ken Yamamoto

31 March 2016

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

It's downright silly if not mindboggling that, presented with an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister of a US$5 trillion economy with cutting edge technology, Mr. Mugabe chose to fly to Tokyo with his wife and foreign affairs minister plus a coterie of pretty much useless hangers on that don't add value to Zimbabwe's very troubled economy.

On Wednesday 23 March 2016, Mr. Robert Mugabe and his delegation left Zimbabwe ostensibly bound for Japan. Zimbabwe's official media painted the trip as one of Mr. Mugabe's daring moves to solidify his so-called `Look East' policy. However, Mr. Mugabe did not arrive here until late on Sunday 27 March when he landed at Haneda Airport.

Mr. Mugabe was accompanied by his wife and foreign affairs minister, plus a large group of hangers on - most likely some state resources leeches. One key issue was a major driver for his trip - Japan's foreign affairs agenda. Anything and everything else was peripheral.

Lessons on how to become a foreign policy poodle

Mr. Mugabe has since 2014 been concerned about Zimbabwe's so-called all-weather-friend, China - driven by four key concerns.

The first one is that nothing much in terms of a bailout has come out of this so-called friendship. This is in spite of official propaganda crowing loudly about what they termed `mega-deals' and a Look East Policy bearing fruit. I have written before on this issue, and warned that nothing will come out of China or for that matter from anybody else.

You can read my articles here: 

The second reason is that Chinese leaders arrested a man who posed as China's unofficial corruption channel to and fro Zimbabwe. Sam Pa, a man deeply involved in Zimbabwe's election financing and well connected to Zimbabwe's CIO was locked up in October 2015 under Xi Jinping's corruption net, you can read the article here (

The third reason is that when Mugabe through his juniors trusted Chinese firms Jinan and Anjin with diamond mining licences (both firms are linked to the Chinese military), by 2013 the firms were scaling down operations in Zimbabwe after rapid extraction of gems. Both companies have the same directors such as Mr Zhang Shibin.  In fact, by 2013, Anjin was already looking for mining options in the DRC after concluding that it wasn't interested in the more capital intensive mining of diamond conglomerates on its Marange claim. Anjin secured $5 billion worth claims in the DRC.

The fourth and more fundamental reason is Mr. Mugabe's fear of China's designs in Zimbabwe's succession politics. He is concerned that China is behind the scenes working with a faction in his party to retire him - seeing as retiring him is the most logical start to solving Zimbabwe's problem of inflicting all sorts of pain on itself. Given his very advanced age, Chinese concern is more in securing its interests in the medium to long term team and it makes little sense to do that with a geriatric. Mr Mugabe's concerns were complicated by a trip to China by his ambitious deputy soon after his promotion, where he gave interviews to China's official media that made him sound like a pragmatic reformist. He came off as the Deng Xiaoping of Zimbabwe.

To the extent that Mr. Mugabe is unhappy with the Chinese, he also sees a dead-end to his so-called "Look East policy" which is in fact a silly `Look-China' perspective. This is why when he received an invite from Mr. Abe in late February, Mr. Mugabe lurched at the opportunity. He must have been extremely excited when he received the invite. However, I actually wonder if Mr. Mugabe consults widely with his cabinet and advisors before embarking on these trips, or he acts on his whims and caprices on national affairs of his country.

Japan suspended much of its technical cooperation with Zimbabwe in 2000.

However, it resuscitated some programs such as Japan Overseas Volunteers Cooperation program through JICA a few years ago. Many Japanese firms, especially the trading firms known as sogo shosha, that did a lot of trade with Zimbabwe then such as Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, Toyota Tsusho and Itochu closed their offices in Zimbabwe and relocated to South Africa.

So it's important to connect the dots on why (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) Mr. Abe would invite a leader whose future in that seat is as uncertain as his ability to walk without tumbling. So let's connect the dots.

From early 2013, under Mr. Abe's administration, Japan's foreign policy became resurgent and aggressive with an eye on China. Before that, foreign policy was largely dormant. Japan is naturally concerned about China's assertiveness on the world stage and aggression in Asia.

It is in this context that Mr. Abe has moved with vigor to assert Japan's international and security interests through moves such as opening up Japan's high tech defense industry after years of a self-imposed ban, extinguishing tensions with South Korea and sealing a strategic partnership with India.

Mr. Abe, his foreign policy team and many hawkish nationalists view China as a revisionist power and argue that Japan must prepare for such a time in future when we have to contend with China as the main geopolitical force in the Asia-Pacific.

Given China's aggressive activities in the South China Sea, Mr. Abe is naturally concerned that a rising China has potential to become a more aggressive China and can end up putting the international community in an appeasement mode. He is, as a result, not content with Japan remaining a dormant power under the safe umbrella of the U.S. security alliance. While that security alliance has served its purpose, Japan has to deal with a dynamic and potentially aggressive neighborhood in light of China's rising power projections and North Korea's nuclear programs.

It is this future with China in it that must be contained. As a result, Mr. Mugabe's invite must be seen in this light.

China started to actively court Africa in 2002 when Mr. Jiang Zemin pushed for the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Prior to that, it had engaged in construction and infrastructure transactions such as the US $500 million 1,860 km single-track TAZARA railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia built from 1970 to 1975. Before China pursued its FOCAC, Japan was already engaging Africa since 1993 through the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to promote high-level policy dialogue between African leaders and development partners. TICAD will for the first time be held in Africa later in 2016 hosted by Kenya.

In his foreign policy agenda in light of the above, Mr. Abe wants three things:

• To contain China
• To make TICAD very successful (with a view to containing China),
• And to gain a United Nations Security Council seat (with a view to containing China).

Due to the China threat, he sees it as strategic to have a permanent seat with veto power on the Security Council. As such, Japan, India, Germany and Brazil support each other's bid for a permanent Security Council seat. Mr. Abe sees Africa's support as important in pushing for UN Security Council reform given that there are many countries in Africa.

Following Mr. Mugabe blustery rhetoric about UN reform to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at an AU summit last January, Mr. Abe must have theorized that Mr. Mugabe is a useful tool in his foreign policy tool box hence his invite.  But no doubt Mr. Abe has overestimated Mr. Mugabe's waning influence in Africa. However, it's easier to create a puppet out of a malleable 92-year old desperate to create friends than it is out of say a young Mr Magufuli (Tanzanian President John Magufuli).

Can you connect the dots now? Mr. Mugabe's visit to Japan is to make him no more than a foreign policy pawn on a grand foreign policy chess-board - a tool in a foreign policy tool box. That pretty much renders him a puppet. Unlike Zimbabwe, Japan pursues its interests carefully.

Trips with little business sense

Mr. Mugabe has demonstrated time and again that he does not fully comprehend the complexity and dynamics of running a modern economy in a complex global setting. I also doubt that he read and fully understood economics because the reality that Zimbabwe's economic interests are inseparably tied to its global influence seems to elude him.

It's downright silly if not mindboggling that, presented with an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister of a $5 trillion economy with cutting edge technology, Mr. Mugabe chose to fly to Tokyo with his wife and foreign affairs minister plus a coterie of pretty much useless hangers on that don't add value to Zimbabwe's sick economy.

It's ok for Mr. Mugabe to travel for over fifteen hours across the seas at his country's costs and be used as a foreign policy tool if he actually has an economic agenda ace up his sleeve. Global geopolitics and realpolitik demands that when someone wants something from you, you must demand some tradable in return. Before he came all the way to Tokyo, Mr. Mugabe must have had a clear idea of what he wants from Japan to further his country's interests. He must have caucused with his advisors and captains of industry in Zimbabwe.

In fact, he must have put together a business delegation led by ministers responsible for the economy and industry to make sure that for accepting to be a foreign policy instrument, they can conclude business deals that further Zimbabwe's economy, engender skills transfer and promote technology transfer. But alas, Mr. Mugabe was way too excited by the prospect of another foreign trip he didn't apply his mind to all this. He was too pleased to be hosted, receive a YEN600 million grant and eat tempura, karage and Kobe beef, while his wife who is reputed to love whiskey, tried some Japanese sake and Shochu.

I therefore never stop wondering why Mr. Mugabe NEVER travels with a delegation of business people to further the business and economic interests of Zimbabwe. Some people may have a low opinion of Mr. Jacob Zuma, but for all his faults, Mr. Zuma often makes sure that any of his trips abroad at the taxpayer's expense further the economic interests of his country.

In fact, while Mr. and Mrs. Mugabe were enjoying Japanese washoku (cuisine) of sushi and sashimi plus a side bowl of miso soup here, Mr. Zuma was in Saudi Arabia and UAE on a state visit where he travelled with five cabinet ministers and a delegation of 20 business people. This arrangement ensures that whatever the ministers agree on gets followed through by business actors and does not die slowly locked away in the cupboards of government bureaucrats.

Contrast Mr. Mugabe's trip with Mr. Abe's African tour in 2014!

Mr. Abe's delegation comprised not just government bureaucrats, but representation of business groups, industrial groups and  companies like Toyota Tsusho, JETRO, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Mitsui.

For example, eight months after Mr. Abe's visit in Mozambique, Mitsui, one of Japan's largest conglomerates invested $1 billion in Mozambique, paying $450m for a 15 per cent stake in Vale's Moatize mine, a further $188m to fund the asset's expansion and $313m for a 50 per cent stake in Vale's rail project to Beira and other ports. This way, a leader's travel is tied to his country's economic interests. Unfortunately, Mr. Mugabe's travels are just that, mere useless trips.

Will Japanese companies invest in Zimbabwe?

The answer is certainly not, as long as the prevailing economic policies remain in place. There is measly trade happening right now between Zimbabwe and Japan, in Zimbabwe's favour. Japan sells roughly $150 million worth of finished goods to Zimbabwe, mostly cars. That's a mere pittance.  Itochu Corporation has been a partner with Matsuda (Mazda) Corporation and Zimbabwe's IDC running the almost moribund Willowvale car assembly plant.

In 2013 when the Zimbabwean economy was still sane, Kansai Paints acquired 63.25 percent share of Astra Paints, a company which was through this investment rescued from the intensive care unit. Kansai Paints now has to review its investment following Mr. Mugabe and his nephew's childish indigenization deadlines. One wonders where he was when Kansai supported Astra Paints by injecting capital into the firm culminating into this 63% stake. Japanese firms will not a trust a leader whose cabinet and his nephew have resolved to close foreign companies that have not donated majority shareholding to locals. It's much smarter to make clear goalposts before investors come in with their capital. Don't move goalposts after they have already invested.

When a business newspaper leads with a headline like "D-Day for foreign firms", then forget about foreign investment.

Japanese firms have billions of investments in Asia, Americas, Europe, Africa and Australia. There is no need to spend time dealing with petty headaches in a market that is in fact very small and overrated.

So what are you saying Yamamoto San, you may ask?

I am simply saying Japanese firms are generally very large, have large amounts of capital backing and have cutting edge technology, but they are very risk averse.

Under the current circumstances, they won't have much investment interest in Zimbabwe. They are as concerned about Mr. Mugabe's unpredictability and his age as many other global investors are.

Zimbabwe is a terrible destination for international capital right now.

Japanese firms have an interest in several opportunities in many countries across the African continent, but Zimbabwe under its present leadership is certainly not one of them.

*Ken Yamamoto is a research fellow on Africa at an Institute in Tokyo. He researches and travels frequently between Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. This op-ed is part of a series he writes, partly based on notes he prepared for Nippon Keizai-dantai Rengokai.

You can email your views to him on 

For this and other articles by Ken Yamamoto, click on the following link: Mugabe’s
incredible Japan folly/opinion.aspx