Ambassador Brian A. Nichols interview with Trevor Ncube

Amb. Nichols with Trevor Ncube

Public Affairs Section
United States Embassy Harare

Transcript:  Ambassador Brian A. Nichols interview with Trevor Ncube
Watch this interview on YouTube (Posted Monday, October 21, 2019). 

START: 

Trevor Ncube:  Greetings Zimbabwe, Africa and the world, Welcome to In Conversation with Trevor brought to you by Titan Law. I go beyond the headlines and the sensational.  Today I’m in conversation with United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian A. Nichols.

Trevor Ncube:  Ambassador Brian A. Nichols welcome to In Conversation with Trevor.

Ambassador Nichols:  I’m very happy to be with you Trevor.

Trevor Ncube: Good to have you here.  So let’s get right to it, you go through your confirmation hearings, you have read all about Zimbabwe, you get your confirmation, you have been appointed, you are on the plane flying to Zimbabwe, what’s going through your head?

Ambassador Nichols:  Will SAA let me take my carry-on onboard?  That was the first thing going through my head, they seem to have an issue about weight but the next thing going through my head was this is an incredibly exciting time in Zimbabwe, its two weeks before the elections, I have been told I’m going to be able to present my credentials to the President very quickly which in fact was the case.  This is an exciting moment in a country that really holds the imagination of so many people around the world.

Trevor Ncube: Imaginations of so many people around the world, what was your imagination of this country, what were your expectations?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, I think it’s a country that, I mean, any time your country has a Bob Marley song about it, its captured people’s imaginations.  A number of senior policy makers in my country and around the world had done their theses and dissertations on Zimbabwe.  It’s a country that was a great focus in terms of U.S. and international policy.  The chair of my confirmation’s hearings was Senator Jeff Flake, who lived here, did his masters’ thesis on Robert Mugabe.  So, that focus and the moment that I was entering into, one where this is a crucial election, up unto that point had been generally free of violence and intimidation, and things seemingly to be going relatively well, and this could be a moment where there’s a real springboard for Zimbabwe becoming a much more democratic, prosperous, transparent country.

Trevor Ncube: So, you then land, you present your credentials on the 19th of July, the elections are on the 30th.  Has that imagination, the country that you imagined, the hope that you had for this country, have you been disappointed or what?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, I have been incredibly impressed with the people of Zimbabwe.  This is a country with incredibly talented people, very well educated, very hardworking.  When you look at the Zimbabwean diaspora, they are successful all around the world and that should be the case here.  In the wake of the election on August 1, I was in President Mnangagwa’s office with Senator Flake, at that moment and we were congratulating him on the progress in the elections and while there were certainly some flaws in the process overall, I thought it was a vast improvement over prior votes.  And then later that day I’m in my office, gunfire is going on in the CBD, international election observers, we had to send armoured vehicles in to get them out, brought them to our Embassy which was on  the edge of the CBD at that time and we were wondering what’s gone wrong? What does this mean? What does this portend?

The process that Zimbabwe went through with the creation of the Motlanthe Commission, the fact that those recommendations have not been implemented even more than a year after the August 1 violence, the crackdown by security forces even after August 1.  I’m talking about August 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, you have people going into the high-density suburbs, security forces beating people up.  It was quite shocking.  We wanted to give this government space to address those issues, space to implement the agenda that President Mnangagwa campaigned on and as we heard at the State of the Nation address not too long ago, much of that agenda still has not been passed.  Many of the reforms that this government campaigned on — alignment with the Constitution of 2013, repeal of repressive legislation like POSA, like AIPPA, that has not happened.

Trevor Ncube:  Why do you think that’s not happened?

Ambassador Nichols:  I think there are entrenched interests that are resisting reform here; and it’s, you know, reform isn’t easy, but it’s important.  When you see the trajectory the country is on now, where inflation is in the hundreds of percent.  We measure a basket of 16 basic items in our embassy:  mealie meal, bread, cooking oil, basic vegetables, gasoline, or petrol as you call it, that’s up 641 percent year on year as of mid-September [2019].

So, the things that most people need are incredibly expensive.  We have seen very disturbing incidents of abductions of civil society members.  We have seen the protests in January, the violence that followed, including turning off the Internet.  Those things were deeply concerning to the international community and to average Zimbabweans.  So, you know that recalcitrance to take on real reforms that could move this country forward is what’s holding it back, and you look where Zimbabwe is today, where it was a year ago, where it was five years ago, there needs to be concrete permanent irreversible reforms to address the challenges that this country faces.

Trevor Ncube:  Clearly from what you are saying the political reforms are not happening. The economic reforms are not happening as fast as you want.  Tell me in a nutshell, as far as political reforms are concerned, what are the three critical aspects of those political reforms that you would want to see come through?

Ambassador Nichols:  Number one — low hanging fruit, implement the electoral reforms called upon by five different international as well as the domestic election observers across multiple elections.  That’s something that almost all of these observer reports agree on, the government had said previously that it plans to do so, they have had retreats, they have had discussions, you’ve had all sorts of people come back from these international missions to participate, they’ve got a nice grid, all the blocks are filled in, there’s no reason why that can’t go forward.

Trevor Ncube:  The second one….

Ambassador Nichols:  The second one would be media reform.  I think that the media space in Zimbabwe is very narrow.  And I congratulate you for maintaining one of the few independent voices here, but it should be broader. This is a country with only one television station.  Even a small town in most countries has more than one television station and having an independent voice in television, in radio, there have not been any licensing of new radio stations, either community or national.

Trevor Ncube:  So, the media reforms have not happened to your satisfaction. You said three issues, which is the third issue as far as political reforms are concerned?

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, I might have more than three, but I think security force reform is a crucial issue.  One of the deep concerns that I think the people of Zimbabwe have and the international community has is that the security forces continue to resort to excessive force in dealing with protests.  You’ve got over 50 abductions that haven’t been investigated, you have the violence surrounding protests as I mentioned in August, in January and then August again, that’s something that’s crucial.  The over-arching issue that I think is very important is a broad, inclusive, national dialogue to address the concerns that Zimbabweans have.  And I think the ZCC’s call for such a dialogue is very important.  It’s something that has the potential to overcome all of these issues, bring people together to face the country’s problems in a united way.

Trevor Ncube:  I have been thinking about the dialogue issue and wondering, is there a creative way, instead of calling for dialogue, is there a creative way that the diplomatic community, that our international friends could come up with, that lowers the temperature, facilitates an engagement of the parties that are currently fighting? Can we do that, is that possible?

Ambassador Nichols: I think the international community can play an important role in that regard. I think it needs to be — number one something that fertile ground exists in Zimbabwe to do.  I think any international actor is going to want to see some level of positive will from the key parties and stakeholders in Zimbabwe.  I also think this needs to be an African-led solution and ideally southern African countries playing a major role in that.  SADC in the past has played an important role in mediating disputes.  South Africa has lent former President Motlanthe here for the commission that investigated the August 1 violence.  So those are players that are vital.  I think once you go further afield than that, it becomes somewhat more complicated.  Obviously, the African Union plays an important role throughout the continent and could be supportive in this area as well.

Trevor Ncube:  You know I am asking that question with the Kenyan situation in mind, where the late Kofi Annan with the help of the international community did make something there happen.  Because the problem is, we have entrenched interests and entrenched positions on both sides.  We need somebody who is going to move both sides to the center with something that is creative, that’s why I asked this question.

Ambassador Nichols:  Well, in the wake of the elections we had Kofi Annan here as member of the Elders here in Harare, meeting with people, getting to play a role along with Mary Robinson at that time and Lakhdar Brahimi and we have subsequently had former President Robinson and former Minister Graca Machel here to follow up with the Elders and I think that’s an important initiative and could yield positive results.  Sadly as we all know, the former Secretary General took ill and passed on shortly after his visit here and you think about the role that one man can play in history and you wonder what could have happened if he had been able to intensify those efforts a year and half ago.

Trevor Ncube: Looking at you – you came in July the 19th, and congratulations on your big building, the Embassy — that’s beautiful, is that a sign of the confidence that you have about the future of this country, building that huge beautiful building?

Ambassador Nichols:  Let’s put the beautiful before the huge.  But yeah, we spent $292 million building that Embassy and we put a presence here and consolidated our presence.  We haven’t increased our staff, we went from six buildings to one building but that’s a measure of the faith that we have, that this country can progress.  There is a bright future for Zimbabwe if it reforms, if it takes the steps that I think most Zimbabweans know it needs to move forward. The Embassy, in addition to its beautiful architecture on the outside, also has some amazing Zimbabwean artists’ works displayed inside — you know Moffat Takadiwa, Misheck Masamvu are a couple of my favourites — but there are others who have done great works that are in there, and you think this is just another example of the talent of the people of Zimbabwe and how much can be accomplished if they are given the freedom and the support to succeed.

Trevor Ncube:  Interesting.  This country has been under United States sanctions for the past 17 years since the first Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, which was then amended in 2018.  There is an argument that these sanctions are targeted, but as you and I can see what’s happening out there, in reality, these sanctions are devastating to the poor person, to the majority of the companies in the country.  What’s your view about these sanctions, and what’s the future like going forward?

Ambassador Nichols: Well, I categorically reject that argument.  First of all, on ZIDERA, what ZIDERA does is, it instructs the executive directors of International Financial Institutions not to vote in favour of new loans or debt-forgiveness for Zimbabwe unless a series of conditions are met.  Broadly, economic and democratic reforms, respect for human rights.  Those executive directors, the board members and the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, have never had a vote on Zimbabwe because this country’s own failure to reform has prevented it from ever reaching consideration for debt relief or new lending.  So, as a practical matter, ZIDERA has never come into play.

In 2003, the Executive Branch added a Zimbabwe sanctions program, which is a targeted programme that currently has 141 persons and entities on it.  That’s .00006 percent of the [Zimbabwean] population – roughly, that’s covered.  That does not prevent trade with Zimbabwe.  I have brought Fortune 500 companies to Zimbabwe to promote our economic relationship.  I have been in meetings with GE Africa and its president.  I hosted the Minister of Health along with Abbott Laboratories at a trade reception in my home.  I meet with American Business Association of Zimbabwe, to promote their efforts.  The CEO Roundtable of   Zimbabwe is going to the U.S. (to meet with) the Business Council for International Understanding.  I have met (with them) a couple of times in the United States to encourage them to do business here.  John Deere just had a cabinet-approved sale of US$51 million worth of tractors to Zimbabwe.

We have several U.S. government-supported investment projects.  And by U.S. government supported, the U.S. Department of Commerce has approved formal advocacy for these companies and they are working on projects in the early stages of development right now, so, we are working hard to encourage business and two-way trade between our countries for the benefit of both our peoples.

When you look at what is the cause of the economic problems in Zimbabwe, number one:  corruption.  Corruption has cost this country billions and billions of dollars, the low estimate is over a billion dollars a year.  Just the recent Auditor General report on command agriculture is nearly $3 billion unaccounted for in the audited period which is 2017 and 2018.  Just from June to August of this year — you had pay-outs to Sakunda Holdings for command agriculture and other purposes at a preferential rate, which increased the money supply in Zimbabwe by 50 percent. You wonder why the exchange rate collapsed and inflation spiked between June and August of this year?  It’s that type of operations of illicitly giving people insider sweetheart deals to the detriment of the people of Zimbabwe.

Look at today’s paper, the story on ZINARA and its former head involved in illicit activities as part of a larger scandal which some have pegged at as much as $71 million.  ZESA, they bought transformers and other equipment that’s never been delivered.  You have international businesses coming here, putting in bids, winning the bids — being at the verge of signing a contract and suddenly some insider is parachuted in and they get the contract and then never deliver the products. This happens over and over and over again.  You see it every single day.

Look at any sector, the procurement of the pharmaceuticals in the health sector, all the corruption that goes around that where people are paying two and three and four times the list price for pharmaceutical products — where in many cases free products donated by the international community are available, but no, they are procuring those.  Look at the budgets of any ministry here and you will find that there is tremendous leakage here.  Zimbabwe is near the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.  It’s near the bottom of the ease of doing business index.   The World Economic Forum just put out their new numbers, I think yesterday, and Zimbabwe is at, I think 127 out of 141 in the World Economic Forum rankings.  So, these are what the drains are on this country’s growth.

Trevor Ncube:  And nobody can argue against any of the stuff that you have said. But here is the one thing that complicates issues as far as this is concerned. The litany of issues of corruption that you have outlined, they are facts, they are reality that’s happened, and they are regrettable.  But one wonders why America is not even-handed in dealing with Zimbabwe.  Let’s look at Pakistan. Pakistan gets a lot of support from the Americans and from the IMF — $6 billion to support the IMF staff monitoring program.  Egypt, with abuse of human rights, 800 people killed gets $12 billion for their staff monitored program.  Why is there no even-handedness when it comes to these issues?  Which raises the issue, is it about human rights or pushing American interests?

Ambassador Nichols: Our focus is on the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe has never qualified for the lending associated with an IMF staff monitoring program. When they had the last IMF process here in 2016 it turned out that the government of Zimbabwe had been cooking the numbers and just as that program was ending you had the introduction of RTGS, you had revelations that there was off book spending to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — that the IMF missed when they were doing their accounting and certainly, that was a shock to the international community.  I want to stress that the idea that the United States is not providing support to Zimbabwe is false.  The United States is the largest donor, bilaterally, to Zimbabwe.  Since 1980 we have provided over $3.2 billion of assistance to Zimbabwe.

Trevor Ncube:  Since 1982?

Ambassador Nichols:  Beginning with independence, we provided $3.2 billion in assistance.  In 2019, we have provided over $300 million in assistance.  For the upcoming lean season as we refer to it, so that rolling over into 2020 for food security humanitarian assistance, $86 million in additional funding over our baseline cooperation program.

Trevor Ncube:  My argument is would Zimbabwe’s economy, industry, and commerce be in a position to perform in a manner that brings much more than the Americans are bringing in?  So, my point is, the damage that has been inflicted on this economy by the perception and reality of American sanctions is hurting the country much more than the development assistance that the Americans are giving.

Ambassador Nichols: The perception of the issues in Zimbabwe is driven by the actions of the government of Zimbabwe.  Both in the run up and the wake of the elections in 2018, you had lots of companies calling and inquiring about investing in Zimbabwe and there had been no change to our legislation or executive orders at that time.  As I mentioned to you, I brought Fortune 500 companies here to do business in search of deals.  The issue is when people get here, and they realise that it’s very difficult for them to find an impartial arbiter if they get into a business dispute.

If they are trying to set up a business here, one small-medium investor who wanted to do sort of a lifestyle media company here and when the Internet was turned off in January, he said “how can I run an Internet-based sort of lifestyle magazine here when you can turn the Internet off?”  We have had companies who wanted to work in the manufacturing sector here and when they see the problems with customs at Beitbridge they realized — well how am I going to deal with this issue, how do I deal with the corruption, with the delays?  You know, my truck if I don’t pay a bribe sits in a queue for two days to cross into Zimbabwe and if somebody greases a palm their truck goes ahead.  You have had stuff stolen out of “bonded” warehouses under customs’ control here.  The list goes on and on — you look at the ZINARA, ZUPCO, NSSA.

Trevor Ncube:  The list does go on and on.  I think to round off this issue, the list does run on and on but if you look at the two countries that I have raised, Pakistan and Egypt, the list is even bigger there.  And my question was around the even-handedness about dealing with that.  But that being the case, the perception about the effect of American sanctions is that we have lost a lot of correspondent banks.  From 26 correspondent banks about 12 months ago, we are now down to six.  And the perception and the reality of there being U.S. sanctions is making a lot of banks leave the country because of de-risking, because of the fear that if they do business with Zimbabwean banks they are going to be punished by the Americans.  That’s both a reality and a perception of the sanctions hurting the Zimbabwean economy Ambassador.  What do you say to that?

Ambassador Nichols:  De-risking is a global phenomenon. Certainly, in the post-September 11, 2001 era, the “Know Your Customer” requirements increased globally, there are many countries that have had to confront de-risking issues. But I think if you want to look at where Zimbabwe can help itself on de-risking, there are a number of reforms that the Financial Intelligence Unit and the Financial Action Task Force within Zimbabwe and globally their partners have called for, that need to be implemented to increase transparency in the financial sector.  One of the biggest challenges is, you see, for example, the loan portfolios with non-performing loans that move for all these non-performing loans into RBZ, the central bank without real scrutiny of how that was happening, continued leakage in certain banks that have had to be recapitalised, that generates a lack of confidence I think in the financial sector, above the ambient issue of de-risking and “Know Your Customer”, that many, many countries around the world face, including major countries, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, they have dealt with de-risking issues as well. The challenge for Zimbabwe as a small market — with a $26 billion economy, a 15 to 16 million population — if you don’t have clear transparent measures in place, the benefits for the financial sector internationally with engagement don’t match the risk and that’s when you have an issue with de-risking.  And I think that solution is well within the government of Zimbabwe’s ability to address.

Trevor Ncube:  Let’s move on to an issue now around President Trump’s administration and its interest in Africa, the rest of the continent. They have just legislated the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development, called BUILD Act, which is in place.  Are we going to see more interest and more investment by America in perhaps preferred markets on the Continent, is that what’s going to happen?

Ambassador Nichols: Well, I think it absolutely has that potential, and I was smiling as you were saying the full name of the Act because I see how clever the people are in finding the right initials and words to fill in.  But we think this is a really great initiative, that brings a new $60 billion market cap — sorry capitalisation, because it’s not on the market, capitalization of all our investment and development agencies from the United States government together under one roof, so that we can offer comprehensive suite of tools for American businesses that are looking for partnerships and relationships around the world.

Trevor Ncube: Any idea of where this is going to be deployed, which countries, which sectors at the moment?

Ambassador Nichols:  That’s the beauty of our policy which is it’s going to be driven by the market and the private sector.  We want to make sure that these initiatives support our overall development goals for our partner countries. But it’s going to depend on country X or Y or Z being interested in doing a deal, finding a market, and then we bring them things like market feasibility studies, investment insurance, which is very important, particularly in countries like Zimbabwe where you have forex risk.  That’s one of the key things this will bring.

Trevor Ncube: So, Zimbabwe might be entitled to participate in that?

Ambassador Nichols:  Oh, I think so, absolutely so.  But there’s got to be a deal on the table and you know again as I’ve said, I’ve had Fortune 500 companies come here interested in doing deals, the predecessor agencies of BUILD and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which is what the BUILD Act creates, like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation are already supporting private sector initiatives here in Zimbabwe to do deals that are right now ongoing.  So there is no reason why that would change, but it’s somebody seeing an opportunity bringing that to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, getting the different types of assistance and programming that they have and then completing that, we believe that this is going to make American businesses more competitive around the world and Africa is a very attractive market broadly and Zimbabwe has a number of sectors which I think can be very positive

Trevor Ncube: Which sectors?

Ambassador Nichols: Well let’s start with the ones that can move quickly. Extractive industries, because of the foreign exchange policies that the government has in place, a lot of people in extractives are leaving the product in the ground.  If they can get full value out, they’re going to increase production, we already see some new mining initiatives, but I think there could be much more going forward.  Tourism, that’s one where during the course of the year, we get about 200,000 American visitors to Zimbabwe — it’s probably — on any given day 8,000 American tourists in country.  That sector generally is quite high end.  You have properties here who are charging foreign guests between $500 and $2,000 a night.  That’s crazy money and that can grow.  And speaking of growing

— agriculture — Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa, was feeding all of southern Africa a generation ago when there was a drought, it was exporting cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, beef, and pork.

Trevor Ncube:  So, the fact that there are sanctions on Zim is not going to affect this, the companies access to this funding, is that what you are saying? 

Ambassador Nichols: No, absolutely not.

Trevor Ncube:  Let’s move on to an issue, a recent issue, a parcel of diamonds coming from Zimbabwe, you know, got, for lack of a better term, confiscated by the authorities and the reason that it was mined from forced labor and there’s been denials that there is no forced labor in Marange.  What are the real reasons for that parcel of diamonds to have been impounded?

Ambassador Nichols:  Good news Trevor, there was no impounding of any parcel of diamonds.  What happened is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has done investigations around the world — with one of their areas of competency which is addressing forced labour in any industry around the world.  There was an announcement of Withhold Release Orders on a number of products from different countries around the world — five different countries.  One of those countries is Zimbabwe, and its rough-cut diamonds from the Marange fields.

The issue of forced labor is rather a nuanced one.  It’s that people enter into relationships with these syndicates that are mining diamonds and you know Marange well, I mean all you really need is a shovel and a bucket, it’s one of the most incredible diamond fields in the world.  But they will pay a fee or take out a loan to get access to this area, start mining, enter into a relationship.  The person who grants them access says, “okay well in order for you to be here, I’m going to charge you X amount per day”, or something like that. “Or to give you some equipment to help you dig for diamonds, I’m going to give you this equipment but what I’m giving you is worth — I don’t know, let’s say $200 — you owe me $200.” And then, the person cannot extract themselves from that debt relationship.  That’s the type of forced labor that Customs and Border Protection is talking about with regard to Marange.  As a practical matter, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 2016 no Zimbabwean rough-cut diamonds have entered the United States.

Trevor Ncube: Let’s move on, France is handing over, or has done so, the presidency of G7 to the Americans.  And there was a sense that the French were much more sympathetic to the G7 helping Zimbabwe — but that hope is now fading with the Americans taking over.  There is a sense that both Democrats and the Republicans are united to ensure that the G7 under the American presidency does absolutely nothing to help Zimbabwe, is that true?

Ambassador Nichols:  No.  What President Trump has said and what the White House has said with regard to our G7 presidency is, one — we want to focus that Presidency on specific actions that benefit G7 members and the world — focus on free markets, free trade, and a fair deal for American workers and businesses.  We see opportunities to promote those values as well as our other shared values like democracy and human rights and we want to narrow the number of issues that we are laying out as G7 chair.  We see Africa as an area of promise for the G7 but we want to plant our seeds in fertile ground, so those countries that show that they are interested in free, fair, open markets, countries that are interested in taking on the reforms that they need for international business and trade to flourish, those are the countries that we look to focus on during our G7 presidency.

Trevor Ncube:  So, let me go back to the sanctions issue and focus you on the fact that the people that are supposed to be targeted by sanctions don’t usually get hurt by sanctions, the people that get hurt by sanctions is the common man on the street and right now that common man is suffering, the people that are supposed to be suffering from sanctions are not suffering.  The other point is that the sanctions are actually good for a lot of people in the ZANU PF hierarchy, they benefit from that, the common man — it doesn’t help.  So, what I’m putting across to you is that sanctions are actually helping ZANU PF solidify, and hurting the common people, and if the Americans were interested in human rights and the wellbeing of Zimbabweans, the sanctions ought to be removed to help the common people and disadvantage those that are in power, what’s your response to that?

Ambassador Nichols: If the government of Zimbabwe were truly interested in the issue of sanctions and considered this a major problem, rather than having a rally, what the government of Zimbabwe would do, was make a chart of what the things that the international community is asking it to do, and then come with an argument saying we have addressed the concerns that you have here.

In multiple meetings with my boss, Ambassador Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, he asked President Mnangagwa for repeal of POSA and AIPPA, neither of those things have happened.  MOPA has been passed but as far as I know it hasn’t been signed and there has not been action taken to repeal AIPPA yet.  I know that there are some analysts out there looking at it, but those are concrete things that over a year ago in September of 2018, my government asked the government of Zimbabwe to do and these are things that are totally in line with the campaign promises that the President of Zimbabwe ran on.

These are changes that are totally in line with the [Zimbabwean] Constitution of 2013, which is a beautiful document and enshrines universal values.  The issue again of what the effect of international restrictive measures, including sanctions are on the average person in Zimbabwe.  I do not accept the argument that those are having effect on average people.  The 141 persons and entities who are covered do face real restrictions and challenges.  If it didn’t bother them at all and made them happier and richer, they would not be having anti-sanctions day on October 25, they would be having “thank you for sanctions day” on October 25.

Trevor Ncube:  It’s optics.

Ambassador Nichols:  Oh, they feel bad about it because people are saying you’re doing that, you know what, people say bad things about you, maybe don’t do bad things.  So, you know, this is an area where the government of Zimbabwe is fully in control of its future, it can take on the reforms that its already promised to do, implement them and the hand of friendship remains extended by my government and other Western governments that have similar policies.  We want Zimbabwe to succeed.  We gave this government a vote of confidence.  Look at what we said and did from November 2017 until after the election, we gave this government every benefit of the doubt to carry out reforms.  After the violence of August 1, obviously we expressed our concerns, but we gave the Motlanthe Commission time to work.  We have met with senior officials in this government repeatedly to talk about our shared concerns and we have asked them to move forward with reforms that they promised that they were going to carry out, and that progress has been very slow.  The legislative agenda that the President put forward hasn’t moved.

Trevor Ncube:  Ambassador, would the MDC and ZANU PF delegation coming to you and saying we agreed that sanctions must go, would that change anything?

Ambassador Nichols:  It’s not a rhetorical issue, it’s not just them coming and saying — okay, we don’t need sanctions.  We would say, what have you done to promote a free, fair transparent elections?  What have you done to address the human rights concerns?  What have you done with regard to the SADC Tribunal rulings of 2007 forward, with regard to what we might euphemistically call a fast-track land reform program?  What have you done with the disappeared people that are specifically cited in the ZIDERA legislation?  Have you taken any steps to address the underlying concerns that we have?  That would be our answer.

Trevor Ncube: Let me read to you a sentence from the Economist Intelligence Unit. I’ll tell you why I’m bringing this up, which says, we continue to believe that if the military begins to feel the pinch, it could yet oust Mr. Mnangagwa.  I ask that question because there is a sense that screws are being tightened.  And that people are feeling the pain and that the people will rise up.  And that with the help of the army, we could have a real coup, a hard coup.  Is that an issue that concerns the Americans?  Concerns Americans in such a manner that they may say it’s something that must be avoided?  You are aware of it and this is what needs to be done for it to be avoided rather than continuing to ratchet up the pressure, let’s find a way of resolving the crisis that’s currently in Zimbabwe, is that something that occupies you and worries you?

Ambassador Nichols: I have no reason to doubt the loyalty of the armed forces of Zimbabwe.  Obviously, our national policy and our law opposes coups and military takeovers.  So, I want to be very clear about that.  But in terms of the pressure that is on average people, including members of the security forces, that pressure comes from a lack of political reform.  If the government has a choice, and the choice is use the resources it has to pay doctors, teachers, soldiers, police salaries, or use the resources that it has to give Sakunda Holdings a preferential exchange rate that no one else gets, and they choose to do that and then they jump back and say — whoa what happened?

We’re going to freeze their accounts, and then ten days later they unfreeze those accounts and give them more money.  That’s a choice that this government is making.  That’s what causes, I think, the average person here to have these concerns and have this economic pressure, when you see the price of bread go up sixteen hundred percent in a year — that is a result of uncontrolled spending and insider dealing.  That in turn leads average soldiers, police, doctors, teachers, lawyers, bus drivers, down the list, to feel this horrible economic pressure where according to the World Food Program as many as half the population is food insecure during the 2019-2020 lean season. That is a horrible indictment of the agricultural policies of this country and the broader economic path that’s going on.  I think the Transitional Stabilization Program that the government put forward is a very solid economic program.  And today is the day that your economic team is in Washington or at least the day we’re filming not the day we’re airing, is in Washington with the IMF and the World Bank and the international community talking about its reform program.  I think the concern that they’re going to hear that in those conversations is you have a great plan on paper, you are not implementing your plan fully.  Implement the plan that you have on paper.

Trevor Ncube: Ambassador you are obviously a very busy man, have you taken time to sample our tourist destinations?

Ambassador Nichols: Yes, I have!  And they are fabulous.

Trevor Ncube: Which ones have impressed you?

Ambassador Nichols: Wow, well, I suppose the first one I went to and the one that was incredibly iconic for me, Great Zimbabwe.  You know, I love archaeology and history and visiting the Great Zimbabwe and being able to provide an over $400,000 donation for the restoration of Great Zimbabwe was a fabulous trip for me and my wife when we went there.

Trevor Ncube: Which other one?

Ambassador Nichols: Oh, I’m just getting started, okay.  Victoria Falls is amazing, and you know it’s one of the wonders of the world and something that I was able to bring my whole family including wife and daughters to, and we had a great time there.  Hwange broadly is fabulous, and we had a lovely visit there. Mana Pools, spectacular.  Been to Bumi Hills, that was also fabulous.

Trevor Ncube: And I saw pictures of you going to Nyanga at some point?

Ambassador Nichols: Yeah well, I didn’t make it to Nyanga.  I was in Chimanimani for Cyclone Idai relief.  I have been in that broad area looking at our landmine removal program through Norwegian People’s Aid, which we jointly fund with the government of Norway to do land mine removal in parts of the country.  We also fund the Halo Trust in other parts of Zimbabwe.  Before I got here, I didn’t realize that the Zimbabwe-Mozambique boarder was the most heavily mined border in the world.  That work is arduous removing the landmines and I, you know — put on the protective equipment, I went out there with the technicians clearing and crawling around and poking sticks.  It was incredibly impressive to see their work, their dedication, their professionalism, the fact that they haven’t had any injuries to worry about in a very long time.

Trevor Ncube: We thank you for that.  We always ask people in this show what books they are reading.  I know you and your family are putting together a whole family tree which is beautiful, what books are you reading right now?

Ambassador Nichols: Well, the last book I finished was Two Weeks in November by Douglas Rogers about Zimbabwe and a certain two weeks here, it’s a fascinating book. I know that there are other books that have been written, and that are being written and will come out that will provide further depth into that fascinating period in Zimbabwe’s history.  And I just got Petina Gappah’s new book Out of Darkness, Shining Light, I have started reading that about David Livingstone, the end of his life and the Zimbabweans that worked to repatriate his body and carry him to the coast and then off back to England.  You know she’s such a talented writer, she is also a talented lawyer, and a talented public servant.  So, I am enjoying that.  And I hope if she is listening, she will sign my copy of the book, which I have asked for and she’s not done yet.

Trevor Ncube: I am also reading the book, it’s an amazing book. Ambassador it’s been a pleasure having you on In Conversation with Trevor.

Ambassador Nichols: Thank you so much for having me.

Trevor Ncube: Thank you so much for the conversation.

Ambassador Nichols: It’s been a pleasure.

Trevor Ncube: Thank you so much, take care.