Public Diplomacy Section
United States Embassy Harare
Transcript: DAS Robert Scott briefing with journalists
March 3, 2023
Sizani Weza (Moderator): Good afternoon colleagues and welcome. I am happy to introduce Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs covering Peace and Security Affairs and Southern Africa, Robert Scott, a veteran diplomat who has spent almost three decades in the Foreign Service. DAS Scott is not new to Zimbabwe and the southern African region in general. I am proud to have worked with him when he was Deputy to the Ambassadors Bruce Wharton and Harry K. Thomas between 2013 and 2016. Excited to see him back. DAS Scott also served in Tanzania in a similar role and has been Ambassador to the Republic of Malawi from 2019 to 2021.
DAS Scott will speak specifically about his visit to Zimbabwe, and we will begin our briefing with remarks from DAS Scott, after which we will turn to your questions. We will try to take questions from all journalists in the room, and if there is time, we will take more questions. Now, some of you have requested exclusives, so after this we will go separately to the room adjacent to us. This briefing is on the record, and with that, I will hand over to DAS Scott.
Robert Scott, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs (DAS Scott): Thank you Sizani, I appreciate your time. Yes, as Sizani said I am very glad to be back in Zimbabwe, a chance to come back to see friends, to visit the country. My visit is a regular part of my job. I am the Deputy Assistant for Secretary for Southern Africa. So, I travel to southern Africa and I visit embassies and meet with contacts and speak with my Embassy colleagues. More specifically, this is also part of our outreach after the African Leaders Summit. So, as you may know, we hosted the African Leaders in Washington, DC in December for an extensive set of meetings and programs and following that President (Joe) Biden asked every Cabinet ministry or department in our government and leaders in those departments to go to Africa to travel to continue the momentum from the African Leaders Summit. So, you may have noticed that Janet Yellen our Secretary for the Treasury has been in southern Africa and the region recently; the First Lady of the United States Mrs. Biden was just in Namibia and travelled up to Kenya; Secretary Blinken has been on several African trips and will be back again. And you can anticipate other VIP American government officials at the highest levels coming to Africa in the coming months. So, this is a part of the follow on outreach after the African Leaders Summit to keep the momentum going to speak to leaders, to speak to civil society, to speak to everyone about our engagement and about our collaboration as countries and as peoples.
Specifically, here obviously, at the front of everybody’s minds in Zimbabwe is the election. Our embassy is also looking at that in order to support the institutions that will make the elections successful. We do not support politicians, we do not support parties, we support institutions and processes. And so, I’m probably here to talk to and did speak yesterday with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with the Minister of Justice with other government representatives in a meeting yesterday covering also the election process, covering the PVO Bill which we share some of the concerns expressed by others. I expressed also our thinking about the PVO Bill at the meeting yesterday.
Our Embassy here is participating in the AfDB debts and arrears process which is potentially a very powerful tool for the government to engage and is also a powerful tool for civic society organization to pull in the process which will be fundamental and important for the economy of this country to re-engage, to re-open to international lending, to bring in option and opportunities, to basically create more spaces for businesses, for investors to come in.
It’s a very positive potential and it is also important to have a broader selection of actors from this country as possible engaged in this process. And the commitment so far from the AfDB from President Adesina, from the special envoy President Chissano are positive and our embassy will engage with that.
It also happens that many of the goals of AfDB process are also goals of the United States in our engagement here in this country. So, opening of political spaces, creation of an economy that, as I said, has many options available for people of this country to benefit, is something that we join in as far as the US government goes.
Beyond that I am also proud to be able to accompany our embassy in its ongoing work. The US has been here for decades. When I was here, we were building the new embassy and now we have the new embassy as our symbol of our engagement. I was able to engage, to re-engage, with our health team to talk about the HIV program here. Over US$ 200 million and 1,2 million people on ARVs is impressively an incredible program that our two countries are jointly engaged on.
I will finish with one last anecdote. There was a presentation by the Ministry of Defense official during my meeting yesterday about the demining process that is ongoing. When I came here in 2013 there was still hundreds of square kilometers of Zimbabwe that were saturated with anti-personnel minesi. I remember in 2015, I travelled to this Eastern Highlands at Leopard Rock, and I had to wear this big suit and walk into a minefield, and I am very glad that they were good at their job because I did not step on a mine. Unfortunately, a number of citizens in this country continue to step on mines, livestock is affected, farmers cannot access important land that’s not available to them. I learned here on my return seven years later that it’s now down to 18 square kilometers. Only six per cent of the mine regional area is mined. The goal is by 2025 to remove all the landmines and make Zimbabwe a landmine free country and we are so proud as the United States to be one of the leading funders in this process, again, doing collaborations with Zimbabwe.
Rutendo Mawere, Voice of America: When you gave your speech you talked about assisting institutional, Zimbabwean institutions that have to do with the elections just a few months away, could you be more specific which institutions you will be supporting and how? President Biden renewed sanctions when you were already here. Did the government of Zimbabwe by any chance raise that issue or speak about that and from your assessment since you have been here before, would you say Zimbabwe has moved forward?
DAS Scott: In talking about supporting institutions, it’s the broader sense of supporting institutions. I think an election benefits and needs support of a free and open media. It needs a participation by citizens, civil society organizations that help people come together to express their political interests and I think that support that as well. Observation and ensuring that people can go to polls, represent, and observe the polls and report back to their fellow citizens about how they think the polling went and we certainly support that. When I talk about institutions it’s a very broad sense and I think it’s also what we have been doing for decades as said. So, all of these are things that we have been supporting that I think will help in ensuring that the elections go forward and are as successful as possible.
On sanctions, it’s an ongoing process. As you noted, I am sure you are aware, that there have been two tranches recently in which the sanctions list was amended, in which people were taken off the sanctions list. Few were added. So I would tell you that the sanctions process is an ongoing process that is reviewed, that is looked at in Washington and you could anticipate ongoing review of this process.
Melody Chikono, Zimbabwe Independent: You said you had concerns, and you shared those concerns with other parties, but our President said he is going ahead to sign that PVO Bill. So, if he does sign, what are the future implications concerning our engagement efforts with other nations.
The other question is on elections. Usually, Zimbabwean elections are laden with violence, what’s your sentiment on the upcoming elections and what strategies do you think Zimbabwe can employ in these elections?
DAS Scott: We joined what I believe is a number of actors including the AfDB process, from what I understand, obviously local actors, other international actors in having concerns about the PVO Bill. It is our sense, shared by many, that it does have a chilling effect on the political space and on people who are engaged in expressing themselves in groups in this country. That is what I expressed to the government, which they took onboard. I can give you a specific example of a hypothetical implication for us. As I said, we spend US$ 205 million approximately a year on HIV AIDS program, on PEPFAR, again which benefits 1,2 million across this country on ARVs. It also supports, by the way, laboratories that were so vital in countering COVID. So, the health program is focused on PEPFAR and HIV but it supports the entire health…. A lot of our programs are funded through local actors. We provide money to local actors to provide services to engage, to have public education programs that supported health and set up clinics. These are currently, trust, PVOs that are actively engaged now, and they process program and lot of money goes through them. If a member of those PVOs is rejected by a process, if a budget is frozen moving forward those are the implications of the PVO Bill and how it affects our ability to do this important work together. It is our senses that this is not a good thing and its reputational as well. Countries that are open and allow citizens to come together and engage in normal discourse are not a threat and should not be perceived as that.
On violence and the election process itself, our messaging has been consistent over the decades, not just in Zimbabwe but in every country that we are active in and in my country as well. We call out on American citizens when they are engaged on elections to be peaceful and to engage in civic discourse. That’s the same point we make in Zimbabwe and as we do in every other country that political leaders have a responsibility to call on their followers to engage in a peaceful process. If violence occurs, and there have been instances of violence in the past few months, that leaders admittedly express that they reject that, that their followers cannot and will not engage in that and they do not represent them. I would note that following the AfDB process, President Mnangagwa spoke about an open and credible process. We note and we welcome that, but it’s also about how one carries that out. And I think that that is the important aspect of elections. I will be speaking later today with leaders of other parties in the country, and I will express the same point. It’s not a point that we make to one party, it’s a point we make to all parties and it’s a point we make to the rest of the world and it’s also again a point that we the American people hold ourselves accountable to and it’s not an extraordinary thing.
Lynette Manzini, Open Parly: Just to continue with the elections, you highlighted that you are sustaining Zimbabwe to try to improve and strengthen the institutions and the processes in relation to the election, you have been doing this for some time as you mention, is there improvement? What kind of improvements have you noticed so far? I want to talk about your obstacles as a Bureau in Africa, what are some of the obstacles that you face in trying to execute your job?
DAS Scott: It’s an ongoing process. Any process is ongoing, I think when looking at support for institutions, as it has been going on decades, our hope is things like this engagement right now. An open and free press that is able to report on a visitor from another country one day, and the next day they are able to report about a political rally in a city, and then the next day they are able to report on a statement from government, and the next day they are able to report on civil organization that is engaging in election observation. So that is something that we support and that is incredibly important that citizens access information about the election processes. As I said, I think that working with local partners as well, and there are a number of initiatives that are underway that are driven by local citizens of this country. Again, I said election observation, we are not organizing it. It is driven by Zimbabweans who are organizing themselves to do this. We support their aspiration to go out and make these observations. I’m not going to cast as better or worse, I am just going to say it’s consistent. Our engagement is consistent in this country and in other countries. But again, it’s supporting the people in this country and what they do. It’s nothing more or nothing less than that. That’s the important point I would like to make: is it’s a Zimbabwean led process.
It’s an interesting question that you ask me about obstacles. You know as diplomats, and as anyone that works at the Embassy, our goal is to be out and about talking to people. That’s our bread and butter. This is such a big continent, and it takes long to travel here, but without being flip in my answer, the tyranny of time and distance can make it challenging to get about and do as much as we want to. That’s why we have these excellent colleagues in embassies, who are the folks on the ground, who are working day to day. I would say that if there is an obstacle, it’s making sure that we are present on the continent in every way we can be, through embassies and through our visitors. And I would end by saying, that I am really impressed by what I am starting to see after the African Leaders Summit. You are going to see a lot of visitors in this continent from my government engaging and talking about important things: economic development, debt relief, food security and ensuring that the resources of this continent are used to the best by the people of this continent. How do you maximize fishing rights, how do you counter illegal fishing, how do you make sure that the extractive industry including this country are being used to the best benefit of the citizens of this country? I am quite proud of what we are doing as a country to reach out and engage with people in Africa.
Bernard Mpofu, Newshawks: My question is on the reforms. The government highlights political reforms such as repealing AIPPA, POSA with MOPA. So, I just want to know about where you stand. Do you see the reforms that they flag as reforms that are critical or vital to re-engaging with the United States? My question is also on the PVO Bill, what are some of the major issues that you raised to the foreign affairs Minister?
DAS Scott: Instead of being specific, let me approach it in a slightly different way. I think that anything that is done in any country, including my country, to open space, and let people engage is positive. So, anything that will allow the citizens of this country to access information, to come together freely in groups to express themselves, to ask for accountability in my country, citizens asking for accountability in this country and other countries. Anything that supports that is something that we see as positive, and we support. So, anything that is happening here where the citizens of this country are starting to see benefits to them to come together to express themselves, to engage with the government, I think we can see that as a positive. Anything that citizens of this country believe stops them from engaging positively with the government is not a good thing.
On the PVO Bill, I will not get into specifics other than to say that we had a conversation, and I had an opportunity to express how we feel and that it is a position that others are expressing as well. I think that I was pleased to have an opportunity to do that both with foreign affairs and the Minister of Justice.
Constatine Chimakure, Daily News: What was the attitude of the government to your concerns? Secondly, since the second republic came into being, what is the U.S. assessment of its performance in terms of political and economic reforms? And further, just before you arrived there was a scathing article attack on the U.S., that the U.S. is sponsoring the same opposition including the same NGOs you are trying to defend.
DAS Scott: So, I won’t characterize the attitude. I would just say that there was an opportunity to speak to each other. And that’s important. And I was open and clear about our thoughts as I shared with you here. And listened to the position of the government (of Zimbabwe) as well which has been shared here with the people as far as their position goes on the PVO Bill. So that was an important exchange. On the performance, again, I think, this is something that, in every country, citizens of the country who have the freedom to express themselves on the performance of their government. We have just gone through that in the United States, you know, and it is a process that can be difficult and rocky and the institutions undergird the ability for this robust debate to take place as citizens choose those that they want to lead them. And so, it’s going to be up to the citizens of this country to judge the performance of those that lead them and to express themselves at the polls as it is in every other country. We do not involve ourselves at all in that decision making process. Again, as I said, we try to support the institutions that allow that to occur.
Columbus Mavhunga, Freelance: Sir, the government has said over and over again that the sanctions that America, among other countries, have imposed, are curtailing the development of the economy. What will it take for DC to remove the sanctions? And are we on that path already or we are still on the wrong?
DAS Scott: Referring back to my previous answer, there have been tranches of change where we have dropped names. I think we started at 90 and now we are at 60 or so. It is an ongoing process of evaluation in the U.S. right now to take a look at this and ensure that it reflects situations on the ground as well. I think the hope is that the Africa Development Bank process, let me come back to that because it is so parallel to the asks of the United States government. The working groups that are being established, that are being facilitated by the African Development Bank and by President Chissano are very much in congruency with our position and so we are involved in this through our Embassy. Our Charge, Elaine French participated in the meetings, and it is our hope and aspirations that it is a process in which civil society organizations are pulled in, companies and private sector being pulled, in which a lot of different actors in this country can engage with the African Development Bank.
Meg Riggs (Public Affairs Officer): Can I add to that? I would like to turn this question around. Do you all feel like you have had free and fair elections? Do you all feel like the rule of law has been applied in this country fairly, that you have the justice system and the prosecutors are upholding your rights as provided by the constitution? Do you all feel like you have the land rights that you all deserve? Can you own a home, get a mortgage, fund a business? Do you feel like the military is under civilian control and not meddling in civilian matters? If not, if all Zimbabweans can’t say they feel like these things have been answered, I would hope that you would want us to keep this in place and prevent those, the tiny list of people, from taking advantage of American banks, taking advantage of the American economy at everyone else’s expense. So, I would like to think that those standards that the AfDB process highlighted, free elections, justice for everyone, land rights for you and the military not meddling in civilian affairs. They are really simple things. When we are asked when are you going to take it down ZDERA, my question do you think that those standards have been met? As journalists do you think those standards have been met?
Martha Mamombe, ZiFM: Do you think that Zimbabwe has a vibrant opposition that is capable of mobilizing and re-energizing supporters and pull off the biggest upset in 2023? The second one is your visit coincided with the Russian delegation that landed in the country about two days ago, does this affect how you engage with Zimbabwe?
DAS Scott: Again, going back to my point of not being involved in Zimbabwe’s political processes, which includes not being prognostic about the outcomes of the elections. It is the people that would choose, and our support goes to allow the system work best as possible to give the people an opportunity to do that and we do that around the world. The election will be a decision of the people of this country and having exercised their right to vote without any intimidation, without any curtailment. I think that is in the interest of everyone and I think that is in the interest in every country.
Our relationship in this country goes back decades. I mentioned earlier the construction of our new embassy. That is a solid made out of brick symbol of the commitment of the American people to be in Zimbabwe, to remain in Zimbabwe as a good partner and that has not changed in the decades that we have been here. That has not changed since I was here in 2013. Again, that’s irrespective of what any other country does here. So, our relationship is directly with the people of the country.
Constantine Chimakure, Daily News: You have made it clear that you not going to interfere in the electoral process and leaving to the people of Zimbabwe to decide but the U.S. is on record saying that reforms made by the government are not adequate, where are you coming from?
DAS Scott: The idea is that we continue to engage with government in order to push forward reforms which allow political reforms and that’s what also the AfDB process is about. So that’s a kind of a hand in hand process, and I think that is a steady approach that we have taken here.
Constantine Chimakure, Daily News: What are the reforms that America looking forward to?
DAS Scott: Well, I think my colleague was very effective in outlining the reforms and putting the question to all of you as well. Do you believe that citizens have free access to polls, do you believe that the military involvement is where it should be, do you believe that the economy is open, free and fair, do you believe land rights are there and that’s what in every country we are pushing for and that’s what people go to the polls for. To express themselves about that.
Rutendo Mawere, Voice of America: In this century, do you believe that sanctioning people is effective and also looking at the fact that you sanctioned Mugabe, he didn’t give a damn, you have sanctioned ED, it looks like he doesn’t give a damn, and they are living large?
DAS Scott: I think our sanctions program here is part of what we do in this country. It is not the leading issue, but it is part of the engagement process and part of our approach. They have been there, and they are revolving over time to respond to what is happening on the ground.
Moderator: I think that was our final question. DAS Scott do you have any final words?
DAS Scott: No, thank you Sizani.