US senator objects to Zimbabwean president’s invitation to US-Africa Business Summit

US senator objects to Zimbabwean president’s invitation to US-Africa Business Summit
From left: US Senator Jim Risch. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said inviting a sanctioned leader to last week’s summit could have legal consequences.

Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has strongly objected to Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa being invited to last week’s US-Africa Business Summit, which took place in Gaborone, Botswana. 

Last month, Risch wrote to Florizelle Liser, the president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA), the US business association which organised the summit, asking her to rescind the invitation to Mnangagwa, saying it was “imprudent” to invite him as he is sanctioned by the US. 

She didn’t rescind the invitation. Last week, Risch expressed his dismay at a tweet from the Corporate Council which said: “We extend our heartfelt gratitude to His Excellency @edmnangagwa for gracing us with his presence at the #USAfricaBizSummit Your leadership and dedication to advancing Africa’s growth and prosperity are truly commendable.”

In reply, Risch tweeted his dismay that the CCA, a US-based organisation promoting trade and investment with Africa, had headlined the presence of Mnangagwa, who is sanctioned by the US Treasury, at the summit. He added that several US administration officials and companies were participating, “underwritten in part with taxpayer dollars”.

Daily Maverick approached the CCA and the Zimbabwe government for comment on Friday, but neither had replied by Sunday. 

However, Tony Carroll, director of Acorus Capital, an adjunct professor in the African Studies programme at Johns Hopkins University, and a founder member of the CCA, defended the invitation to Mnangagwa, saying that it was up to Botswana, the host of the summit and the CCA, not the US government, to decide who should attend, as it was a business conference.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Sad day for Zimbabwe’ as Mnangagwa passes ‘draconian’ law to silence critics ahead of August poll

In his earlier letter, provided to Daily Maverick by his office, Risch noted that Mnangagwa had been a “Specially Designated National” subject to US sanctions since 2003. He was one of only eight leaders of foreign governments subject to such sanctions. The others included Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Risch noted that because both Mnangagwa and his vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, have been sanctioned by the US, President Joe Biden had not invited either of them to the US-Africa Leaders Summit he hosted in Washington, DC, in December last year.

Risch warned Liser about the “poor optics and potential legal ramifications of US business leaders engaging directly with a sanctioned individual”. 

And he said Mnangagwa’s participation “would aid the false Zimbabwe government propaganda claim that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’”,  whereas Zimbabwe was ranked 140th of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.

In addition, he said, “Zimbabwe is one of the most economically repressed countries in the world, ranking 172nd out of 176 countries assessed under the Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Index of Economic Freedom.”

Risch noted that Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index rated Zimbabwe as “Not Free”. And Zimbabwe was among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranked it 157th of 180 countries in the world, he said.

These rankings implied that Zimbabwe’s investment climate was “very poor”. It had experienced persistent economic crises “driven by the government of Zimbabwe’s deliberate mismanagement of the country’s economy.

“Such ongoing state interference in the economy is driven by efforts to facilitate grand corruption and looting by political elites, including for the benefit of President Mnangagwa himself.”

Risch also observed that under the US sanctions legislation, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, the US Congress had asserted that the US should not pursue trade and investment with Zimbabwe until the Zimbabwean government had undertaken serious and credible economic and democratic reforms.

Risch warned that Mnangagwa would use his participation in the business summit to “mischaracterise the relationship between the US and Zimbabwean governments “and to burnish his own image in partisan campaign propaganda for next month’s elections”. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Latest Zimbabwean poll says Chamisa and the opposition should win next month’s elections

The US business outreach to Mnangagwa was “fundamentally inappropriate” because Zimbabwean authorities had harassed and expelled numerous US officials, chastised the acting US ambassador for promoting peaceful electoral participation and voter registration, blamed US sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic problems and thwarted the efforts of US democracy assistance programming, Risch said.

Allowing Mnangagwa to participate in the summit implied approval for a regime that had used violence, lawfare and prolonged detention to intimidate and sideline opposition leaders and critical voices, he said. 

He said he would engage with the US government about “how future US support for and participation in the summit should proceed”. 

He also warned that officially engaging with a sanctioned head of government “could have significant legal ramifications” for US businesses that attended the summit. DM


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