Africa, Sanctions, Top Stories

Zimbabwe extends lobbying against US sanctions that still bite post-Mugabe

Mercury Public Affairs has extended its lobbying for Zimbabwe for another year as western powers maintain their sanctions on the south African nation despite the passing of strongman Robert Mugabe.

The firm is working for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (MFA) as a subcontractor to Mercury International UK. The initial Mercury Public Affairs contract ran from September 2019 through April 2020.

London-based Mercury International is one of at least four lobbying and public relations firms that Zimbabwe has hired over the past year to try to improve its image in the United States and the United Kingdom. The others are Ballard Partners and Avenue Strategies in the US and, according to the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper, BTP Advisers in the UK.

“Services are anticipated to include the coordination of government affairs work and strategic consulting for the benefit of the MFA,” according to Mercury’s initial filing.

Zimbabwe notably wants the US to terminate the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA), which Congress passed in 2001, as well as an executive order (EO) that President George W. Bush signed in 2003. The US has sanctioned dozens of Zimbabwean officials in recent years, including the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Congress renewed ZIDERA in the summer of 2018, just as Mnangagwa won the presidency in the first election in which Mugabe was not a candidate. The law notably limits Zimbabwe’s access to international financial institutions.

Last fall, Mercury lobbyists met more than a dozen times with congressional aides to discuss sanctions, according to a lobbying filing covering the six months through November. Mercury lobbyists also discussed a currently stalled bill from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to ban the importation of trophies of lions and other threatened wildlife. The firm has so far disclosed a $270,000 payment from the ministry, paid in late August 2019.

“We are reengaging with the United States so that at the end of the day, we expect them to have a changed mind.”

Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi

The new contract extension runs for a year beginning in May. It comes after President Donald Trump in March extended Bush’s sanctions order for another year.

“The actions and policies by certain members of the Government of Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States,” Trump said in a March 4 notice.

A week later, the US Treasury Department issued its first update to Zimbabwe sanctions since Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe. Four people were removed from the list and two others were added: State Security Minister Owen Ncube and former President Guard Brigade chief Anselem Sanyatwe.

The sanctions renewal has infuriated the government, which accuses former colonial power Britain of being behind a campaign to punish Mnangagwa’s ruling ZANU-PF party for land reforms that redistributed land owned by white farmers. Still, Harare has made it clear it hopes to improve relations with Washington.

“We are reengaging with the United States so that at the end of the day, we expect them to have a changed mind a different view all together that we are a government that deserves to be in office and whatever policy we are implementing is for the good of our people,” Voice of America quoted Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi as saying on March 5.

Relations remain rocky, however.

In a May 31 appearance on ABC’s This Week, national security adviser Robert O’Brien fingered the country as one of several “foreign adversaries” that are “actively stoking and promoting violence and confrontation” amid US protests over police violence. Zimbabwe summoned US Ambassador Brian Nichols over O’Brien’s remarks.

In addition to Mercury, Ballard Partners is still lobbying for the country. Brian Ballard, the firm’s founder and a former lobbyist for the Trump Organization, signed a two-year, $1 million contract with the country’s foreign ministry in February 2019.

As for Avenue Strategies, the firm founded by former Trump campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennet stopped lobbying for Zimbabwe’s foreign ministry in August 2019. The firm had been hired that April for one full year at the rate of $90,000 per month.

Mercury has 10 people registered on the account, according to a Foreign Lobby Report tally of lobbying disclosures. These include former Sen. David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, and Mercury partner Bryan Lanza. The others are George Eli Birnbaum, Rodney Emery, Vladislava Galan, Thomas Jock McMillan, William Lon Ogborn, Morris Reid, Deirdre Stach and Suheyla Tayla.

Mnangagwa’s government has other troubles beyond US sanctions. Earlier this month, the country’s military leaders held a press conference in which they denied plotting a coup. Meanwhile ruling party leaders are losing patience with Mnangagwa, Bloomberg reports.