Outgoing European Union (EU) Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Timo Olkonnen’s tenure as the bloc’s representative in the country is a bittersweet narrative of someone who put so much in ensuring re-engagement between the bloc and the Southern African country, yet involved himself in unnecessary meddling in the politics of the country.
Olkonnen, who was Finland Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi between 2014 and 2018, began his tenure as EU Head of Delegation in Zimbabwe in October 2018 amid high hopes of improving relations between the two parties, especially coming just two months after the inauguration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa who had just won his first election after the demise of Robert Mugabe.
As he presented his credentials, Olkonnen said he was looking forward for the country to take back its rightful place in the region, in Africa and in the world and that he would work to develop political, economic and trade relations between Zimbabwe and the EU.
In February this year, Olkonnen led a delegation of EU envoys accredited to Zimbabwe to a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Fredrick Shava in Harare where he said the bloc was looking forward to scaling up engagement between the two parries through discussing areas of disagreement.
The meeting was held ahead of the Sixth EU-AU summit in Brussels during the same month and ignited hope that the country’s re-engagement efforts would bear fruit given that major key international agencies and Western countries were taking a que from the EU in shutting out Zimbabwe.
That he initiated political dialogue between the EU and Zimbabwe is one of his major positives during his tenure as this gave the two parties the opportunity to discuss on issues of disagreement and see how they could find each other.
It also opened avenues for the discussion of non-political issues such as economic cooperation and free trade as well as the environment in the face of climate change.
Olkonnen has overseen a number of developmental projects in the country which have benefitted many marginalised citizens, especially in rural areas.
Just recently, the EU funded livelihoods project seeking to improve lives of children from 15 000 households through strengthening their families’ vegetables & livestock value chains.
The bloc has also funded several other projects during Olkonnen’s tenure.
Yet many, especially those in government and the ruling ZANU PF party, will not forgive the Finnish for meddling in the politics of the country as well as his attempts to sway the country’s legislative agenda.
The outgoing ambassador has on several occasions been accused of attempting to aid regime change in the country by working with the opposition and Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s) to undermine President Mnangagwa’s government.
ZANU PF Director of Information, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, said although Olkonnen was indeed a progressive upgrade on his predecessor, Philippe Van Damme, there were lots of inconsistencies in his conduct.
He said his decision to allow falsehoods, fake news and propaganda by opposition groups, civil society and NGOS had prevailed on his judgement of the correct situation in Zimbabwe.
“Had this not been the case, he could have doubled his efforts and leave on a high. However, while I am sure he knows the above shortcomings, there were giant steps forward made in terms of the re-engagement with EU countries which culminated into the removal of some major parts of the EU sanctions on Zimbabwe. He also oversaw the elevation of Zimbabwe -EU dialogue to an inter-ministerial level,” he said.
Political commentator, Gibson Nyikadzino said it was under the tenure of Olkennon that Zimbabwe and the EU opened their first formal dialogue platform in 2019, the first time since 2002.
“This is because dialogue is the prime currency in diplomacy. This allowed for more cautious cooperation though indicators show a positive trajectory considering that the EU is Zimbabwe’s second biggest trading partner after South Africa,” he said.
He, however, said it was unfortunate that Olkonnen’s behaviour was one that did not characterise him as an impartial diplomat, but one that worked as an instrument of neo-colonial hegemony through his interactions as ‘an opposition political commissar’.
“Remember diplomats are employees of the Foreign Affairs who should respect provisions of the Vienna Convention as highlighted and emphasised by the host country. He issued statements that bordered on interference in the domestic affairs of Zimbabwe, something African diplomats do not do in Europe. So his approach was to see Zimbabwe as a country in the periphery without a status,” he said.
He said the outgoing Ambassador had sought to dismiss the principle of equality among states which is enshrined in the UN Charter that all States are equal.
“Look at how he undermined Zimbabwe’s justice system, law enforcement institutions and propped the opposition agenda. He looked at Zimbabwe as an underdog and the EU as a top dog, hence highlighting the discrepancies that exist in the international political order as informed by differences in economic, technological and status advancement,” Nyikadzino said.
Olkonnen was vocal in criticising some of the Bills currently before the Parliament of Zimbabwe, among them the Patriotic Bill and the PVO Bill.
Just as he paid his last courtesy call on Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda last week, Olkonnen called on Parliament to take the PVO Bill back to the people, saying some of its provisions restricted freedoms of civic society organisations in the country.
Justice Minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, however, insisted that the Bill had already been debated by legislators who had the people’s mandate to represent them.
He went on to tell journalists after the meeting with Mudenda that the EU concerned that the legislature was crafting some oppressive laws, which included the PVO Bill.
The EU envoy has also spoken out against the Patriotic Bill which he said undermined the citizens’ political liberties and freedom of speech.
He has also denied that the EU sanctions were causing untold suffering among the ordinary citizens, insisting that they were targeted and that there was no proof of the suffering of the people through sanctions.
Olkennon, however, supported key media reform programs and played a key role in assisting Zimbabwe to refine the media space, which saw the country repeal legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and enactment of the Freedom of Information of Act and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Act.
In June this year, the envoy acknowledged the strides made by the country in reforming the media space following discussions between the two parties.
He singled out the giving out of licenses, the repeal of some restrictive legislation, although he expressed concern over the distribution of the licenses which he said had to be fair and competitive and not favour others over others.
The farms were not part of the US$3.5bn compensation deal to former commercial white farmers whose land was expropriated.
During the same month, the EU blacklisted the Zimbabwean government and public sector from accessing loans from its financial institutions, saying that arrears and currency volatility were a recipe for failure to repay debt.
Olkonnen said European Investment Bank (EIB) could only advance loans to the private sector as it was not able to do public lending in Zimbabwe.
He said there were also issues around economic and structural reforms that were impeding investment in Zimbabwe, adding reform of some economic policies formed part the dialogue with the government.
The envoy has also voiced concern over the human rights situation in Zimbabwe especially on enforced disappearances saying Harare should make its findings on the various disappearances’ public.
In 2020, Olkonnen announced an 18,7 million Euro grant for humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe saying the bloc wanted to support the country as humanitarian aid was becoming a prominent issue for the EU in Zimbabwe.
Despite a two-decade impasse, the EU and Zimbabwe still have areas where they can find common ground.