Deborah Bronnert. Does that ring a bell?
Bronnert is a British diplomat. Her latest job is the Director-General Economic and Global Issues at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office where she was appointed in April 2017.
According to information available, before that she was FCO’s Director-General for Economic and Consular and its Chief Operating Officer from September 2014 to March 2017.
Previously, she was the Ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2011 to 2014.
That is the connection to us.
(Her CV does not look bad, having served in Moscow, Russia and Brussels at the European Union. She has a first degree is in Mathematics from Bristol, a Masters in Political Economy of Russia and Eastern Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University College London. She speaks French and Russian.)
Bronnert is forgettable because she ended her term in Zimbabwe on a rather embarrassing note.
In July, 2013, Zimbabwe held elections that saw the end of the inclusive Government – a power-sharing agreement between Zanu-PF and the opposition MDCs.
The opposition was humbled with Zanu-PF winning nearly two-thirds of the parliamentary vote while then President Mugabe beat Morgan Tsvangirai of the main MDC faction by 61,09 to 33,9 percent.
The result was a major reversal for the opposition that had entered into the inclusive Government to “take power from within”.
Amid unhappy claims by the losing side (Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary-general for example, claimed that he had seen West African people being bussed to vote in a constituency in Harare), the British envoy made a startling allegation in an attempt to discredit the result.
Live on British TV, Bronnert claimed that in a particular constituency where 17 000 people had voted, 10 000 had been “assisted” to vote, something that suggested wholesale rigging.
The MDC had concocted a dossier with similar claims, including the gratuitous allegations that there had been an Israeli company that had enabled vote rigging and manipulation of ballots through the incredible use of mutating ballots that could transfer ink markings from MDC votes to Zanu-PF.
Bronnert, not unexpectedly, failed to prove the allegation and the British had to issue some kind of face-saving apology.
On the other hand, the MDC did not pursue its case at the courts.
The incident demonstrated that the British envoy – like others before her since 2000 or so as well as other Western representatives – had become too embedded in opposition politics.
The West was also linked to funding the opposition and its appendages in the civil society and private media.
Five short years later, Zimbabwe is facing another election.
This time, the British ambassador is Ms Catriona Laing.
Catriona Wendy Campbell Laing holds equally important diplomatic pedigree.
Before coming to Zimbabwe in 2014, she served in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as senior support for Russia/Ukraine Crisis and Communications Directorate; in Helmand as Head, Provincial Reconstruction Team and NATO and UK Senior Civilian Representative (2012-2013); Ministry of Justice, Director, Human Rights and International (2009-2012); and stints at DFID for different regions as well as at United Nations and Overseas Development Administration.
She holds an MBA from Cranfield University.
Ms Laing is leaving Zimbabwe soon to take a post as British High Commissioner to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Bronnert and Ms Laing appear as though they come from different planets – especially when it comes to how they have handled the Zimbabwean question.
The former left as an MDC functionary that was so keen on aiding regime change in Zimbabwe based not only on supporting the opposition but also isolating Zimbabwe.
By contrast, Ms Laing has overseen a major policy shift of the British regarding Zimbabwe as she has overseen reengagement between London and Harare which will be consummated soon.
She has acted every inch a diplomat and not an opposition apparatchik, although the British still maintain a measurable interest in the opposition.
Ms Laing’s lack of enthusiasm in the opposition has earned her a lot of wrath from party functionaries and officials that feel as though they have been politically divorced.
Nelson Chamisa, leader of the MDC, is upset.
At a talk at Britain’s Chatham House in May, Chamisa said:
“We have seen that there has been a bit of a shift on the part of the British government in terms of focusing more on political stability and trade and commerce at the expense of democracy. But that is a false narrative, you can never have stability without democracy …
“We’re seeing the inclination to align with one political party against another. That is disturbing, particularly in terms of the issue of just setting the basic standard for free and fair elections.”
Tendai Biti, who is Chamisa’s alliance partner, is angry with Ms Laing and perceived British support of President Mnangagwa.
“This attempt to put lipstick on a crocodile is most unfortunate,” recently Biti said, making allusion to President Mnangagwa’s moniker as the crocodile.
Newly converted opposition character, Professor Jonathan Moyo, who was once part of Zanu-PF but now supports Chamisa on account of his longstanding grudge with President Mnangagwa, has been even more scathing, accusing the British envoy of supporting President Mnangagwa.
Moyo usually has typical field days on the diplomat for this perceived crime.
The traditional “opposition” media have not spared Ms Laing, accusing the British of “nexus” to rig the election in the ruling party’s favour.
On social media, there has been a torrent of abuse directed at the envoy.
Times have surely changed.
Britain’s changing policy on Zimbabwe, whose face is the outgoing Ms Laing, has sent the opposition into panic.
The opposition fears that it will soon become not only parentless, but also be driven into penury as Western donor funds dry up.
Zimbabwe’s re-engagement with Britain and the West in general makes the opposition redundant, not least because the former wanted to influence events in Harare by proxy.
Now the opposition is weak, fragmented and without any realistic chance of winning the forthcoming elections, and perhaps beyond.
The West had invested a lot of resources in the opposition and civil society whose leaders obliged by abusing funds as they married wives, built houses and drank whisky.
On the other hand, the West gained nothing by alienating Zimbabwe: it lost geopolitically, instead.
Ms Laing represents realpolitik.
Her successors would do well to emulate her.