A United States public relations firm hired by the Zimbabwe government to repair its image in Washington engaged in intense lobbying to project MDC-T president Thokozani Khupe as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition, documents seen by ZimLive reveal.
The campaign began last September, shortly after New York-based Mercury Public Affairs LLC began working for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade as a subcontractor to Mercury International UK.
Mercury was planning a trip by Khupe, who was due to lead a delegation of the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD) to the United States from March 25 to March 27 this year, but the trip was cancelled following the outbreak of the coronavirus.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa set up POLAD to placate his rivals after claiming a disputed election win in July 2018, but the outfit has been boycotted by his main rival Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance, who says the Zanu PF leader is illegitimate. In response, Mnangagwa has been accused of using the judiciary and security services to undermine Chamisa, and also weaken the MDC Alliance by diverting state funding due to it and giving it to the 56-year-old Khupe.
The Khupe lobby was led by the former United States Senator for Louisiana, David Vitter, who is Mercury’s co-chairman. The effort involved securing meetings with top administration officials and lawmakers for Khupe and her delegation, according to the lobbying filing available publicly under the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Vitter fired off a bevy of e-mails to over a dozen administration officials, Senators and Congressmen pleading with them to give Khupe an audience. Mercury also created a propaganda backgrounder on POLAD in which it also highlighted what it said were reforms carried out by Mnangagwa’s government.
“It is a truly diverse and representative delegation comprised of 17 of the political parties of Zimbabwe. As such, it represents the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens as well as the vast majority of opposition parties, including leaders who put their lives on the line fighting for the ouster of the former tyrannical president Robert Mugabe,” Vitter wrote in a passage which features in most of his letters.
Mercury’s contract which initially ran until April 2020 was extended for a year beginning May 1. The firm has so far disclosed a US$270,000 payment by Zimbabwe, made in late August 2019. The contract extension says their services are “anticipated to include the coordination of government affairs work and strategic consulting for the benefit of the MFA.” Lobbying for political parties does not appear to be part of their terms of reference.
In separate letters to Tibor Nagy, the top US diplomat for Africa; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Industrial Policy Jennifer Santos and Under Secretary Brent McIntosh from the US Department of Treasury Office of International Affairs, Mercury wrote that POLAD was committed to a national dialogue within Zimbabwe, “and active, positive re-engagement with the United States.”
“That’s why the delegation is so eager to meet with you to share information on recent and important anti-corruption efforts in Zimbabwe, concerns about China’s recent dominance of the African continent and the impact of United States sanctions,” the letters added.
Other e-mails were sent to Erin Walsh, the National Security Council senior director for African affairs at the White House and an Adam, thought to be Adam Boehler at the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
Meetings were also requested with Patrick McHenry, the Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee; Congressman Michael McCaul the Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy; Congressman Christopher Smith, a Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Senator Mike Crapo the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
The package also included letters from Khupe, including one with a date of February 21 this year to Nagy, in which she said she was interested in “reaching out to you in hopes of furthering a relationship between Zimbabwe and the West.”
Assuming the tone of a government official, Khupe – who polled just over 45,000 votes in the presidential race in July 2018 – gave full backing to Mnangagwa’s regime, claiming it was a “new day in Zimbabwe.” She also claimed POLAD represented a “majority of Zimbabweans electorally”.
“We are a bipartisan organisation and are inclusive of all progressive political parties. In recent meetings, 17 political parties have been represented. We regret that two political parties have chosen not to join our group and have repeatedly requested to engage the governing and ruling Zanu PF party in their own capacities outside the POLAD framework,” Khupe said, without naming the parties.
Writing to Senators Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chris Coons who also sits on the Committee, Khupe said she “strongly disagreed” with their position that “sanctions don’t affect the average citizen” as the Senators stated in a recent letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin calling for the tightening of targeted sanctions.
“Zimbabwe’s population is approximately 14.6 million and about 4.8 million people voted in the 2018 harmonised election, leaving about 9.8 million people who did not vote. As these 17 political parties, we are not only representing those who voted but we are representing the entire population of Zimbabwe,” Khupe claimed in a letter to the two Senators.
In the 2018 election, the electoral commission said Mnangagwa had won with 50.67 percent of the vote ahead of Chamisa with 44.39 percent. Khupe and 20 other candidates accounted for 4.94 percent of the total 4,847,233 people who voted.
Several opposition leaders who stood against Mnangagwa in July 2018 have snubbed POLAD, including Joice Mujuru of the People’s Rainbow Coalition; Noah Manyika of Build Zimbabwe Alliance; Jacob Ngarivhume of Transform Zimbabwe; Nkosana Moyo of Alliance for People’s Agenda; Joseph Makamba Busha of Free Zim Congress; Elton Mangoma of the Coalition of Democrats and Daniel Shumba of the United Democratic Alliance among others.
The documents show that late last year, Mercury lobbyists met more than a dozen times with congressional aides to discuss sanctions. The Zimbabwe government has hired at least three other PR companies – Ballard Partners and Avenue Strategies in the United States and BTP Advisers in the United Kingdom – in its bid to repair its international image hurt by ongoing human rights abuses including the abductions and killing of opposition supporters by security forces.
Mnangagwa’s regime appears to have concluded that Khupe was an acceptable face to front it in Washington, and pulled all stops to shore up her political fortunes at home, while activating Mercury – with a strong hint of illegality – to market her in the United States.
Khupe was intent on taking up Zanu PF’s sanctions grievance with United States officials. She let slip in one of her letters that Zanu PF officials were angry that they were unable to open bank accounts in the United States and other countries.
“We ourselves have not been sanctioned, yet many of the members of our own group have been unable to open bank accounts because of red flags that exist in the global financial system on Zimbabwe as a direct repercussion of sanctions. Other members of our group have had bank accounts shut down due to this same reason,” Khupe wrote to Nagy.
She claimed “Zimbabwe as a whole continues to struggle daily with access to capital, not only because we have faced issues of corruption, but also because of sanctions-related issues.”
She added: “We hear directly from international corporations that are afraid to do business with Zimbabwe because of issues regarding sanctions. We are eager to move closer in partnership with the United States. We are requesting a meeting with you so that we as Zimbabweans can share our stories and the progress that has been achieved.”
Betraying enthusiastic support for Mnangagwa, Khupe wrote to McIntosh: “We must not forget it is a new day in Zimbabwe. While we are not yet where we want to be as a country, we are taking the appropriate steps in the right direction. We are no longer living in the era of the late Robert Mugabe’s administration and have turned our heads to look at the future. We are committed to this future but we need your help.”
A March ruling of the Supreme Court which found that Chamisa unlawfully upended Khupe to claim the leadership of the MDC-T following Morgan Tsvangirai’s death appeared uncannily timed to coincide with Khupe’s trip to Washington.
The full Supreme Court judgement is one of the documents now filed with the US Justice Department by Mercury, as if to buttress their earlier presentation of Khupe as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition.
Chamisa secured over 100 seats in the National Assembly and the Senate for the MDC Alliance. He maintains that the Supreme Court judgement has no bearing on his party. Khupe contested that election as leader of the MDC-T winning two proportional representation seats and has never lost control of her party, Chamisa maintains.
A rampant Khupe, enabled by Mnangagwa, has seized on the court judgement to take over the MDC Alliance’s offices with the assistance of security forces. She has also recalled over a dozen MDC Alliance MPs and councillors for defying her. Last week, the government released Z$7.4 million due to the MDC Alliance under the Political Parties (Finance) Act to Khupe’s MDC-T – ignoring an earlier court decree ordering the government not to disburse the money until the courts have ruled on several disputes, including whether Khupe has any legitimate claim to the MDC Alliance MPs and councillors.
Mercury appears intent on resuscitating the trip by Khupe as soon as the coronavirus international emergency ends. The firm submitted her CV and those of Willard Mugadza of the Bethel Christian Party; Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly; Trust Chikohora of the Coalition of Democrats; Kwanele Hlabangana of the Republican Party of Zimbabwe and Apollonia Muzverengwi of Zanu PF who is also the Mashonaland East provincial minister.
They also attached the CV of Stuart Comberbach, a special adviser to foreign affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo and Zimbabwe’s former ambassador to Italy, Japan and South Korea.
On its website, Mercury LLC boasts “unparalleled government relations expertise on Capitol Hill, in Statehouses throughout the United States, and within local city councils.”
“As a global firm, we know how to influence elected officials at all levels of government, and our tactic-neutral strategies provide clients with strategic communications, grass-roots mobilisation, polling, and state lobbying in all 16 offices,” it says.
Mercury UK, the holders of the contract, say on their website that they are a “multi-disciplinary marketing and communications business that specialises in raising the profile of our clients to help them communicate clearly, grow stronger and prosper.”
A diplomatic source in Washington, speaking on condition he was not named, said Mercury’s work for Khupe and the other political parties in POLAD is “unusual”.
“This is very strange since Mercury’s contract is with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was signed by foreign minister Moyo. Typically, these types of contracts are to support an embassy in Washington or some political objective of the foreign minister. It’s highly unusual that it would be to promote an opposition party. If anything, this suggests that Mercury has been paid by the ministry of foreign affairs to specifically promote and legitimise Khupe, and is a part of a covert campaign against Chamisa’s party,” the diplomat said.
Zimbabwe notably wants the US to repeal the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA), which Congress passed in 2001, as well as an executive order that President George W. Bush signed in 2003. The US has sanctioned dozens of Zimbabwean officials in recent years, including Mnangagwa.
Congress renewed ZIDERA in the summer of 2018, just as Mnangagwa won the presidency in the first election in which longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, who died last year, was not a candidate. The law notably limits Zimbabwe’s access to international financial institutions.
President Donald Trump in March this year 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 Presidential Guard commander Anselem Sanyatwe, who commanded an army unit blamed for the post-election killing of six people on August 1, 2018.