By Cris Chinaka
HARARE (Reuters) – President Robert Mugabe said on Tuesday Zimbabwe wanted friendly relations with Western countries who have been critical of it in the past.
Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, also reiterated a call for sanctions against Zimbabwe to be lifted.
“Our country remains in a positive stance to enter into fresh, friendly and cooperative relations with all those countries that have been hostile to us in the past,” he said at the opening of parliament.
Mugabe has long been a pariah in the West, blamed by critics for plunging his country, once the bread basket of southern Africa, into poverty through mismanagement and corruption.
He has accused his Western foes of ruining the economy through sanctions in retaliation for a policy of seizing white-owned farms for landless blacks. Those countries say the sanctions only target him and close associates.
His government has also been criticized for human rights abuses, including repression of opponents and the media.
After long negotiations, Mugabe formed a unity government with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February to try to end a decade-long political crisis.
“Our re-engagement with the EU bloc is gathering momentum. However, as our inclusive government re-engages the Western countries, we expect those countries that have imposed illegal sanctions, which have hurt our people and continue to hurt our economy…to remove them,” Mugabe said.
CALL FOR UNITY
The fragile coalition between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is threatened by policy differences, the slow pace of reforms and feuding over state jobs.
Tuesday opposition MDC parliamentarians applauded Mugabe when he called for unity among Zimbabweans in a conciliatory speech.
“Together let us build the bridges of amity, forgiveness, trust and togetherness,” Mugabe said.
Analysts said Mugabe’s comments were mild compared to his previous fiery, anti-West speeches at previous parliament openings.
“It was a departure from his conventional style and the speech appeared to be balanced and level-headed. The tone was quite impressive and is in synch with that of national reconciliation. Maybe he wants to reconcile polarized relations,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
MDC MPs booed and jeered Mugabe’s speech to parliament last year as they accused him of stealing a violent election run-off.
Foreign aid donors and investors remain reluctant to put money into Zimbabwe until further progress has been made toward democratic reforms.
Government officials say the new session of parliament will consider amendments to the Mines and Minerals Act and a bill governing the operations of the central bank.
Mugabe said Tuesday that the government would pass a law on the mining sector soon. This would address concerns raised by an earlier draft that would have given locals control of mining operations owned by foreign companies.
“The Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill, which should be finalized during this session, will seek to strengthen the relationship between government and the mining houses,” Mugabe said.
Several mining firms, including the world’s two biggest platinum producers, Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum, have retained operations in Zimbabwe but largely put new projects on hold, fearing the mines could be taken over by the state.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Banya and MacDonald Dzirutwe; Writing by Marius Bosch; Editing by Dominic Evans)