Some émigrés fiercely oppose the idea. "It’s completely barmy. You cannot put a price on citizenship and voting rights – normal countries have these guaranteed by their constitutions," protested Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of the London-based NewZimbabwe.com website.
The 156-page economic blueprint, Moving Forward in Zimbabwe – Reducing Poverty and Promoting Growth, recommended various strategies to hasten social and economic recovery in the troubled southern African nation, including taxing its far-flung citizens.
The report was produced by 13 distinguished Zimbabwean academics and published by the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester, and launched by Biti at the invitation of its authors. He also urged expatriates to support the economic recovery process by investing in the economy.
Biti promised that their investments would be safe under the unity government, formed in February 2009 by President Robert Mugabe, leader of the long-ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main wing of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and Arthur Mutambara, head of a breakaway faction of the MDC. It has been an uneasy marriage.
Biti agreed that tapping into the savings of expatriates through taxation, in exchange of voting and citizenship rights, was one way government could source much-needed funds for economic recovery.
But the idea has not gone down well with all migrants. "Politicians must first focus on fixing the politics, which is broken, and investment will come in response to that … This is a sure way to lose an election – whoever takes this up and makes it their political manifesto," Mathuthu told IRIN.
Remittances from expatriate Zimbabweans is credited with softening the impact of the country’s economic collapse, which caused widespread food shortages.
According to estimates by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency dedicated to eradicating rural poverty, US$361 million was remitted in 2008 – excluding hand-to-hand transfers – a number that was expected to double in 2009.
Other estimates have put all remittances from expatriates in Britain to Zimbabwe at about US$1 billion annually.
The report, which has not yet been officially discussed, urged government to accord dual citizenship and voting rights to the estimated three million Zimbabweans scattered across the world – at a price.
"Confidence-boosting measures would include allowing dual nationality, restoring voting rights for migrants who hold Zimbabwean citizenship, and creating mechanisms for them to be heard. In exchange, migrants should be prepared to pay an annual tax for retaining Zimbabwean nationality," the report recommended.
Zimbabwe’s stringent immigration laws proscribe dual citizenship, and those living outside the country are not allowed to cast absentee ballots unless they are civil servants on government business, but activists have been pressing for reforms since the establishment of the unity government – a fight that has support in both MDC formations.
No price on voting rights
"Voting rights are inalienable – we don’t have to pay government to be allowed to vote. It’s just outrageous … It will certainly be a big mistake if government buys into this idea," Dumaphi Mema, president of the US-based Association of Zimbabweans based Abroad (AZBA), told IRIN.
Mema said many Zimbabweans in the US were willing to invest in the economic rebuilding of their once-prosperous country, but worried about the fragility of the unity government. They also wanted postal votes to be allowed in elections, and to maintain Zimbabwean citizenships even after acquiring permanent residence in their host countries, with no strings attached.
"Many people don’t have faith in this unity government; recent statements by President Mugabe have not been encouraging. People need to see palpable political and economic reforms before they can commit their resources," Mema commented.
Brilliant Mhlanga, a political analyst, said it was important that Zimbabweans living in the diaspora played a major role in national rebuilding, despite the current political uncertainty.
"We have a responsibility to play in Zimbabwe. If we are really worried about creating a good future for our posterity, it is imperative that we support government’s revival efforts, despite the politics of the day," Mhlanga told IRIN from London. "If it means paying tax, so be it."