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Sanctions against Zimbabwe have failed

They have become a political tool for Zanu-PF, as many African leaders continue to view sanctions as a tool for Western imperialism.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe lights the flame of freedom at a rally to mark the country's 32nd independence anniversary on April 18, 2012 in Harare. Photo: Getty Images

In 2001 America passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Act (ZIDERA). ZIDERA instructs America’s executive director to each international financial institution to oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe; and any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.

America argued that ZIDERA would support Zimbabweans in their struggle to achieve peaceful democratic change and equitable economic growth. The European Union followed suit by applying travel bans on ZANU PF members, an embargo on arms and related material, and the freezing of funds and economic resources of ZANU PF elites.

Zimbabwe’s Education Minister and member of the MDC party David Coltart was in America lobbying government officials to lift targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe recently. In April, Finance Minister and MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti told the Atlantic Council in Washington DC that “your foreign policy as a country, as America, could be better towards Zimbabwe. You do not deal with very difficult, fragile states by disengagement, by isolation. It does not work”.

Southern African states – the guarantors of Zimbabwe’s current power-sharing arrangement between ZANU PF and the MDC – have repeatedly urged the EU and America to remove sanctions. There is also a loudening chorus of calls by leading Zimbabwean civil society actors, academic experts and writers for the lifting of sanctions.

What is remarkable about concerned Zimbabweans’ argument for the removal of sanctions is that only a few years ago many of them were supportive of the Western sanctions regime. What has changed? Why would they now want the West to loosen its grip on the big bad Robert Mugabe?

The answer is that in 10 years sanctions have had no demonstrable effect on Mugabe and ZANU PF. They have become an effective political tool for ZANU PF instead. For instance, when EU sanctions against ZANU PF were introduced in 2002, African leaders’ reaction was typified by the then Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa who thundered: “as you have heard about Zimbabwe and the EU’s decision to impose sanctions, it seems they want to divide Africa at Brussels in 2002 just as they did in Berlin (where a conference that regulated colonialism was held) in 1884. Africa must be prepared to say no!”

Many African leaders continue to view sanctions as a tool for Western imperialism in Zimbabwe and this is one of the reasons why some of them never condemned Mugabe. Furthermore the view that sanctions represent Western imperialism anew has undermined the MDC’s standing as an authentic African party because it has been seen as close to the West since its formation in 1999.

Still the sanctions regime has its defenders and the foreign policy drive to isolate Mugabe has much traction in the West, as seen in Canada’s withdrawal from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) over the appointment of Mugabe as a special tourism ambassador in June.

However, the pro-sanctions brigade has buried its head in the sand and refused to earnestly address three critical issues. First is its lack of any evidence that sanctions have or are working. Second is the adverse effect on human rights and democracy promotion of the selective application of sanctions. While ZANU PF has endured sanctions, more undemocratic and human rights violating regimes in Angola and Swaziland, which are Zimbabwe’s regional neighbours, have been ignored. Duplicity undermines the West’s human rights and democracy agenda in Africa because it ends up being perceived as a fig leaf for regime change.

The third critical issue is that Western sanctions policy is overriding the views and demands of Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe does not belong to the West. Nor is the West intellectually better equipped than local actors in terms of knowledge about what will aid the resolution of Zimbabwe’s problems. It is high time the West comes down from its high horse and listens to and does what those who are affected by its bad foreign policies are saying. It is counterproductive to think and behave otherwise.

Blessing-Miles Tendi is author of “Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media”, and a Lecturer in History and Politics in the Oxford University Department of International Development (QEH).