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.

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).  

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

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).  

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood