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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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