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Zimbabweans reel under unintended effects of Western sanctions

November 19th, 2021
topics: Good Governance
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Zimbabwe, USA, Belgium
tags: Africa, European Union, sanctions, USA, Zimbabwe

The targeted sanctions by the US and EU on Zimbabwe were meant to nudge Harare towards political and economic reforms. Instead, they have turned into a lucrative cover for non-performance, incompetence and unbridled corruption by the ruling elites.

In 2019, the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) set aside 25 October as a day for the bloc to join Zimbabwe in protesting against the two-decade long sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union on the leaders of southern African nation.

Zimbabwe’s leadership has been demanding that the sanctions be lifted because they are, according to them, not only unilateral but also illegal and unjustified. Ordinary Zimbabweans, too, are pleading for their removal - not because the Harare regime has stopped misbehaving - but because these sanctions have over the years had unintended effects and became a handy excuse for the ruling elites when they need a scapegoat for non-performance or to cover up opaque and criminal transactions.

Two Decades Of Sanctions

The US imposed sanctions of Zimbabwe in 2001, during the reign of the late former president Robert Mugabe - who was toppled in a coup in November 2017 after 37 years in power. The sanctions involve a combination of financial and travel restrictions against selected individuals and business entities for their “failure to respect human rights and failure to uphold the rule of law.” 

The EU sanctions (imposed in 2002) consist of an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and targeted asset freezes and travel bans against individuals.

Following Mugabe’s ouster, a return to democracy and consequent lifting of sanctions were widely anticipated, based on undertakings of Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had promised to deliver a new Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa committed himself to making wholesale political and economic reforms, which he said would address the root causes of these restrictive measures. He even based his campaign for the July 2018 elections on these reforms, only for his regime to turn out to be even more brutal than that of Mugabe.

Under Mnangagwa, citizens protesting against questionable election results and a worsening economic crisis have been crushed with untold ruthlessness. For example, in August 2018 and January 2019, security forces killed and raped scores of unarmed civilians participating in peaceful anti-government protests while journalists and opposition members have regularly been arrested for exposing corruption and demanding accountability. NGOs have also become a target, as Mnangagwa's government attempts to silence and band them

The US and the EU have responded by regularly renewing and extending the sanctions and vowing to keep them in place until Mnangagwa’s government make the necessary reforms. 

'Sanctions Are Evil'

As of 30 October, Calvern Chitsunge and several dozens of members of an outfit calling itself Broad Alliance Against Sanctions had clocked exactly 945 days - having started in March 2019 - of camping outside the entrance of the US embassy in Harare, where they have been protesting day and night against the restrictive measures.

“These sanctions are evil,” Chitsunge told FairPlanet in an interview. “They have caused untold suffering among our people and we will be protesting here until the Americans remove these illegal sanctions that they have imposed on our country.”

Chitsunge and his colleagues push the official narrative that the country has lost over $40 billion over the past two decades because of the sanctions.

‘Crisis Internally Authored’

Not everyone, however, believes that the targeted sanctions are responsible for the protracted economic and social crises that the country has suffered.

In an opinion piece published in the run up to the anti-sanctions day, Janet Zhou, Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Coalition On Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) - a socio-economic justice movement, insisted that Zimbabwe’s problems have nothing to do with sanctions, but with corruption and misrule.

“Our current crisis is primarily internally authored and driven, rather than being the result of external factors,” Zhou said.

“A ZIMCODD study established that Zimbabwe’s extensive political corruption is the major driver of fiscal deficits and the exponential growth of public debt beyond the legal threshold of 70 percent,” said Zhou, who went to great lengths to chronicle cases of corruption in Zimbabwe. 

“The conflation of the state, politics and business is a triangular marriage that has continued to push the monetary, fiscal and economic burdens to the ordinary citizens who are muzzled and disempowered to hold those in the vortex of corruption and abuse of power accountable," she added. "Impunity is an embedded culture and no one is willing to be held accountable for economic and financial crimes being committed.”

Corruption, Not Sanctions

Both US and EU representatives in Harare have stridently refuted, as they have for many years, claims by the government and its supporters that sanctions are responsible for the sorry economic situation that Zimbabwe finds itself in. 

“There is no United States trade embargo on Zimbabwe,” said US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols, pointing out that only 83 individuals and 37 companies are on their list of the targeted sanctions.

“They are on the list for good reason. These are people who have engaged in corruption, committed human rights abuses, and undermined Zimbabwe’s democratic process.” 

The diplomat went on to share a long catalogue of high profile corruption cases involving government and ruling party officials that have largely been swept under the carpet. 

“Blaming sanctions is a convenient scapegoat to distract the public from the real reasons behind Zimbabwe’s economic challenges – corruption, economic mismanagement, and failure to respect human rights and uphold the rule of law,” Nichols added. 

Hiding Behind Sanctions

Most government transactions are made under a thick veil of secrecy on the pretext of busting these sanctions. Cartels run by the political and military elites and their cahoots control the fuel, food and other essentials, and with most government spending is done in total secret, this has provided ideal conditions for corruption.

Recent government audits unearthed massive corruption in various government ministries, departments and state-run firms. In the past, a different report also revealed that there were over 75,000 ghost workers on the government payroll, most of them ruling party militias. Central bank officials have in the past refused to reveal to Parliament how some billions of dollars were spent, citing sanctions.

Ordinary Citizens suffer most

Journalist Mxolisi Ncube best summarised the attitude of most Zimbabweans. “Ordinary Zimbabweans are really not benefiting from this merry-go-round and blame-shifting,” Ncube told FairPlanet. “If the sanctions were as ineffective as these guys would want us to believe, why not just lift them and expose the ZANU-PF lie? Both ZANU-PF and the US government are the ones benefiting from this - one is scapegoating and the other is getting away with underhand deals.”

UN Special Rapporteur’s Visit

This year’s event coincided with the a fact-finding mission by a UN Special Rapporteur on Negative Impact of Sanctions, Professor Alena Douhan, at the invitation of the Zimbabwean government.

In her preliminary report released at the conclusion of her visit, the Special Rapporteur called for the lifting of unilateral Western sanctions against Zimbabwe and for dialogue among key stakeholders.

The UN envoy is scheduled to submit a public report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2022.

“The US and other States should lift their sanctions on targeted individuals and entities and end over-compliance,” Douhan said.

“The time is ripe for sanctioning States and key national stakeholders to engage in a meaningful structured dialogue on political reform, human rights and the rule of law, and abandon rhetoric on sanctions as an advocacy tool,” she added.

Image by Zimbabwean eyes.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe USA Belgium
Protesters sit holding placards outside the US embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.
© Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images
Protesters have spent nearly two years camped outside the embassy, demanding an end to sanctions imposed on the Zimbabwean government and individuals.
© Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images
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