Ordinary Zimbabweans Cry Out for Sanctions Relief.

It has gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, but Zimbabwe has faced sanctions for over 16 years now, with no end in sight. This has reportedly sucked $48 billon of possible investment out of the Zimbabwean economy during this period. 

Considering the fragile state of the economy – reeling from high inflation and power shortages, exacerbated by the effects of climate change – it is obvious that $48 billon could have made a huge difference to its suffering population.

Ordinary Zimbabweans came out in their thousands last Friday, which the government declared as Anti-Sanctions Day. A protest march and a day-long festival were held in Harare to highlight the debilitating effect of the sanctions. Locals chanted “down with sanctions” and carried placards describing the measures as “evil” and “weapon of mass destruction to mankind”. 

“We are tired of this life,” said Takudzwa Chipare, a Harare resident. “We are trying to work very hard but things are tough. I think if they remove the sanctions, life can improve.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa told the crowds that the sanctions are “neither smart nor targeted”. “Their impact on our daily lives is immeasurable and the consequences are dire,” he said. 

The day was also marked across southern Africa by Zimbabwe’s neighbours. The 16-nation Southern Africa Development Community has called for the end of sanctions on Zimbabwe, declaring that they are no longer acceptable and are hampering the development of the entire region. In fact, the countries declared October 25th as Zimbabwe Solidarity Day, and also staged events, issuing a joint call for the “immediate” lifting of sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe.

The sanctions were imposed in 2003 by the United States and European Union in response to the alleged crackdown on political opponents by former president Robert Mugabe. This included financial and travel restrictions against specific individuals and companies.

Many of these measures are still in place today despite Mugabe's resignation in 2017 and Mnangagwa's election last year. The European Union, however, has begun to normalise its relations with Zimbabwe, with a few sanctions remaining.  The start of political talks in June was perceived as a positive sign towards abandoning all EU sanctions in the near future. 

The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained wide-ranging sanctions, at least until March 2020. Officials in Washington claim this is due to Zimbabwe's failure to change laws curbing protests and media freedom – a strange assessment since Mnangagwa’s government is currently modernising 30 Mugabe-era laws to meet Western standards. Controversial emergency and media laws are being replaced with new legislations that are currently in Parliament.

No wonder there is disappointment in Harare that the West is not supporting the government’s reform programme. In fact, America’s refusal to ease or lift sanctions may prove counter-productive. 

“The continued judgement setting of Utopian standards for Zimbabwe are callous, vindictive and should not be allowed to continue. We say enough is enough,” President Mnangagwa told a cheering crowd in Harare last Friday.

Ephraim Chizola, a member of a vendors trade group, said: “Sanctions affect us. Banks can't mobilise lines of credit. The US sponsor the opposition so that people turn on their government.”

With public opinion in Zimbabwe strongly against the sanctions, the U.S. and EU have tried limited damage control in the past week.

In an op-ed, Washington's ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols, blamed corruption, mis-governance and lack of reforms for the suffering of Zimbabweans.

“What is holding Zimbabwe back? It's not sanctions. There are only 141 Zimbabwean people and companies on the United States sanctions' list. That's right, just 141, in a country of 16 million. They are on the list for good reason,” Nichols claimed, alleging that Mnangagwa's government has failed to hold corrupt officials accountable.

For Zimbabweans this argument does not hold water as the country actually stands out in the region for its crackdown on corruption. The government has given the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission a free rein to target any individuals, however influential or powerful they might be. The agency has already arrested a cabinet minister and powerful officials for corruption.

Meanwhile, the EU mission for Zimbabwe claimed on Friday that its sanctions apply to specific individuals and not the whole country. 

“Our restrictive measures comprise of a travel ban and asset freeze against [the] former presidential couple, a ban for European companies to do business with Zimbabwe Defence Industries, and an arms embargo. That's all,” it declared on Twitter.

The idea that the long-running sanctions are targeted is dismissed by Zimbabwe.

“You can't say sanctions are targeted when you specify 56 of the biggest companies in Zimbabwe. What is left?”,  asked Nick Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary for information.

In fact, it is possible the West has missed its chance to improve the lives of millions in Zimbabwe. When Mugabe was forced from office in 2017, two UN human rights experts had called for the lifting of sanctions.

They said the measures were not “limited” or “targeted”, as the people and companies sanctioned actually controlled most of the economy.

“Zimbabwe's economy is heavily concentrated in particular sectors, and sanctions on only a few people or companies can have a devastating impact,” said Idriss Jazairy, a UN Special Rapporteur, and Alfred de Zayas, an independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.

They found that some businesses were “over-complying” with the sanctions because of confusion over their scope.

“We urge the international community to work with Zimbabwe to restore the economy and the financial system,” they added. “We must all work together for peace and prosperity in Zimbabwe.”

However, this prescient analysis was not followed by the West at the time. The result is that after nearly four decades of misrule, an African government with a reform programme still finds itself unable to access international investment and expertise that could turn the country around. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people continue to face the grinding impact of sanctions without end.

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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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