Sanctions debate: Divisive, polarising

President Emmerson Mnangagwa

AS world leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last month, the focus was once again on Zimbabwe as well as the reception that President Emmerson Mnangagwa was expected to get in New York after a two-year Covid-19-induced hiatus.

Mnangagwa could have dodged bullets as the expected backlash from protestors against his administration did not yield much impact. The protests were basically diluted by pro-Zimbabwe supporters in the United States. It was not surprising that Mnangagwa, buoyed by the support he received at the UNGA, addressed one of the issues that have divided the world – sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe.

Who is at the receiving end of the economic and travel embargo?

No subject has ever divided, not only the highly polarised Zimbabweans but Africa and the world at large, as this one.

Mnangagwa told the assembly that despite the illegal economic sanctions against his country, Zimbabwe has successfully implemented a Covid-19 national response strategy. 

He added that Zimbabwe had made significant strides towards ending poverty and hunger, implementing various policies and programmes to support and empower communal and small-scale farmers, contributing to the household and national food and nutrition security. 

He said despite successes by his administration, the ongoing effects of sanctions continue to hamper the country’s progress, including failure to realise sustainable and inclusive development. 

Mnangagwa’s statement came a few days after Zimbabwe was invited to participate at the US-Africa Summit for the first time ever. As usual African leaders also joined the chorus, using the UNGA to push for an end to a two-decades-long Western embargo against Harare. They argued that the sanctions are hurting ordinary people and the region. African Union (AU) chairperson and Senegalese President Macky Sall led the charge saying the sanctions should be removed immediately to enable Zimbabwe to realise its full potential.

“The AU once again calls for the lifting of foreign sanctions against Zimbabwe. These harsh measures continue to inflict a sense of injustice against an entire people and aggravate their suffering in these times of deep crisis,” Sall said.

His sentiments were echoed by leaders from Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC) and South Africa in their addresses to the UNGA. DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi, the current chair of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), described the sanctions on Zimbabwe as “a crime against innocent people”.

In his maiden UNGA address, Kenyan President William Ruto said sanctions were indiscriminately punishing the general citizenry.

“Unilateral coercive actions, such as those imposed on Zimbabwe and Cuba, apart from undermining the sovereign equality of nations, also indiscriminately punish the general citizenry, reserving their bitterest sting for innocent hustlers and the vulnerable,” Ruto said.

South Africa also called for the lifting of the sanctions. However, writing in a blog post published by the Council on Foreign Relations after the US updated the sanctions, senior fellow for African Studies Michelle Gavin said the embargo has succeeded in inconveniencing some of the most odious actors in Zimbabwe. She, however, admitted that the sanctions had not stopped Zimbabwe’s seemingly endless descent into dictatorship and despair.

“At the same time, sanctions serve as a handy scapegoat for those elites, who often mischaracterise them as a blanket ban on trade and investment in Zimbabwe and assert that these restrictions, rather than their own mismanagement, are to blame for the country’s troubles.

“The result is a disheartening stasis. The individuals and entities on the list continue their repression and self-dealing, offering neither justification for lifting restrictions that target them, nor hope that those restrictions will be sufficient to disincentivise further brutality,” Gavin said.

She also raised fears that as the 2023 elections draw closer in Zimbabwe, the situation in the country was degenerating.

“The sanctions have also become something of an irritant in Washington’s relations with other African states… Xenophobia is on the rise in South Africa and attempting to address upstream factors pushing migrants across the border makes sense.

“But it is difficult to imagine that Ramaphosa or other Southern African leaders really believe that Zimbabwe’s economy will recover due to a decision made in Washington,” Gavin argued further.

 “For too many African leaders, pretending to believe in these unlikely propositions is apparently far more comfortable than acknowledging the rot at the heart of the Zimbabwean state, or their own role in enabling it,” she added.

Political commentator Taisa Tshuma called for peer review mechanisms and sustained Western diplomatic leveraging compelling leadership in Africa to push Zimbabwe to get its act together.

“In response, Zimbabwe has blamed the sanctions for its limitations and also used these occasions to lobby heavily within Africa for solidarity and support,” he said.

The Bulawayo-based analyst added that South Africa was carrying the burden of Zimbabwe's economic dysfunction.

He  argued that while the sanctions were targeted that did not matter as the affected individuals and institutions were influential to the brand Zimbabwe.

“Whatever squeeze you put on these individuals, brand Zimbabwe is left to absorb that pressure. There has however been no tangible action on the ground to motivate real change. It's a fulfilment of the old adage, ‘talk is cheap'. The invitation of President Mnangagwa to participate in the US-Africa summit is a gesture of goodwill to end the standoff and recognition of a narrow window to reconcile,” Tshuma said.

Another political commentator Effie Ncube called on the African leaders to call on Zimbabwean leaders to respect human rights.

“This is the balanced approach that will enhance their credibility across the political divide in Zimbabwe. It is unlikely that sanctions will be lifted without any reforms on the part of the government of Zimbabwe.

“That is why it is important that the pressure should focus on reforms across the board and use such reforms to change the attitude of the international community,” Ncube said.

He said the invitation to the US-Africa Summit did not indicate any change from the US government but is part of the pressure to assist in fostering the rule of law in Zimbabwe.



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