Sanctions stand-off

The issue of “sanctions” (or restrictive measures if you prefer) has become a political football in Zimbabwe’s painful political transition. The US and Europe insist they are essential, but regard them as only limited and targeted. Meanwhile, ZANU-PF argues that they are undermining recovery and preventing unity. And various opposition groups, although not the MDC formations, argue that they are an important lever in negotiations around the constitution, addressing human rights

The problem is that when discussing ‘sanctions’, different people talk about different things. For sure there are highly restrictive measures applied to particular people, including many close associates of the President. These prevent travel, financial transactions and more. But actually the effect of the diplomatic stand-off, now over a decade old, is much wider, with diverse knock-on effects. It affects the way aid funds are spent, with the channelling of funds away from government and through NGOs. It influences the ability of Zimbabwe to gain credit lines internationally, pushing the government and the private sector towards Chinese sources, for example. It undermines the relationships with the international financial institutions (the IMF and the World Bank), and so the ability to secure loans and seek debt relief. And of course with diplomatic relations strained, normal interactions on the international stage are affected. While perhaps not formal sanctions, the effects are the same – and these are shaping Zimbabwe’s economy and politics not just now, but perhaps for the long-term.

This may be the desired effect. Isolation, and the creation of a pariah state, reinforced by a narrative about the evil of Robert Mugabe, may be the diplomatic aim of US and European foreign policy. But does this really make sense in 2012? Many think not. Certainly SADC has long argued for the removal of sanctions. The MDC also regularly make this plea. In their CMI brief of 2010, Alois Mlambo and Brian Raftopoulos argued: “The future of the democratic forces in Zimbabwe depends, in important ways, on its capacity to lead an economic recovery programme that will strengthen the country’s social base. The assumption that a deepening crisis and continued sanctions will be advantageous to the opposition is a dangerous fallacy”.

In other words, sanctions can act to undermine democracy, strengthening the hand of the nationalist hawks, while undermining any alliance of democratic forces in the MDC and beyond (including in ZANU-PF). Economic recovery – and with this must be the restructuring and revitalisation of agriculture following land reform – goes hand in hand with the growth of democracy.

This is a view reinforced by an insightful new briefing by the International Crisis Group, ‘Zimbabwe’s Sanctions Standoff’. Reviewing the fragile political situation in the lead up to the elections (which must be held by June 2013), the briefing argues that: “ZANU-PF manipulates the issue politically and propagandises it as part of its efforts to frustrate reform and mobilise against perceived internal and external threats to national sovereignty”. Evidence, the briefing says, indicates that: “the existence of sanctions has strengthened ZANU-PF hardliners against more reformist elements and the MDC-T and provided an ostensible justification to block reforms”.

The problem is that removing sanctions, even flexibly and incrementally, is be seen as a sign of capitulation and victory of the hardliners. Not only has the issue become a contest between different political groupings within Zimbabwe, it has also been a contest between Harare based diplomats and their superiors in Washington, London or Brussels. Sanctions, as the ICG briefing suggests, has become a diversion, and the underlying political challenges that need to be addressed in advance of the elections – most notably accountability of the security services – are not on the table. It is therefore good news that the EU has ‘eased’ its restrictive measures from February 2012.

The international community has failed in the past to seize the opportunity to exert influence, for example around the formation of the GNU, preferring to maintain a simple, politically pure hardline stance, but this positioning has not helped. Indeed, according to many analysts, it has made things worse. Perhaps, as the economy continues to rebound, and the ‘social base’ grows, now is another moment, and the EU’s move is a sign that relations are thawing and a more pragmatic approach will prevail. –

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