Zimbabwe’s Sanctions Smokescreen

Last week, the United States updated targeted U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwean individuals and entities responsible for committing grave human rights abuses, undermining democracy, or contributing to corruption on a massive scale.

Debates about sanctions obscure the real crisis in Zimbabwe.

The targeted sanctions regime, first established in 2003, was intended to pressure and isolate those most responsible for political violence and the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. Policymakers hoped that establishing concrete disincentives for the worst excesses in the country would stem the tide of authoritarianism and kleptocracy, creating more space for the many Zimbabweans who wish to express their political views without reason to fear, and who support genuine democracy, accountability, and the rule of law.

Nearly two decades on, the sanctions regime has succeeded in inconveniencing some of the most odious actors in Zimbabwe. But it has not stopped Zimbabwe’s seemingly endless descent into dictatorship and despair, in which a small circle of elites enrich themselves and protect their access to power while the rest of the country suffers. At the same time, sanctions serve as a handy scapegoat for those elites, who often mischaracterize 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 disincentivize further brutality.

Instead, as the 2023 elections draw closer in Zimbabwe, the situation in the country seems to be getting worse. Opposition parliamentarians Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole languish in detention on dubious charges, while their family members find themselves targeted by security services. Political activists have good reason to fear even worse treatment. An eyebrow-raising report about the state’s recent harassment of visiting U.S. congressional staffers suggests that the Zimbabwean authorities have no interest in even affecting a façade for outsiders. They want the sanctions lifted, but also openly intend to continue down a path of violent, repressive, ultimately ruinous governance.

The sanctions have also become something of an irritant in Washington’s relations with other African states and the issue was among the items on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s agenda in his bilateral meeting with President Biden last week. 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. Would Zimbabweans who fled their dysfunctional country wish to return if only leaders responsible for political violence could do business unencumbered by targeted sanctions? Would Zimbabwe’s business climate have a positive reputation if only the entities siphoning off state resources were not on a sanctions list? 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.

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