Instead of nudging Harare towards reforms, the targeted sanctions have become a lucrative cover for non-performance, incompetence and unbridled corruption by the ruling elites.
On October 25, President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed a poorly attended gathering at the 60,000-seater National Sports Stadium. The event, declared a public holiday, was a day set aside for Zimbabwe and her neighbours to protest against the targeted sanctions that the European Union and the United States of America have maintained on the leaders of the southern African nation for nearly two decades.
This poor attendance – despite months of propaganda blitz, the forced mobilisation of schoolchildren and all government workers, free buses from all over the country and food rations for citizens that are officially starving – could be a reflection of not just the pinch, but the whole shaker of salt with which Zimbabweans now take the sanctions narrative that comes from their government. The sanctions, which the government insists are illegal, are blamed for almost everything that has gone wrong in the country, but ordinary citizens are beginning to see through, and feel the real effect of them. It not only hurts the country's economy but also provides an effective cover for the incompetent and thoroughly corrupt ruling elites.
Zimbabwe is subject to sanctions that date back to the reign of the late former president Robert Mugabe, who was toppled in a coup in November 2017 after 37 years in power. The EU sanctions consist of an arms embargo and targeted asset freezes and travel bans, while the US has imposed financial restrictions and travel sanctions against selected individuals and entities.
Following Mugabe’s ousting, a swift return to democracy and consequent lifting of sanctions was anticipated, based on the undertakings of Mugabe’s successor, Mnangagwa, who promised to deliver a new Zimbabwe. However in a typical case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, Mnangagwa’s regime has turned out to be even more brutal than that of Mugabe. Under him, citizens protesting against questionable election results and an ever-deepening economic crisis have been crushed with untold ruthlessness. In August 2018 and January 2019, for example, security forces killed and raped scores of unarmed civilians participating in peaceful anti-government protests.
The US and the EU responded by extending the sanctions they have imposed on the country and vowed to keep them in place until Mnangagwa’s government make key political and economic reforms, including those provided for under the country’s new constitution.
When Mnangagwa came into power, he committed himself to making wholesale reforms that he said would address the reasons behind these restrictive measures. He even based his campaign for the July 2018 elections on these reforms, only for him to surprisingly duck behind the same sanctions excuse under which his predecessor also took cover.
Opposition politicians and ordinary citizens have been asking what strange sanctions these are that only come to play on matters that benefit the generality of the citizenry, but not when the interests of the ruling elites are at stake. For example these sanctions do not stop the government from spending millions of dollars on medical expenses for the leadership (including the late former president Mugabe) abroad, but have made it impossible for the government to buy basic medicines for hospitals.
These sanctions have not stopped the government from importing arms, but they prevent the same government from importing equipment for hospitals. The sanctions have not stopped the president from regularly hiring a luxury jet from Dubai even for several weeks at a time, many times a year, but they stop the government from paying doctors and nurses who are now almost permanently on strike.
The sanctions have not stopped the government from importing luxury cars for senior government and ruling party officials, but they have stopped the government from importing water chemicals. The list goes on, prompting Zimbabweans to wonder what kind of sanctions these are, hence the demand that they be lifted, as they have become a lucrative excuse for the ruling elites to justify corruption and brutal misrule.
Doubtful efficacy of the sanctions
The sanctions have been in place for nearly two decades but there has not been any marked improvement in the behaviour of the ruling elites. If anything, the Harare regime has gone from bad to worse, thereby raising questions as to whether these measures will ever bring about the desired effects.
Gift Mwonzora, a Post-Doctoral Research fellow specialising in Political Sociology in the Unit of Zimbabwean studies in the Sociology Department at Rhodes University, South Africa, said that in a way, the sanctions actually help the ruling ZANU-PF regime play a strategic game as it knows that it has failed to deliver, and will always fail to deliver.
“Despite the posturing about sanctions, actually the sanctions narrative works to its own advantage as the party will always hide behind the sanctions narrative to cover up for its failure to run the economy,” Mwonzora, himself a Zimbabwean, told TRT World in an interview. “It’s easier for ZANU-PF to blame sanctions and not itself. So, in a way, they will not reform, [as long] as they are sure they have a scapegoat to cover up for their failures. This will enable ZANU-PF to rule uninterrupted yet shifting the blame for its failures elsewhere.”
He however pointed out that on the flip side, the removal of sanctions would also result in the ZANU-PF government being left to do as it pleases. “Thus, it might even continue to violate the rights of citizens and get away with it. Sanctions somehow, also help to checkmate the regime excesses.”
Zimbabweans, who are now sick and tired of the sanctions excuse for all failures by the government now fear that even if the sanctions are removed today, for a long time to come the ruling elites will still conveniently blame their incompetence and corruption on the legacy of these decades-long sanctions.
“Everywhere in the world and indeed in history, failed leaders and their regimes always seek to scapegoat - find someone to blame - for their own failures,” pointed out Dumisani Muleya, Editor of The Zimbabwe Independent, a respected privately-owned weekly. “Once that happens, dictatorship takes root as those failed leaders will then demand more power to deal with “national emergencies” that they would claim pose an existential threat to the survival of the nation. Today, we are witnessing that happening in Zimbabwe…. sanctions have now become an issue because the coup project has failed.”
Corruption, not sanctions
In the run-up to the protest marches in Harare, both US and EU representatives stridently refuted, as they have for many years, government claims that sanctions were responsible for the economic quagmire Zimbabwe finds itself in.
“There is no United States trade embargo on Zimbabwe,” said US Smbassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols. “There are only 141 Zimbabwean people and companies on the United States sanctions’ list… 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.”
“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.
Most government transactions are made under a veil of secrecy on the pretext of busting these sanctions. Cartels run by the political elites and their cahoots control fuel, food and other essentials, while most government spending is done in total secret, thereby providing ideal conditions for corruption. Recent government audits unearthed massive corruption in various government ministries, departments and state-run firms. In the past another report also revealed that there were over 75,000 ghost workers on the government payroll, mainly ruling party militias, at a time when bona fide workers are neglected. Central bank officials have also previously refused to reveal to parliament how they spent billions of dollars, citing the need to keep the information secret because of the sanctions.
“The resuscitated anti- sanctions narrative is designed to provide an excuse for ongoing failings by the state and in true ZANU-PF style... blame someone else,” said Crisis Group Southern Africa Project Director Piers Pigou.
“The political theatre that accompanies this seems intended to deflect from a committed engagement with international financial institutions, to repay the debt arrears which lays the ground for applying for preferential lines of credit.
“A serious move in this direction will mean far greater transparency which – for those who feed in the shadows of RBZ (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) operations – is likely to be most unpalatable. So just how far can reforms of this nature be resisted or sabotaged whilst retaining the illusion of reforms being on-going?”
It is the comic strategies that Harare has resorted to in making a show of seeking relief that have raised questions as to the seriousness of the Mnangagwa administration on ending these sanctions. The October 25 event – itself a culmination of months of propaganda campaigning – started with street marches, then some solidarity messages from neighbouring countries, followed by a soccer match, before its was wrapped up with an all-night musical gala.
“I don’t think we are serious at all about the removal of sanctions,” a Zimbabwean diplomat based in West Africa told TRT World in an interview. “Things like these [comical side-shows] make our lives very difficult when we try to explain our position to the world,” the diplomat added.
The US was also not amused by the side-shows: “If Zimbabwe’s leaders put as much time, financial resources, and effort into delivering on their long-promised reforms as they have in distorting facts and organising ‘anti-sanctions’ campaigns, Zimbabweans would not continue to suffer under the dire economic and humanitarian conditions they face today,” said Senator Jim Risch, Chair of the US Senate on Foreign Relations Committee in a statement on the eve of the Harare march. “The US does not sanction people without just cause – sanctions are a response to malign activity.”
Although the story of how these targeted measures are to blame for Zimbabwe’s problems is widely dismissed as fiction created by the ruling elites, the narrative is however not without people who take it for gospel truth. Some of these people have been permanently camped outside the United States of America’s new US$300 million embassy complex in Harare since March this year.
“We will be here for as long as the sanctions are there,” said Calvern Chitsunge, the leader of a group, told TRT World.
Chitsunge and dozens of others have been camped at the entrance of the embassy protesting day and night for more than seven months. They started their protests during the rainy season, went through the cold season and are now in the hot season. “We will only leave the day America removes its sanctions on Zimbabwe,” vowed Chitsunge to loud cheers from members of his group that is made up of individuals that range from toddlers to the elderly.