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Leader of Economic Revolutionary Alliance, Talent Rusere, leads a march to the Zimbabwean embassy to demand re-elections claiming recent elections were unfair. Replacing sanctions with a ‘targeted’ focus on Zimbabwe’s President and a few government officials just months after an election – seemingly tainted by corruption and, in the current climate of deep citizen disenchantment – may sow even more discontent. Sanctions that stymie the corruption of errant leaders are welcome, but in this instance may well prove to be an effective US tactic in the pursuit of regime change, the writer says. – Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA) / September 8, 2023

By Kim Heller

Twenty-one-year-old sanctions on Zimbabwe by the United States were revoked by President Joe Biden on March 4, 2024. At the same time, Global Magnitsky (GLOMAG) sanctions were inflicted upon Zimbabwean President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, along with a handful of top political Zimbabwean government officials, and three business entities for their connection to ‘corruption or serious human rights abuses’.

Among those on the GLOMAG sanction list are the first lady of Zimbabwe, the country’s vice president, and its minister of Defence. The new targeted sanctions will make it cumbersome, if not prohibitive for the affected politicians and entities to bank and trade.

The US government expressed concern about the state of the Zimbabwean nation “particularly with respect to acts of violence and other human rights abuses against political opponents and with respect to public corruption, including misuse of public authority”.

At first glance, the replacement of blanket sanctions with this more targeted approach looks like it could offer a measure of relief to long-suffering and innocent Zimbabwean citizens. In the first instance, it puts an end to collective punishment and rather places restrictions on politicians and entities flouting human rights and involved in a litany of illicit and corrupt activity. Secondly, it opens up business opportunities for local businesses and the economy at large. Thirdly, by placing the spotlight on the president and other implicated parties, greater clarity on the scope of corruption and human rights violations may emerge.

If the new focussed sanctions manage to disrupt the feeding trough of the political and business elite, then these new measures should be welcomed. But if they, like previous sanctions cause immeasurable damage to the people of Zimbabwe, then they must be strongly opposed.

Wide reaching sanctions imposed upon the young Zimbabwean nation in opposition to Robert Mugabe’s Land Reform Programme in 2001, saw the country suffer a serious economic blow. Further sanctions, including those by the European Union plunged the country into economic crisis.

Billions were lost annually as a result. Infrastructure development was halted, markets for manufactured goods lost, foreign investment cut, and the country’s vital agricultural sector horribly pruned. Poverty rose sharply and millions of Zimbabweans have had to flee their homeland to seek work opportunities elsewhere on the Continent. In October 2023, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) called for lifting all sanctions on Zimbabwe.

SADC expressed concern about the negative impact these sanctions “continue to pose on the country and the SADC region” and how they suffocate the ability of Zimbabweans to “achieve their potentials across various sectors as a nation”. SADC described the impact of sanctions on Zimbabwe as a “modern-day atrocity which we, as the SADC family, strongly feel is an impediment that leaves one of our members behind from our common quest for regional integration, growth and prosperity”.

In October 2023, Mr João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço President of the Republic of Angola and Chairperson of SADC said, “Our call for lifting sanctions on Zimbabwe is made as a firm request to the International Community for a new rhetoric, story, and direction for the country.

An unconditional lift of sanctions shall create the conditions for Zimbabwe and the SADC region to consolidate its collective efforts to spearhead national and regional growth and substantively develop in critical areas of good governance, human rights, and social cohesion. It is, therefore, incumbent on all parties concerned to do our parts in re-writing the discourse for the Government and people of the Republic of Zimbabwe.”

This month, United States representatives were at pains to communicate that the revised approach to sanction were “not intended to target the people of Zimbabwe” but “clear and specific targets”. The US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires in Zimbabwe, Laurence Socha reiterated the commitment of the United States to work with the people of Zimbabwe. “Sanctions on these individuals and entities do not represent a sanction on Zimbabwe or its public.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We continue to have concerns regarding serious cases of corruption and human rights abuse in Zimbabwe. Key individuals, including members of the government of Zimbabwe, bear responsibility for these actions, including the looting of government coffers that robs Zimbabweans of public resources. Multiple cases of abductions, physical abuse, and unlawful killing have left citizens living in fear.”

The US waxes lyrically about human rights violation and indeed this is a compelling justification for sanctions. The US projects itself as the champion of the ‘free world’, as the watchtower of human rights. Yet the United States is an ever-charged drum majorette for its own interests. The US itself is built on the carcass of African slavery and its role on the Continent has been driven by its ambitions for power rather than by deep set empathy or compassion for Africa.

The US is more likely to be driven by its own interests in Africa than in the inhumane treatment of Zimbabweans. If the US government was truly passionate about human rights and abuse of citizens, it would have imposed sanctions against Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for its horrendous genocidal acts against the people of Gaza.

The US sanctions may well trigger additional sanctions and punitive measures from other world countries and trading bodies to be placed on the identified politicians and entities. This week during a debate in the United Kingdom’s House of Lord, members of the House spoke of the possibility of tightening Zimbabwe sanctions not only in light of human rights abuses but also due to the growing influence of China and Russia in the country.

For both the US and the UK, the issue of human rights violation and corruption by Zimbabwe’s government sanctions may be a handy alibi to justify the sanctions. Zimbabwe is a mineral rich country and a highly valuable geo-political asset in the reconfiguration of power and players in the new scramble for Africa. The US could also be seeking a friendly ally in Zimbabwe, especially after South Africa’s motion to the International Court of Justice on Palestine which was out of step with the US posture on the Israel Gaza conflict.

Zimbabwean Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Frederick Shava is bullish about prospects for foreign investment following the shift in the US sanction protocol. He encouraged Zimbabwean businesses to take advantage of the newly stated US government position that American businesses are now free to engage Zimbabwean business entities. He described the US decision as a welcome development but one that falls “far, far short of what we expect and want”.

Sanctions must fall. So too must violations of human rights and corruption. This triad has been a heavy chain which has dragged down the people of Zimbabwe. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s legitimacy and leadership is under scrutiny, and he is not faring well. Economic crises are the disorder of the day and citizens battle to beat the brutality of pervasive poverty.

The Pan African Forum (UK) Ltd Forum this week commented on the US’s discontinuation of its “illegal” two-decade long sanctions against Zimbabwe, saying that the announcement that sanctions were removed was false and that sanctions were not removed but reinforced for the purposes of violent regime change in Zimbabwe. The narrative of regime change is not a far-fetched one for the West may prefer a more malleable leader than Mnangagwa. By targeting Mngangagwa just months after an election which was seemingly tainted by corruption, and in the current climate of deep citizen disenchantment may sow even more discontent. This may well prove to be an effective US tactic in the pursuit of regime change.

The journey from sanctions to sovereignty for Zimbabwe, is going to be a long stretch. The Continent, crippled by the historical plunder of imperialism and colonialism, is also economically paralysed by post liberation governments who have continued to serve Western countries and industries and reaped riches, not for their citizens but for their personal benefit. The wealth of Africa continues to serve as the developmental undercarriage of foreign nations.

Sanctions must fall but so too must elite government and interests that have shown no political will to raise up their own citizens or who have used sanctions as a scapegoat for poor performance.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.