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Sanctions: Parties politick while ordinary Zimbabweans suffer

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – The sanctions combined with gross misgovernance on the part of Zanu-PF had devastating repercussions on the economy. The economic crisis soon turned into a humanitarian crisis as millions of Zimbabweans could not afford their basic needs, the writer says.

By Professor David Monyae

On October 25, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was commemorating the SADC Zimbabwe Anti-Sanctions Day to express solidarity against what the organisation calls illegal sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the West. For the past 22 years, Zimbabwe has been reeling under sanctions from the West.

The sanctions were triggered by the country’s controversial Fast-Track Land Reform Programme (FTLP) at the beginning of 2000 which saw white commercial farmers violently dispossessed of their farms.

Accusing Robert Mugabe’s regime of violating human rights, Zimbabwe’s erstwhile coloniser, Britain, was the first to impose sanctions on the Southern African country in May 2000. The sanctions included the suspension of about two thirds of aid, the withdrawal of the British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT), and an arms embargo against Zimbabwe. Britain went on a spirited campaign to have other countries and organisations impose sanctions on its former colony. The World Bank soon suspended any lending and development aid to Zimbabwe as a result of the country’s failure to pay its arrears on debts owed to the Bank.

This was a huge loss as the World Bank had become a significant source of credit for Zimbabwe, which had received 35 loans totalling US$1.6 billion between 1980 and 2000. In May 2001 Canada imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe following the harassment of a Canadian diplomat by Zimbabwean war veterans. The sanctions included the suspension of development aid, cutting off export financing and an arms trade ban.

The United States (US) passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) on December 21, 2001. Section 4(c) directed the representatives of the US in multilateral financial institutions to oppose or vote against any financial assistance to or cancellation or reduction of debts owed by the Government of Zimbabwe.

Section 5 of ZIDERA allows the president of the US to provide financial assistance to promote free press, equitable land reform, and democracy and governance measures. The European Union (EU) soon followed suit as it imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe on February 18, 2002, citing the deteriorating human rights situation and political violence in the country. The sanctions entailed a travel ban and asset-freeze for Zanu-PF leaders in EU countries, the cutting of development aid and an arms embargo. Australia also announced financial sanctions against certain ministers and officials in the government of Zimbabwe.

The sanctions also included an arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes of designated persons. On June 6, 2003, the International Monetary Fund announced that it was suspending Zimbabwe’s voting and related rights because it had failed to co-operate with the IMF in policy implementation and payments. As a result of the suspension Zimbabwe could not participate in any IMF decisions and policy and operational activities. In the same year, Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government in response to mounting criticism of its government’s human rights violations. As such, by the early 2000s Zimbabwe was almost completely isolated from the West and lost the financial assistance it had depended on in the first two decades of its independence.

The sanctions combined with gross misgovernance on the part of Zanu-PF had devastating repercussions on the economy. Zimbabwe’s economy became the fastest shrinking in the world by 2003 at 18 percent per year with inflation reaching over 200 million percent by 2008. The economic crisis soon turned into a humanitarian crisis as millions of Zimbabweans could not afford their basic needs. At the height of the crisis in 2008, Zimbabwe was a dysfunctional state. Most schools and universities were closed, fuel was scarce, there were prolonged blackouts, shops were empty and the price of bread more than doubled every day.

To catch up with the runaway inflation, at one point the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) issued a 100 trillion-dollar note. In response Robert Mugabe adopted a hardline stance, calling the sanctions illegal and arguing that Britain was trying to recolonise Zimbabwe. In his address at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 Mugabe famously addressed the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying: “So Blair you keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”

The Zimbabwean opposition political parties were subjected to violent treatment as they were branded sellouts and puppets of the West by the Zanu-PF government. In 2008 Britain sponsored a UN Security Council Resolution to impose financial, travel and military sanctions on Zimbabwe’s political elite. However, the resolution was vetoed by China and Russia citing that Zimbabwe was not a threat to international security.

Until his downfall in 2017, Mugabe railed against the British declaring that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”.

Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, made international re-engagement, meaning re-engagement with the West, especially Britain, one of his priorities upon taking power in 2017. This, he hoped, would bring to an end the sanctions his party have blamed for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. Barely a year into his reign, Mnangagwa declared that Zimbabwe’s quarrel with Britain was over. For the first time since 2003, the Zanu-PF government sent a representative to the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government meeting in 2018 in another signal that it was ready to re-engage. Britain has also sent envoys to meet with Mnangagwa.

In what was simply unimaginable a few years ago, the Zimbabwean president was pictured shaking hands with the former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a climate summit in 2021. Mnangagwa has also tried to engage the US in an attempt to normalise its relations with Zimbabwe. His government was even alleged to have gone to the extent of paying US-based consultants to lobby the US government for the removal of sanctions.

Regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) have added their voice to the removal of sanctions. However, these appeals have fell on deaf ears as the US, UK and the EU continue to insist that the Zimbabwean government must implement governance reforms before the normalisation of relations can take place.

Harare has accused the West of meddling in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs and trying to topple the Zanu-PF government. As such, it seems the stalemate over sanctions will not be resolved any time soon. In the meantime, while both parties play politics and trade insults over sanctions, ordinary Zimbabweans will continue to suffer.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor in International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

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