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Sanctions aren’t always the answer: Robert Mugabe is using them to his advantage

Sanctions on Zimbabwe have become more of a helpful tool for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party than a hindrance. And if this once-bountiful country is to turn a corner, the West should seriously consider suspending them.

By Greg Mills and Terence McNamee / June 16, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa

The removal of the Labour Party from power in the United Kingdom last month has opened the best opportunity in a decade to repair Britain’s relationship with Zimbabwe. But Britain has to act fast.

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Zimbabwe – once one of the most beautiful and bountiful lands in Africa – all but collapsed in the 2000s under the brutally repressive regime of President Robert Mugabe. People lived in fear in a country where they once enjoyed political freedoms and decent public services and jobs. Thousands died of malnutrition and starvation. It was nearly another Darfur or Rwanda.

Today Zimbabwe is more stable than at any time since the 1990s. It is not yet out of the woods, far from it. But now may be the time for bold moves by the international community to help consolidate this progress and, hopefully, a final democratic transition.

The most constructive role Britain, the former colonial power, could play would be to encourage other major donors to Zimbabwe – namely the US, Canada, and leading European countries – to help lift sanctions against the country. Such a step would go a long way to repairing the icy relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain.

International sanctions have become a sticking point in the normalization of relations, even though they were certainly just and appropriate when first applied against Mr. Mugabe’s regime. But they’ve become more of a helpful tool for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party than a hindrance. And if Zimbabwe is to turn a corner, this issue must be revisited.

Mugabe claims that sanctions are the reason that Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed. The real culprits are the policies aggressively pursued over the past decade by ZANU-PF, especially the redistribution of land seized from some 4,000 white farmers to give to their own political cronies.

ZANU-PF also uses the sanctions as an excuse not to carry out the gamut of reforms required to stabilize the economy and create the conditions conducive to free and fair elections. Mugabe draws succor from the fact that some 60 percent of Zimbabweans polled today believe that sanctions are damaging their economy.

The sanctions are leaving the governments which apply them increasingly isolated within Africa. They are finding it harder to defend the measures within African diplomatic circles, now that the situation in Zimbabwe has become more stable politically but the suffering of the poorest continues.

For their part, Western donor countries fear that without sanctions they will have no lever to ensure good – or at least better – behavior.

The West isn’t convinced it can sell the lifting of sanctions back home, especially if it is not linked to the removal of Mugabe.

But sanctions may be undermining the West’s long-term partnerships on the continent, where China, Iran, and others could be maneuvering into a less conditional relationship with African governments. That sanctions encourage recalcitrance rather than reform and hurt those they are supposed to help the most is an old argument, but valid in Zimbabwe’s case.

So what are the options?