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.

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.

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?

Whether a change of policy on sanctions would have the desired effect will depend partly on whether they are permanently lifted or just suspended. Lifting sanctions altogether is the most dramatic step but it leaves little room for review and reapplication, and could be too hard for Western countries to swallow.

Suspending sanctions until specific goals, such as the passing of the new Zimbabwe constitution or fresh elections, are met, is probably the better option, as it might allay the unease among donor countries’ domestic constituents.

Conditional suspension would be all the more credible if it were underwritten by South Africa and other power brokers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who could pledge to support the reinstitution of sanctions if the Zimbabwean government didn’t fulfil its side of the bargain.

Key to the success: depersonalization.

Donors now largely accept that the demonization of Mugabe, and calls for regime change, have gotten them nowhere. Manichean rhetoric has been replaced by an emphasis on the gradual narrowing of differences between ZANU and officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

As a result of the Global Political Agreement signed in September 2008, these two once-fierce enemies now share power in Zimbabwe’s coalition government. Until recently, it appeared that the MDC stood to gain the most from the seemingly open-ended and prolonged transition to democracy, as ZANU’s ageing leaders would inevitably be supplanted by MDC’s younger cadre of officials.

But with ZANU’s coffers now being replenished through diamond sales from the Marange fields and the rich pickings in prospect via the mooted “indigenization” of Zimbabwean business (shorthand for the partial seizure of principally white-owned assets), the political balance is shifting.

The bad blood between ZANU and Britain’s Labour Party poisoned relations between Harare and its former colonial master, London. On that score, the fact that the Labour Party is out is a good thing. Gordon Brown’s boycott of the European Union-Africa Summit in 2007 over Mugabe’s attendance drew stinging criticism.

Former British Foreign Secretary David Milliband’s remark earlier this year that sanctions against Zimbabwe should remain in place until MDC head Morgan Tsvangirai personally advocated for them to be lifted were described as “unhelpful” by Tsvangirai himself and were a gift to the ZANU leader.

The international community should use the changing of power in Britain as a way to change direction on sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Will the removal of sanctions help Zimbabweans and the major donors tackle the country’s big economic problems, promote the rule of law and reform the security services? Will it attract investment and skills back to Zimbabwe, and help pave the way to free and fair elections?

Of course there is no way to know for sure unless we try. There will be challenges in the removal of sanctions. But at no time since they were first imposed have sanctions seemed more counterproductive. It’s time to revisit their value.

Greg Mills and Terence McNamee work at the Brenthurst Foundation.

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