guest column:Gibson Nyikadzino
WHERE persuasion does not work, the big powers continue turning to sanctions.
The imposition of sanctions against perceived powerful individuals in “undemocratic regimes” like Zimbabwe has been overplayed as much as it is misapplied. Recently, Britain sanctioned four members of Zimbabwe’s security establishment over human rights abuses. The August 2018 post-election violence and the January 2019 protests claimed 23 lives at the hands of the security forces and no one was held accountable.
The issue of sanctions should be assessed based on rationale rather than emotions. The members of Zimbabwe’s “new dispensation”, who have been sanctioned have had access to perks and luxuries from the previous to current administrations because of their loyalty. Their economic status and wealth has increased because of the extractive institutions they benefit from by predatory and parasitic means. A cross-section of Zimbabweans welcomed the British sanctions on the quartet. However, history has shown that these sanctions do not always achieve set goals but are likely fuel a humanitarian crisis and impede democratisation.
The regime of the Castro brothers in Cuba has survived not only sanctions, but an economic embargo imposed by the US in February 1962, three years after it came to power.
In a little over six decades in Cuba, power has been transferred from Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and current president Miguel Díaz-Canel.
The goal of sanctions against Cuba and its top officials has been to cripple the island’s communist regime after it nationalised American businesses and for alleged human rights abuses.
Since then, the Castro regime survived sabotage, insurrection and the assassination attempts of top government officials. Under the embargo, the country does not receive even an “aspirin” from the US, but its leadership accesses good healthcare services.
During the Donald Trump presidency, events in Venezuela necessitated then national security adviser to the administration, John Bolton, to conclude that “sanctions in Venezuela will help us, regime change in that country is a low hanging fruit.” Propping opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate ruler, the military establishment came to the incumbent’s defence. Last June, the Council of the European Union imposed sanctions on eleven Venezuelan officials. In response, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro expelled the EU envoy, Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa, ordering her to leave the country in 72 hours.
In recent years, academics have concluded that economic pressure by sanctioning individuals or pariah regimes tends to be counterproductive when it comes to achieving political goals such as democratisation and stronger compliance with human rights norms. The case of the Islamic Republic of Iran is key to understanding these developments.
The 2015 nuclear deal was an opportunity for Western powers to deal with the Persian country amicably on its “pursuit of a nuclear bomb” as noted by the West. The decision by the Trump administration to pull out of the deal and impose sanctions on Iran’s top officials further deteriorated the situation at home and abroad.
Should ED change tact?
The solidarity the Emmerson Mnangagwa-led administration has received from Sadc countries gives it the urge to dig in. Mnangagwa and his counterparts set aside October 25 as an anti-sanctions day. Now in its second year running, the platform has provided political expediency to a leadership in a distressed nation.
The January 6 events in the US when protestors stormed Capitol Hill have been used as an excuse by enablers of the Mnangagwa regime to highlight the deficiencies of American democracy. The events have become an excuse to making things right because “the beacon of democracy” has stumbled.
Political analyst and media scholar Trust Matsilele said sanctions against the security sector officials did not come as a surprise, but an opportunity for the Harare administration to honestly engage with the “return agenda and not empty rhetoric” that was paraded during the November 2017 coup period.
“This should serve as a sign to all autocrats that at some point, self-respecting nations will demand results and not cheap rhetoric. Zimbabwe has never made any attempt to break from its undemocratic culture and violent behaviour which has been the main feature,” Matsilele noted.
The country’s next top diplomat after Sibusiso Moyo will have a difficult task. It will be difficult to balance national interests, the image of the country abroad and pleasing the agenda of hardliners in the ruling Zanu PF party. Despite enjoying solidarity among regional peers, their rhetoric has not changed the fortunes of the country. The Mnangagwa administration knows it has not done enough institutional reforms to warrant the democratisation and transformation of the country. Corruption and impunity need to be addressed.
Are ordinary citizens biggest winners?
In its pronouncement, the UK said it was standing up for human rights and the Zimbabwean people. This has been the norm since the 2002 EU sanctions.
Those who have committed egregious violations have been rewarded while the victims have not been compensated. Sanctions can backfire, making repression more likely and diminishing the probability of reforms, accountability and democratisation in Zimbabwe.
At the same time, the UK is showing how two-faced it can be when dealing with Zimbabwe.