news analysis advocacy
For more frequent updates, visit the AfricaFocus FaceBook page
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 9 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail! on your Newsreader!

Print this page

Zimbabwe: Sanctions and Solidarity

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 18, 2010 (100418)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"In the case of Zimbabwe today, both supporters and opponents of sanctions exaggerate their importance. The international community, both global and regional, has other tools as well. Key issues are not only when to lift or relax sanctions but also how much support Western countries will provide for economic recovery. Even more decisive will be whether Zimbabwe's African neighbors can strengthen their diplomacy by backing it with effective pressures, even if they hesitate to use the word sanctions." - Briggs Bomba and William Minter

The debate about Zimbabwe's political crisis and the role of the international community is contentious and confusing, making it difficult to sort out reality from rhetorical smoke and mirrors. This is particularly true of the sanctions question. But in fact it is impossible to seriously discuss sanctions without sorting out the details, what measures are actually in place and what specific effects they have or should have.

If the international community, both in Southern Africa and around the world, is to play a constructive role in Zimbabwe's crisis, it is essential to shift the debate away from simply for or against Mugabe or for or against sanctions. It's clearly time for systematic review of sanctions and other policies, taking account of changing realities and the actual record of policy implementation.

This article, co-published with Pambazuka News and Foreign Policy in Focus, appeared in Pambazuka News on April 15. A version of the article will appear in Foreign Policy in Focus ( this coming week.

[For an earlier article debunking the claims of significant effects from Zimbabwe sanctions, see the discussion by Patrick Bond at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Zimbabwe, see


Many thanks to those of you who have sent in a voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin, in response to the latest reminder. If you haven't yet sent in such a payment and are able to do so, please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information on Africa. Send in a check or pay on-line by credit card. See for details.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Zimbabwe: Demystifying sanctions and strengthening solidarity

by Briggs Bomba and William Minter

Pambazuka News 2010-04-15, Issue 477

[Briggs Bomba, a Zimbabwean civil society activist, is director of campaigns for Africa Action. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Both Bomba and Minter recently visited Zimbabwe.]

In debates about Zimbabwe's political crisis and the role of the international community, it is difficult to sort out reality from rhetorical smoke and mirrors, write Briggs Bomba and William Minter. The current debate on 'sanctions' is a classic example: There is much strong language for and against, but rarely do debaters bother to say which measures are actually in place and what specific effects they have or should have.

The fact that sanctions on Zimbabwe have been imposed only by Western powers has undermined their international legitimacy, despite the well-documented violations of democratic rights that are used to justify them. Zimbabwe's civil society has been divided on whether sanctions are appropriate measures. President Mugabe and his defenders have even contended that sanctions as such are illegal as well as illegitimate. Others, including many who support sanctions in this case, have rightly pointed to the fact that Western countries have not imposed similar sanctions on other regimes guilty of similar offences.

But 'sanctions' can refer to a wide variety of international measures penalizing certain actions in order to alter behavior. Any country has the sovereign right to determine its foreign policy towards another country, according to its own laws, with the sanctions option occupying the middle ground between diplomacy and war. Whether such measures are seen as legitimate and are effective in achieving results cannot be answered without paying attention to the details. It's long past time for those concerned with the future of Zimbabwe to take a step back from the current debate and look at what measures are in place, how they are implemented, and what impact they have on the democratization process.

It is also essential to understand sanctions as only one among several policy tools. In the case of Zimbabwe today, both supporters and opponents of sanctions exaggerate their importance. The international community, both global and regional, has other tools as well. Key issues are not only when to lift or relax sanctions but also how much support Western countries will provide for economic recovery. Even more decisive will be whether Zimbabwe's African neighbors can strengthen their diplomacy by backing it with effective pressures, even if they hesitate to use the word 'sanctions.'

Zimbabwe Sanctions in Practice

The current sanctions, justified by supporters as increasing pressure on President Robert Mugabe and his colleagues to cease human rights abuses and remove other blockages to democratization in the country, differ in several respects from previous sanctions against the white-minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. They are aimed at abuses by a specific political faction rather than at a system entrenched for generations. And they are explicitly defined as limited and 'targeted' rather than as comprehensive.

Even so, today's debate resembles previous debates in featuring a wide gap between rhetoric and reality. Thus Great Britain and the entire United Nations imposed presumably comprehensive sanctions on white-minority Rhodesia after its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. But British and other world leaders clearly understood that strategic components of sanctions, such as the ban on oil imports, were being undermined by South Africa, by the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique, and even by British oil companies. Sanctions against Rhodesia became a decisive factor only after 1975, when Mozambique became independent and closed its transit routes to Rhodesia. And it was in part the tacit threat of sanctions from South Africa as well that finally induced Ian Smith to enter into negotiations for transition to majority rule (see William Minter and Elizabeth Schmidt, 'When Sanctions Worked: The Case of Rhodesia Reexamined,' in African Affairs, April 1988 -

In effect, the sanctions then were labeled as comprehensive, but were actually not comprehensive. Today's sanctions are labeled as targeted. But no one, not even the governments that have adopted sanctions, seems to have investigated to what extent they are actually hitting the intended targets or having much effect at all.

No government has imposed comprehensive trade or investment sanctions on Zimbabwe, comparable to those that anti-apartheid activists demanded, and partially achieved, against the South African apartheid regime, or to those that the United States still imposes on Cuba. Yet hard-line supporters of President Mugabe try to give such an impression, claiming that the existing measures have massive negative effects on the Zimbabwean economy. In fact, the European Union and the United States are still among Zimbabwe's largest trading partners. EU-Zimbabwe trade totaled some US$561 million in 2008, the last year for which full statistics are available, second only to the dominant role of South Africa with US$2,650 million in trade with Zimbabwe. China followed with US$267 million and the United States with US$197 million.

Sanctions supporters, however, have not effectively challenged the misleading impression that sanctions are comprehensive, failing to explain clearly the measures in place. Trying to change the terminology by referring to 'restrictive measures' has only added to the confusion. The governments imposing sanctions, happy to take political credit for taking action on Zimbabwe, are conspicuously uninterested in explaining how or whether the measures are working.

In addition to prohibitions on arms sales, the limited measures in place include asset freezes and travel bans targeted at specific individuals and the companies owned by them. The European Union, for example, cites 'persons who bear a wide responsibility for serious violations of human rights and of the freedom of opinion, of association, and of peaceful assembly.' The US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA), calling for measures later implemented by President George W. Bush, specified 'individuals responsible for the deliberate breakdown of the rule of law, politically motivated violence, and intimidation in Zimbabwe.'

Implementation of these measures, however, have been neither transparent nor precisely targeted. As of March 2010, the list of persons targeted by EU sanctions included 197 individuals and 31 companies, after six individuals and nine companies were removed from the list in February. The US list, last updated in November 2008, included 132 individuals and 54 companies. One can, with some difficulty, locate these lists on the web (see for links to start with). But there is no documentation explaining the process for deciding on additions or deletions from the lists, and no explanation of the reasons a particular person or company is on the lists. The credibility is not enhanced by the fact that the lists, from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well as from the US and EU, do not coincide with each other.

Some of those on the lists are appropriate targets of sanctions, such as President Robert Mugabe himself, or officials well-known to be directly responsible for violence, such as war veteran leader Joseph Chinotimba, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, and Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga. But others clearly should not be there, such as former minister of health Timothy Stamps, who is on the EU list even though he retired in 2002. Stamps was responsible for the innovative and successful Zimbabwean health policies of the 1980s and early 1990s, before the system was devastated by cuts imposed by the Mugabe government at the insistence of international financial institutions. Also questionable additions to the EU list are people like Peter Chingoka, whose management of Zimbabwe cricket may be dubious on multiple grounds, but who can hardly be considered responsible for politically motivated violence. And including journalists, such as Judith Makwanya of Zimbabwe Broadcasting and Caesar Zvayi, of The Herald, however sycophantic their support of the regime, hardly seems consistent with advocacy of freedom of the press.

Some names, such as that of former cabinet secretary Charles Utete, who retired in 2003, seem to be on the list simply because of their continued association with Zanu PF. In fact the lists seem to be have been compiled to include all prominent government and party officials, without bothering to document their involvement in human rights abuses or opposition to democracy. Even if such a broad targeting mechanism were appropriate at one time, which is doubtful, it became clearly inappropriate with the establishment of the government of national unity over a year ago, in February 2009. There are many flaws in implementation of the agreement forming that government, and there are Zanu PF hardliners determined to sabotage it. But it is counter-productive to indiscriminately identify all Zanu PF officials as complicit in those actions.

In 2008, a new executive order by President G. W. Bush, renewed in March of 2009 and 2010 by President Obama, made sanctions more inflexible, referring not only to persons meeting the original criteria, but to 'senior officials of the Government of Zimbabwe,' as well as to state-owned companies. The results have included blockage of assistance to companies such as Agribank and ZB Bank, which supply financing for Zimbabwe's small-scale farmers. And even though many officials of the current unity government have not been added to the US list, the wording of the executive order still reflects a counter-productive rigidity in Washington policy circles. When Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai's delegation met with President Obama in June 2009, for example, Zimbabwe's minister of tourism Walter Mzembi, an advocate for reform within Zanu PF, was barred from the meeting, even though he is not on the US sanctions list.

This less than discriminate 'targeting' undermines the credibility of the sanctions in Zimbabwe and the Southern African region, and casts doubt on the motives of the countries implementing the sanctions. In practical terms, the targets can easily evade serious consequences by doing their business in South Africa or in Asian countries. The failure to evoke the sanction of regional public opinion by an open process significantly weakens the impact of the measures, allowing defenders of Zanu PF to dominate the debate. Instead of changing behavior, poorly implemented and poorly explained sanctions provide Zanu PF with a convenient scapegoat to divert attention from their failure to implement agreements.

In addition to the targeted sanctions against individual persons and companies, the 2001 ZDERA act by the US Congress mandates US votes against loans or debt cancellation for Zimbabwe by international financial institutions (IFI), such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, unless the president determines that Zimbabwe has met conditions including return to the rule of law, or waives this provision.

Since the formation of the unity government, relations between Zimbabwe and the IFI have thawed but remain strained and restricted by Western governments' policies. Significantly, the IMF has restored Zimbabwe voting rights and granted a US$510 million support facility for economic crisis, while the World Bank is managing a multi-donor fund to support recovery.

In this new era of the unity government, despite its faults, there is no justification for continuing political restrictions on IFI dealings with Zimbabwe, such as those stated in US legislation. These institutions instead need to work constructively with the energetic efforts led by Zimbabwe's finance minister Tendai Biti to turn around the economy and bring relief to long-suffering Zimbabweans. Relief for international debt of almost US$6 billion, said to be depressing economic growth rates to a third of its potential, is fundamental to the sustainability of economic reforms and development efforts. An official audit of the debt and a new framework for debt contraction and management are essential. As civil society activists have long demanded, for Zimbabwe and other African countries, this should be based on transparency and accountability, including identification of illegitimate debts, rather than rigid application of IFI frameworks.

There are real issues in the relationship between Zimbabwe and international financial institutions. The 1990 structural adjustment program, supposedly home-grown but crafted along standard World Bank lines, impacted negatively on social services and the economy more generally, sparking social struggles and eroding Mugabe's legitimacy in the eyes of Zimbabweans. While Zanu PF must take responsibility for the economic mismanagement, corruption and political repression that followed, international financial institutions share the blame for launching Zimbabwe's spiral of decline from its status as a model for the region. As with other African countries, the relationship of Zimbabwe with the IMF and World Bank is problematic. But these issues should not be confused by conflating them with the distinct issues of removing obstacles to political democratization.

Finally, the confusion between comprehensive and targeted sanctions seems to have had effects in incidents apparently based on misunderstanding. Thus, a US company reportedly justified refusal to allow software downloads to a student at Africa University, in Zimbabwe, because of sanctions, and Harvard University reportedly gave a similar justification for denying financial support to a student from Zimbabwe. Such incidents indicate a spill-over effect of sanctions beyond the intended targets, and strengthen the case for a comprehensive review.

From Targeted Sanctions to Targeted Support for Recovery

As of this writing, in early April 2010, the future of the democratization process in Zimbabwe remains highly uncertain, despite some recent positive developments such as appointment of independent commissions on human rights, elections, and the media. Despite renewed mediation efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), now led by South African President Jacob Zuma, there remains a stalemate on 'outstanding issues.' Zanu PF hardliners are still resisting sharing authority with MDC officials in the government. Most significantly, while day-to-day political violence has dramatically reduced, the potential for more violence remains given the fact that the culture of impunity has not been dealt with systematically. There has been no progress at all on security reform. With new elections predicted for next year, most likely without completion of a new constitution, the capacity to ramp up repression - and the will to do so - remain intact.

In this context, 'lifting' sanctions on hardliners who continue to impede progress would be a mistake. It would be seen as a signal of impunity for future as well as past abuses. But keeping the current list as is would also be a mistake, based on and reinforcing the incorrect premise that Zanu PF should be regarded as homogeneous. Current sanctions, which do not take account of such realities, should be reviewed and refocused, with more precise targeting and consistent implementation.

Those sanctions that remain after the review should be matched with equally prominent policy measures to support economic and social recovery in Zimbabwe, as well as continuing support of civil society. Supporters of sanctions should actively encourage input by Zimbabwean and African civil society into the review process. They should also urge Southern African governments to consider parallel if not identical measures for effective pressure to remove obstacles to democratization.

Given the defects of current sanctions, and in the light of the changed circumstances since the formation of the unity government in 2009, a systematic review is clearly required. Such a review, including all the countries that have adopted sanctions, should include a detailed evaluation of the criteria for inclusion on an agreed list of targets, investigation of the reasons for including specific persons and companies, and transparent and wide disclosure about the process and the results. The intended effect should not only be more credible implementation. It should also be aimed at gaining more support from Zimbabwean and international public opinion, with convincing documentation for every name included on the list.

The resulting list would certainly have fewer names. But, if strategically managed, it could have greater impact. It should include a procedure for appeal by affected parties and be updated regularly, with a process for tracking implementation and a mechanism for relevant additions and deletions reflecting new developments. The current list, for example, does not reflect the rapid growth and strategic importance of the diamond industry in eastern Zimbabwe, accompanied by well-documented human rights abuses by the Zimbabwean military, as well as corruption and illegality in assignment of contracts. Two South African companies established in collaboration with former Zimbabwean military officers (Mbada Diamonds and Canadile Mining) were awarded new mining rights in 2009 and are embroiled in controversy both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Yet there is apparently no process for investigating whether or not they should be added to the sanctions lists.

A policy based on sanctions alone, however well targeted, would be fatally flawed. There must also be strong and well publicized positive measures to meet humanitarian needs and to support economic and social recovery ('humanitarian plus'). In fact this is now the official policy of Zimbabwe's 'donors,' including those countries imposing sanctions. But the consolidated UN appeal for 2009, calling for US$722 million for critical needs, raised only 65% of the total required. The 2010 appeal, released in November 2009 and calling for US$378 million, had raised only US$12 million by late March 2010, despite positive reports from the previous year on collaboration between donors, private agencies, and working-level Zimbabwean government officials.

While this gap can partly be explained by slow budget and disbursement processes, it also contradicts the donors' own judgment that support is 'time critical.' Donor countries should urgently give much greater priority to substantive action with immediate effects to support both humanitarian and development needs in Zimbabwe.

Continued support from Western countries for Zimbabwe's civil society and democratization process, moreover, should be transparent, with clear goals linked to protection of the rule of law and the democratic process. Criticism from Zanu PF hardliners is inevitable, of course. But Western governments should take maximum care to ensure that their grants as well as their sanctions are targeted on the basis of clearly defined principles rather than partisan political goals.

Southern Africa must Take Primary Responsibility for Action

Actions by Western countries may have some influence. But it is Southern Africa, and particularly South Africa, that is the most decisive component of the international community for the future of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's neighbors, particularly South Africa and Botswana, are the most severely impacted by the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe. South Africa hosts the largest number of Zimbabwean refugees, estimated by independent researchers to number over a million. The political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, accompanied by xenophobic violence against refugees in South Africa, is the major threat to peace in the Southern African region.

To their credit, the countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have been engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, with the Global Political Agreement (GPA) leading to the formation of the unity government last year the most notable accomplishment. SADC, with South Africa in the lead, is the guarantor of this agreement. South Africa, Zimbabwe's leading trading partner, has greater economic leverage than any other country. Yet while Western countries have overemphasized largely ineffective sanctions, South Africa and its SADC partners have also faltered, failing to ensure full implementation of the GPA. The impact of diplomacy has repeatedly been undermined by a stance of 'see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil,' carried over from the period of President Thabo Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy.'

Almost one year into the presidency of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, policy remains hobbled by the lack of a plan B to deal with Zanu PF intransigence. Hopes aroused by the latest round of mediation have been dashed. SADC leaders are well aware that it is President Mugabe and his colleagues who are holding up progress, as they were well aware of the waves of state-sponsored violence, which reached their height during the 2008 election crisis. In private, SADC officials are often vocal in their criticism of Zanu (PF). Before he was president, Zuma himself publicly rebuked Mugabe for failing to step down. But in public, with the exception of Botswana's President Ian Khama, SADC leaders have failed to bring public pressure to bear for Zimbabwe's leaders to implement their commitments. Strikingly, President Zuma has even undermined his own diplomacy by echoing the talking points of Robert Mugabe.

As mediators in Zimbabwe, SADC leaders do have to avoid unproductive rhetoric, and South Africa has to avoid the image of a regional bully. But diplomacy without real pressure loses credibility. When diplomacy is thwarted, failure to strengthen it with other options not only evades the region's responsibility to Zimbabwe. It also endangers the stability and damages the reputation of the entire region.

The unity government has resulted in real progress in Zimbabwe, mitigating the decade-long political and economic crisis. Political violence is reduced and the economy is improved. But these changes will not be sustainable unless constitutional reform is completed and unless fundamental political change is protected from the threat of violence from an unreformed security sector. Just as Western governments need to think beyond relying primarily on sanctions, so SADC governments need to think creatively beyond exclusive reliance on 'quiet' diplomacy.

This does not imply, as defenders of 'quiet diplomacy' often argue, shifting to the opposite extreme of 'megaphone diplomacy' or intrusive intervention by the mediators. But continuing mediation could be strengthened if SADC governments were also willing to be proactive in building public support for the goals of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the illegitimacy of political violence to intimidate political opponents and other critics. In particular, it is important to provide encouragement to the new human rights, electoral, and media commissions.

South African and other SADC leaders can also help focus the spotlight on abuses. In effect, although new elections may come next year or later, Zimbabwe is already in a 'pre-election' period. SADC preparation should begin now, making use of existing SADC standards, rather than waiting until increased violence is imminent. More broadly, the tone of debates in South Africa in particular can influence parallel debates in Zimbabwe. A case in point is the current debate on indigenization, where a new proposal to require 51 per cent Zimbabwean ownership of companies raises real issues of economic inequality but also provides ample opportunity for elite corruption, demagogic rhetoric and extra-legal actions.

There are also other formal mechanisms, such as the Kimberley Process (KP) for diamond certification, which may significantly affect the resources available to 'securocrat' hardliners. SADC governments, which have leading roles in this internationally mandated process, should insist that this process go beyond technical details to fundamental issues of human rights and corruption. Abbey Chikane, the former chairman of South Africa's Diamond Board, is currently investigating Zimbabwe diamonds as the KP monitor. Whether or not he certifies the diamonds from Marange, and on what grounds, will be a key indicator of whether SADC is willing to use the leverage it has to promote accountability in Zimbabwe.


Despite unresolved 'outstanding issues' and inconsistencies of implementation, the unity government in Zimbabwe has created a new context which requires the rethinking of strategies by all those concerned with the future of that country. In the international community, Western governments should review sanctions and stress positive measures as well. African governments and international organizations, including the African Union as well as SADC, should find ways to add muscle to their diplomatic interventions. Both should pay attention to civil society and the structural requirements for democratization rather than focusing only on political parties, involving a wide range of voices in reviewing their policies towards the crisis.

Such policy reviews could give an opportunity for convergence between Western and African governments in support of the democratic process in Zimbabwe. Realistically, however, solidarity activists should not expect more than incremental changes from their governments. Activist groups both in Southern Africa and around the world, including Zimbabwean diaspora groups, should also take their own initiatives.

Dockworkers around the region set a precedent for vigorous action in 2008, when they refused to unload an arms shipment from China to Zimbabwe in 2008, sparking support from broader civil society. Given how the public debate on Zimbabwe is still dominated by outdated and simplistic stereotypes, groups in Southern Africa and internationally should give priority to highlighting the achievements of the unity government as well as exposing continuing obstacles to democracy and economic recovery. Only a visible boost in people-to-people solidarity is likely to lead governments, from Pretoria to London and Washington, to adopt more effective policies.

The primary responsibility lies with the internal efforts of Zimbabwean democratic forces. But their chances of success will depend on whether those outside, both Zimbabwean and others, also take their responsibilities seriously.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Zimbabwe||Africa Politics & Human Rights||Africa Economy & Development|

URL for this file: