Zimbabwe – the Prospects and Pitfalls of Sanctions

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By Caroline Buddenhagen – Zimbabwe is in the midst of a political, economic and humanitarian crisis and has become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Octogenarian President Robert Mugabe has taken the country from the bread basket of southern Africa to the verge of state failure. But the West has few policy instruments with which it can respond, and those that are available are often double edged.

Mugabe’s program of seizing white-owned farms for redistribution to landless black Zimbabweans has crippled the agriculture-based economy. Leaked documents from Zimbabwe’s Central Statistics Office put inflation at 14,841 percent in October 2007. The office claims there have not been enough goods on store shelves to make estimates since then. An estimated 25 percent of Zimbabweans have migrated to the surrounding countries of South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. Many make daily or weekly trips over the borders or depend on remittances. A quarter of those who remain survive on food aid from UN and international donors.

In response the West has opted for limiting aid and using targeted sanctions-travel bans and asset freezes against individual regime officials-along with public condemnation to push for reform. Sanctions can send an important signal both domestically and internationally to condemn human rights violations and political repression. It is not politically feasible for the US to turn a blind eye to Mugabe’s abuses and continue business as usual. But unless sanctions are carefully crafted, broadly supported, and coordinated with other reform efforts, they can have adverse consequences.

Targeted sanctions have largely succeeded in isolating Zimbabwe, but they have also strengthened Mugabe’s position domestically, as popular wisdom in the country is that sanctions are having a far greater effect than is actually the case. Bombarded with government propaganda and with limited access to other information, particularly in rural areas, many Zimbabweans accept Mugabe’s line that sanctions are the source of the country’s economic woes. Given the humanitarian concerns, Western donors are caught between providing vital assistance and the problem of funneling funds through the regime, which provides it with much needed hard currency.

The US and European Union have sought to balance sanctions by outsourcing policy to regional organizations, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has nominated South African President Thabo Mbeki to lead negotiations between Mugabe’s regime and opposition parties. More overt Western pressure on Zimbabwe has often backfired. Some Africans see echoes of a colonial struggle in Mugabe’s defiance of Western influence, while leaders from nearby states such as Angola and Namibia refuse to condemn authoritarian behavior of which they might also be accused. When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would boycott the EU-Africa summit that opened in Lisbon on December 8 to protest Mugabe’s human rights record, African leaders rallied around Mugabe and threatened to boycott if he did not attend. (Mugabe attended; Brown did not.)

South Africa, a key US ally in Africa, is the region’s best hope for a brokered solution. President Mbeki has placed a premium on African solutions to African problems, showing a characteristic aversion to Western involvement and solidarity with Mugabe, his fellow liberation leader. Because Mbeki has largely failed to criticize Mugabe’s regime, pursuing instead a policy of “quiet diplomacy,” South Africa retains some leverage that the West lacks. There are also strong emotional, historical and organizational ties between the parties leading the two countries. Although present internal political currents are hard to discern, if there is change, the likelihood is that Pretoria will have to lead the way.

Caroline Buddenhagen is with the Security for a New Century Study Group at the Stimson Center.


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