THE late retired Air Commodore Mike Karakadzai’s burial at the National Heroes’ Acre last Sunday once again provided President Robert Mugabe with the stage to spew his anti-Western vitriol, aimed particularly at the United States and Britain for imposing targeted sanctions against him, his inner cabal and certain companies linked to Zanu PF.
Mugabe, buoyed by his inauguration as president last Thursday following a controversial victory marred by allegations of systematic vote-rigging and other electoral malpractices, was in a belligerent mood.
“They (the West) should not continue to harass us. We have not done anything to their companies here. Time will come when we will say tit-for-tat. You hit me, I hit you. You impose this on me, I impose this on you,” bellowed Mugabe.
This raised the question whether sanctions work. In the aftermath of elections controversially won by Mugabe and which they dismissed as not fair and credible, the US and European Union, including Zimbabweans, would once again be debating whether sanctions against the Zanu PF regime are working.
As shown by the examples of Rhodesia under Ian Smith, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and now Syria, among others countries, economic sanctions and other restrictions hardly work in a world where there are competing interests and “bad boys”.
Sanctions, particularly economic restrictions, have long been a tool of US and EU foreign policies. While Rhodesia was isolated, Smith and his government survived and even thrived in some cases under full United Nations sanctions.
Few countries and leaders seem to realise that sanctions sometimes actually end up strengthening their targets by default as is the case in Zimbabwe.
To thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the US lobbied the world to slash imports of Iranian oil and freeze out Iranian banks. Although Iran suffered, this did not help to change its behaviour. Most of the world has similarly choked off trade with North Korea, but this has only hardened the communist regime in Pyongyang.
And for almost two years after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, the US, Europe, and the Arab League thought asset freezes, banking and visa sanctions, and a Western ban on Syrian oil would pressure Bashar al-Assad to step down or persuade his cronies to oust him. Evidence shows that this did not work effectively and hence now the same countries are actively considering a military option.
In a world bristling with dictators and bad actors, and especially at a time when Western countries are wary of more wars, sanctions have an obvious appeal — and limited impact. Sanctions have failed to dissuade Iran from continuing to enrich uranium with a possibility of developing nuclear weapons. The measures have not dislodged North Korea’s repressive regime or forced a rollback of its nuclear and missile programmes.
For all the international pressure on Assad, the regime is getting more ruthless, not less, and the policy debate in Washington has moved on to how much military support to provide the rebels and now the possibility of an assault on Damascus.
As has now become the norm, Mugabe’s rants on sanctions were echoed and magnified by a familiar cast of Zanu PF apologists the state media dresses up as political analysts.
The “analysts” repeated the Zanu PF line that the sanctions had allegedly cost the economy over US$42 billion — a wild thumb-sucking figure — in lost revenue and, for a good measure, even quoted former Finance minister Tendai Biti of the MDC-T saying the economy had shrunk by over 40% in 13 years as a result of the measures.
But the anti-sanctions campaign is no longer the preserve of Mugabe and his party — it is a discourse that has increasingly found currency within Sadc and the African Union (AU) over the past few years with more and more African leaders calling for their immediate removal to allow the country to move forward.
Just last week at Mugabe’s inauguration in Harare, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said: “Now is the perfect time for the sanctions to be removed”.
Sadc and the AU have made similar calls.
Motlanthe was merely echoing Sadc’s stance since the regional bloc brokered a coalition deal in 2008 following a disputed presidential run-off poll.
This stance has received support, some would say grudgingly from the MDC formations — accused by Mugabe and his party of calling for imposition of the sanctions — as part of the fulfilment of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) during the lifespan of the unity government.
While Sadc and the AU have endorsed Mugabe’s re-election and demanded the unconditional lifting of sanctions, the West — which has condemned Zimbabwe’s general elections as flawed — continues to tie the normalisation of relations to the creation of a democratic dispensation in Zimbabwe, complete with respect for the rule of law and civil liberties.
However, the sanctions are increasingly looking ineffective as a weapon to force Mugabe’s hand, as the argument that they have actually strengthened his position as a pretext to resist reform and explain away his failures, something gaining currency following his election triumph.
Mugabe has turned the Zimbabwean issue into an African-struggle- against-Western-imperialism affair.
The question is: should the sanctions remain in place? Do they really hurt Mugabe and his inner circle, as claimed by their proponents, or do they ultimately harm ordinary Zimbabweans whom they should be assisting in their struggle against tyranny?
If they are to be removed, how then should Mugabe and his regime be confronted?
While acknowledging there is no evidence to suggest sanctions have induced behavioural change on those “responsible for repression in Zimbabwe”, Ozias Tungwarara, the director of the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (Afrimap), argues the sanctions should be maintained because they have “certainly sent a strong signal that aiding and abetting repression will not be tolerated”.
Tungwarara said the international condemnation and isolation of the Zanu PF regime, while not sufficiently comprehensive, provided the opposition with critical support in its struggle for democratic space against a dictatorial regime, which culminated in the opposition’s electoral victory in the 2008 elections and the GPA.
However, the international isolation has been a double-edged sword. While benefitting the MDCs, as claimed by Tungwarara, the sanctions have also unwittingly played into Mugabe and Zanu PF’s hands by giving them room to denounce the MDCs as Western puppets, while rejecting reform and justifying their failures under that pretext.
Mugabe seems to have secured African support in his fight against the sanctions as Sadc and AU leaders have chosen to gloss over the recent elections by endorsing them as a legitimate reflection of the people’s will .
Academic and political analyst Brian Raftopolous said: “The divisions that have emerged over the freeness and fairness of this election at national and international levels have, once again, drawn a line between African and Western governments’ responses to the Mugabe regime.
“This is terrain that Mugabe has exploited effectively in the past and will no doubt continue to do so.”
That support was clearly evident during Mugabe’s inauguration ceremony where Western diplomats led by EU head of delegation to Zimbabwe Aldo Dell’Ariccia were consigned to ordinary stands far removed from the action at the National Sports Stadium, while former and serving African leaders were much closer to the podium.
Western diplomats sat on stands where they had a clear view of Zanu PF posters all around the stadium with messages such as “Sadc, Comesa, AU came, saw and confirmed. That’s all that matters to Zimbabwe”.
Another read: “Africa has spoken; respect its voice”, while yet another read “Which African ever observed elections in Europe, America?”
In all this, the overarching theme was that it’s “them (West) versus us (Africa)”.
Thus without African backing, it is difficult to see how sanctions will continue to be effective in the fight against Mugabe’s undemocratic tendencies.
These same divisions and cross-purposes also hindered the effectiveness of international measures against Smith’s Rhodesia supported by apartheid South Africa, Portugal and at times even the US during Zimbabwe’s struggle for Independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like Fidel Castro in Cuba, Mugabe seems to have emerged stronger out of the sanctions. So the question now is: what will the US and EU do next?