THE European Union (EU) — whose trade with Zimbabwe in the past four years improved reaching a total of US$800 million as at end of 2012, with the terms of trade being US$200 million in the country’s favour besides billions provided in aid — this week moved to suspend its targeted sanctions on virtually all individuals except President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, signalling an incremental shift towards the full normalisation of strained diplomatic relations between Brussels and Harare.
For the past four years since the creation of the now defunct coalition government consisting of Zanu PF and the MDC formations which ran the country from 2009 to 2013, the EU has been scaling down the restrictions on Mugabe loyalists and their associated companies.
A Friends of Zimbabwe communiqué released last year following re-engagement talks between EU member states and a Zimbabwean delegation led by Zanu PF’s Patrick Chinamasa in London showed a policy shift by the EU towards normalising relations even if so many of the reforms agreed to in the GPA still remain unfulfilled.
“We (EU) collectively stand ready to broaden, deepen and harmonise our engagement and support as the country moves further down the path of democracy and respect for human rights,” reads part of the communiqué even Zimbabwe has not yet fully implemented reforms that were supposed to precede the general elections last year.
Analysts say the EU has been keen to scale down the sanctions because the political and economic environment has changed, although Zimbabwe still faces serious democratic and human rights deficits. The EU, they say, has also realised the futility of maintaining restrictions which have not really achieved their ultimate objective of weakening Mugabe’s regime to a point of collapse or defeat.
Yet others say the EU is now looking beyond Mugabe and thus has decided to re-engage to take part in Zimbabwe’s huge economic potential and position itself as a major player in the economy in the post-Mugabe era.
Political analyst Shakespeare Hamauswa says EU is shifting policy due to “self-interest” rather than meaningful changes on the democratic and human rights front.
Hamauswa said the EU stance in removing all restrictions except on Mugabe and his family “shows that EU is now mainly focusing on its economic interests in Zimbabwe rather than on those of Zimbabweans.”
“Even when you look at their earlier decision to allow trade in the Marange diamonds, you can see that there is a realisation that their (EU) economic interests were suffering because of the sanctions,” he said.
Zimbabwe is said to contain vast deposits of diamonds in the Marange area of Manicaland, although sceptics say the deposits are largely second-rate, not world class. These together with huge platinum reserves have been exploited by Russian, Chinese and South African companies whose countries have not allowed political niceties over democracy and human rights to affect their quest to grow their economies through trade links with Zimbabwe.
To show that economic interests are now taking precedence, Harare has ratified the interim Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and Eastern and Southern African states, giving the country unlimited opportunities to export its products to countries in the 28-member bloc duty and quota free, meaning the country can export as much as it can, provided it meets the EU quality standards.
Although the trade agreement, which Mugabe signed on March 13 2012, also gives the EU — which has given Harare billions in aid during the sanctions era — access to the Zimbabwean market, it excludes the bloc from bringing in products which threaten the viability of local industries and the livelihoods of the majority.
Analyst Godwin Phiri said: “There is probably a realisation among EU member states that their trade and investment interests have suffered over the years due to the restrictions. The Chinese and Russians have gladly stepped into the void created by the EU through their insistence on political reforms in Zimbabwe and this is something the EU must now be rueing, hence the lifting of the sanctions.”
And as Phiri further noted, Mugabe probably would not care less about being retained on the travel restrictions as there are so many technicalities that enable him to circumvent any travel restrictions.
Having retained power last year on the back of a controversial election victory marred by allegations of systematic vote-rigging and other electoral malpractices, he is on political cloud nine.
He has also been buoyed by his recent appointments to first deputy chair of the African Union (AU) and the regional Sadc body, something which rescues him out of protracted isolation. In April he will be in Brussels for the EU-Africa meeting despite remaining restrictions on him.
In Harare, the EU moves are seen as a climb down, although Mugabe and his inner circle were desperate to see the measures removed to enable them to visit EU countries where their relatives now reside and for personal business.
Mugabe — who has admitted he is British by education and nurture — has never hidden his anxiety about being barred from going to Britain to watch cricket at Lords and do shopping, for instance, which is why he felt slighted by the restrictions.
Feeling affronted by sanctions, Mugabe in September 2002 told the then British prime minister Tony Blair: “Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe. Let no one interfere with our processes.”
To show his anger, Mugabe had also previously described Blair as a “gay gangster”, while the ex-British premier hit back, saying his rival belonged to “eccentric end of the market”.
However, Mugabe is emerging from isolation. In two months’ time, if he chooses to, he will be again thumbing his nose at the EU leaders in Brussels, the very citadel of the EU from April 2-3 where, thanks to international conventions and instruments, he can attend the EU-Africa meeting summit.
While quarantining has been with Mugabe since 2002, he however has had a window of opportunity over the past decade to travel to New York for the United Nations general assembly meetings, although he was given a limited radius to roam around.
What then is the wisdom of freeing up Mugabe’s cronies but keeping just him and his wife on travel restrictions? Could it be that the EU is gradually rewarding good behaviour over the past few years or it is in a gradual climb down?
Rusero said that the “illogical” EU move to retain Mugabe and his family only on the sanctions is a face-saving approach rather than a reward for democratic reform and change.
“The sanctions have been the ruse that Mugabe has used to cover up for his many shortcomings in fighting poverty, disease and ensuring economic recovery. It is a great diplomatic blunder which will only strengthens Mugabe and portray him as a unique African leader with outstanding traits hence his continued vilification,” said Rusero.
In continuing to be targeted, Mugabe has become part of an international cast of “pariah” leaders like Fidel Castro who were all placed under sanctions which ironically served to strengthen their grip on power, while destroying their countries economically.
Historical examples drawn from Rhodesia under Ian Smith, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and now Syria under, among other countries, show that economic sanctions and other restrictions hardly work in a world where there are competing interests.
In the 1970s, America only half-heartedly implemented sanctions on Rhodesia allowing chrome imports from the Southern African country, a development that helped to strengthen rather than undermine Smith’s government.
More recently, the US lobbied the world to slash imports of Iranian oil and freeze out Iranian banks in an attempt to thwart its nuclear ambitions. 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 but up to now he is still hanging onto power.
And in Zimbabwe, like other pariah leaders, Mugabe seems to have emerged stronger out of the sanctions, although the country has not. Sanctions only further hurt Zimbabwe’s economy already devastated by Mugabe’s leadership and policy failures.