IF one wishes to understand the issue of Western sanctions on Zimbabwe, they first have to stop thinking in binary terms by assuming that the restrictive measures affect only a few people, or that they affect everyone.
They must abandon clinging to one of two views which stand diametrically opposed, such as “sanctions must stay”, or “sanctions must go”.
The issue is way more complex than the binary propaganda that has been fed down people’s throats. But to realise this, one first has to understand that not everything can be reduced to two mutually exclusive arguments.
The first mistake many people make is going on as if Zimbabwe was slapped with uniform sanctions: in truth, it is under various kinds of sanctions from different types of entities. Sanctions on Zimbabwe can be divided into three major categories, namely financial, trade and immigration sanctions.
Similarly, the entities imposing them can be divided into three groups: individual countries (Australia, Canada and the United States), multilateral financial institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, African Development Bank) and one economic bloc, the European Union.
Once everyone understands the diverse nature of sanctions on Zimbabwe, it will become very difficult to sell blanket arguments which are informed by binary thinking such as “sanctions only affect a few people” or “sanctions affect everyone.”
For starters, if “sanctions affect only a few people”, why is it that Zimbabwe is excluded from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a US trade act which extends duty-free access to the US market across 6 000 tariff lines for “qualifying” sub-Saharan African countries.
In 2018 alone, many African countries made US$12 billion worth of exports to the US through Agoa. Because issues of trade depend on many variables which have not been looked into for the purposes of this article, it would be wrong to estimate the share Zimbabwe could have gotten from that amount were it part of Agoa, suffice it to say numerous countries that have the same resources Zimbabwe exports managed to get millions.
The US is not the only country with a scheme of this kind, Norway also has a similar policy and Zimbabwe is not excluded. The benefit of such policies is that Low Developed Countries (LDCs) get to have competitive goods on foreign markets because they do not pay duty when getting their products into the country.
On the other hand, if “sanctions affect everyone” as the blanket statement goes, what does the whole country lose when the personal assets of an individual under EU-targeted sanctions are frozen?
Rather than saying “sanctions affect everyone”, which implies that every sanction affects every person, what can be said is some sanctions are targeted and only affect certain individuals (like EU asset freezes) while other sanctions, such as the ones relating to Agoa, affect the whole country. It is important to point this out as it assists one to address the binary assumption that sanctions must either go or stay.
Is it about removing sanctions or fixing what caused them?
Ideally speaking, any sanction that can be proven to directly or indirectly affect general citizens ought to be mobilised against.
However, it is not as simple as it sounds. There are sanctions that were imposed by the IMF, World Bank and AfDB as a result of Zimbabwe’s failure to service its debts. These sanctions affect the whole country because they render it incapable of accessing loans to solve balance of payments problems, among other things.
Provided one ignores that removal of such sanctions and access to loans will come with conditions which have been blamed for widespread poverty in some developing countries, it seems reasonable for citizens to demand their removal.
The reasonableness, however, goes away when one considers that removal of sanctions will most likely be shortlived if the state continues to practice the same resource management skills that led to their imposition.
It is actually more prudent to channel efforts towards adjustment of fundamental governance problems that caused the debt overhang which led to sanctions.
Of course, there are those who claim sanctions were imposed because of land reform and not debt-related issues but they would have to answer if other countries sanctioned for failure to service loans in the past — like Somalia and Sudan — also had land reform.
Agoa: Huge impediment
Other sanctions, such as those relating to Agoa, are less difficult to take a stand on. The US government prevents countries with a bad human rights track record from enjoying Agoa benefits, or so it says.
The same argument is used for IMF and World Bank sanctions: that it is better to channel efforts towards ensuring better governance to prevent future sanctions than to simply clamour for their removal. This argument would have been convincing when applied to Agoa, but for the fact that the cases are a little different.
If the current World Bank debt is cancelled or repaid, and government is able to borrow again, but it continues to mismanage resources and accrues more unsustainable debt, it will not be reasonable to hold anti-sanctions demonstrations when, in fact, citizens should be demanding better financial management from their government.
However, if sanctions relating to Agoa are cancelled, and the government continues to abuse human rights, and sanctions are re-instated, citizens can stand against their government for oppressing them, and the US for claiming it has no sanctions against the general citizens when none of them, through their various private trading entities, enjoy Agoa benefits like citizens of other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In short, Agoa is a huge impediment to general citizens. If the argument is that certain individuals and entities linked to the government must not access the US market because they will use profits to fund human rights abuses, it does not work because such individuals and entities are already under US sanctions. In my opinion, there is no justification for sanctions related to Agoa. But then does that mean “sanctions must go”?
That problem with such a blanket statement is that it lacks clarity and implies that all sanctions must go. While Agoa sanctions must go, there are certain restrictive measures whose removal one can only clamour for if they are not aware of what they entail.
For instance, how does one join a march against US and EU sanctions when some of those sanctions, on paper, are meant to protect people from government brutality? The EU and countries like Canada and Australia have trade sanctions that ban the export of goods and technology that may be used for internal repression to Zimbabwe.
Calling for such sanctions to “go” is totally unjustified given the repressive nature exhibited by the current government in the aftermath of the 2018 elections and during widespread protests held in January this year.
Time for change
Citizens in general need to see the issue of sanctions from a different light so they are not misled by propaganda. There are sanctions that affect only a few individuals and there are sanctions that affect everyone.
No citizen should be at the forefront of using the blanket phrase “sanctions must go” because some measures are designed to protect citizens from state repression. At the same time, one must not use the blanket assertion “sanctions must stay” because policies like Agoa prevent general citizens from having competitive goods on the US market.
Researcher currently based at the University of Bergen in Norway.