The sanctions conundrum

Tapiwa Gomo

The debate on sanctions imposed by the United States is once again hogging the limelight and polarising the nation. Sanctions under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera) is an Act passed by the US Congress which imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, allegedly to provide for a transition to democracy and to promote economic recover.

The passing of the Act was a culmination of various and emerging political conditions between 1999 and 2001 in Zimbabwe which included, among others, political violence, violations of human rights and a complete disregard for global norms of governance.

Contrary to the narrative being spread by the government that the sanctions must be lifted as they are hurting ordinary people, the US government has perpetually argued that they are targeted, which means they only apply to the entities and individuals on the list of sanctions related to Zimbabwe.

Against a blitz of public relations, diplomatic engagement and lobbying by the Government of Zimbabwe, in March this year, US President Donald Trump extended the sanctions by another year arguing that “President Emmerson Mnangagwa has yet to implement the political and economic overhaul required to improve the country’s reputation with the community of nations, and with the United States.”

This has not discouraged the Zimbabwe government, who have used every opportunity to remind the world that the US must lift its sanctions on Zimbabwe. They mobilised some Sadc countries to call for the removal of sanctions at the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York in September this year. The regional body has agreed to declare October 25 a day to campaign against the same sanctions.

Where is the conundrum? The conditions that necessitated the introduction of the sanctions have not improved with some arguing that the situation has actually deteriorated, a situation which is working against government efforts to get the sanctions lifted.

“The actions of the targeted individuals continue to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes,” noted a statement by the US government in March this year.

Another puzzle is that the US government’s argument that the sanctions are targeted is porous because they are stifling the ability of government officials on the targeted sanction list to do business with the US and its wider global network of corporates and institutions.

For that reason, the government of Zimbabwe has argued that sanctions are hurting ordinary citizens. It is both a farfetched and convoluted argument.

Nonetheless, both governments of the US and Zimbabwe — in their recriminations — concur that ordinary citizens are vulnerable and being hurt by the policies and actions of the other and not theirs hence the reluctance to yield. In fact, each of them view their actions — sanctions or their lifting — as an attempt to help Zimbabweans.

And yet on the ground, as the nearly two-decade stand-off persist, Zimbabweans’ destitution continue to deepen. A nation is caught between a hard rock and a hard surface.

Several explanations and arguments have been thrown around. While not denying that sanctions at minimum disrupt a country’s ability to progress, they are not the main reason Zimbabwe is where it is today. The country is where it is today because of obscene corruption, mismanagement and poor governance.

Take for example, the year 2006 witnessed a mineral rush to Chiadzwa in Marange district where diamond reserves in that area were thought to be one of the world’s richest deposits. Billions of dollars in diamonds were siphoned out of the country from the hugely prolific fields regarded by some experts as the world’s biggest diamond find in carats in more than a century. The Marange field was, at the time, regarded as the largest diamond producing project in the world, estimated to have produced 16,9 million carats in 2013 alone, or 13% of global rough diamond supply.

Sanctions did not impede the siphoning and trade of the Marange diamonds at all to any part of the world until early this month when the US government banned trading of diamonds from Zimbabwe. The country is expected to produce 4,1 million carats of diamonds this year, up from 2,8 million carats in 2018.

At the peak of production, the earnings from just one mine — the Marange fields — would have transformed the whole country. But no. It leaked via obscene corruption, mismanagement and poor governance. If it were not for these, that money too would have helped circumvent the effects of sanctions and the sanctions story would have been irrelevant to our lives today.

The country would have boosted its industry, collected taxes from a thriving industry, sustained basic services, paid civil servants well and ensured that unemployed youth do not spend their time demonstrating in the streets. Our leaders would be sleeping peacefully with the knowledge of a thriving economy — just like Botswana whose economy is largely sustained by diamonds.

While sanctions are not condoned, there is zero guarantee that if they are lifted, they will result in any meaningful improvement in the lives of ordinary people because the Marange situation typifies the character of the rot that has destroyed our country. The insincerity is evident in government’s approach to push the US to lift sanctions. Instead of seeking to address the issues raised by another sovereign country, the US in this case, before re-engage them, the Zimbabwe government has chosen a political route to arm-twist the minds of the US leadership to lift the sanctions.

The US is a sovereign country that enjoys the right to choose who to engage with and the fact that they have chosen not to deal with Zimbabwe should surely not be the end of the world.