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Zimbabwe : How sanctions became a geopolitical football, scapegoat for repression and corruption


The Zimbabwean government declared October 25 a national holiday.On that date, the country came to virtual standstill.

The government unprecedently ordered schools closed and instructed school heads to bus students to specified venues to attend the commemoration of a day against sanctions.

The origin of this bizarre extravaganza, endorsed by the regional bloc, Sadc, which resolved at its last summit in August to use the day to campaign for the removal of sanctions against Zimbabwe.

The commemoration is accompanied by a distasteful splurge of public resources- some say over USS$4 million, which will include a football match and music gala – at a time when the country has power blackouts for days, running shortages of fuel, cash medicines and other basic needs.

Inflation has risen dramatically in the last three months.

In June, the government banned the use of foreign currency sending the country into a downward economic spiral.

Pseudo dollars

Introduced in 2013, the multi- currency regime had helped stabilise the economy and improved money supply.

In 2014, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) introduced bond notes, a pseudo currency that was touted as being equal to the United States dollar.

With the US dollar in short supply in a country whose productive and export capacity collapsed decades ago, the aim was ostensibly to ease and improve money supply.

Fuelled by a system of arbitrage that saw politically connected elites access US dollars from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and sell it at a profit on the black market, the bond dollar quickly went into a tailspin significantly losing its value against the dollar. From a forcibly fixed 1:1 exchange rate, it currently trades at 1:20 on the parallel market.


Contested narratives


Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises is decades old. Its cause is the subject of dispute depending on who you talk to.

Ask the ruling elite in Zanu PF, they will tell you the problems started when Robert Mugabe took the decision to redistribute land from a handful of white commercial farmers to the majority black population.

The elite argues that, upset by the racially corrective nature of the land redistribution, Western countries including the European Union and the United States of America imposed sanctions against the Zimbabwean government and people.

It is these sanctions, they argue, that precipitated the economic crisis that has endured and worsened over the years reaching breaking point.

It is no surprise that throughout his years in power in the past decades, Mugabe endlessly railed against the West for imposing sanctions on the country and rallied African and other developing countries in support for his anti-imperialist cause.

But ask representatives of Western countries and you get a completely different answer.

They argue that there are no sanction against Zimbabwe but targeted restrictions on travel against specific individuals and corporations that are deemed to represent “obstacles to democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.”

They also argue that foreign support from their countries to the people of Zimbabwe continues via different channels including bilateral and multilateral organisations working via local civil society or non-governmental organisations, they argue, especially because the government could not be trusted to honestly manage any external finances.

They further argue that travel restrictions are carefully targeted not to hurt ordinary people but instead focus on a list of specific politically exposed individuals.

They also concede that there are restrictions on doing business with specific government entities or private corporations linked to these politically exposed persons.

These sanctions are reviewed and renewed every year. They have been renewed every year until in 2013 when they were suspended and relaxed in relation to certain individuals.

At the level of the imposing countries, the sanctions are based on legislation that contains the scope and conditions for removal.

In the US, the legislation is the Zimbabwe Democracy Act (ZIDERA), which was enacted in 2000 and has been renewed annually since.

Western governments especially the US, which renewed ZIDERA in 2018, insist that all that the government has to do is undertake democratic reforms and respect human rights for these restrictions to be removed.

If you ask ordinary Zimbabweans, fed for years on a diet that the cause of their problems is western sanctions, you get a mixed reaction.

Whilst some acknowledged and to a certain extent bought the “sanctions is the cause of all your problems” argument, many others have rejected it attributing the country’s troubles to local political elites whose excessively corrupt behaviour is seen as being the key cause of the political and economic crises.

Sanctions have become a geopolitical football kicked back and forth between the Zimbabwean government and its Western foes.

The truth of what sanctions are and represent actually lies somewhere in between.


Chicken and egg

Back in 2006, when they were in their sixth year, I attended a global development conference in Helsinki, Finland at which the Zimbabwe crises took centre stage.

The then head of the UK’s Department of Foreign Development (DFID) reiterated the argument that there were no sanctions against Zimbabwe but travel and other restrictions against individuals as well as select government and corporate entities.

After the presentation, I took it up myself to pose certain question to the UKs development chief.

The first was that if we accepted that there were targeted travel restrictions against specific politically exposed individuals in Zimbabwe, was she in a position to confirm what proportion of basic social services (education and health) were historically supported via direct budget support to the Zimbabwean government?

Her answer was that at the time, Zimbabwe received almost 40% of external financing for basic service provision, which focused on health and education.

This support went directly into the various budgets of the relevant ministries.

I then asked her whether direct budget support to the government by foreign partners still subsisted in sanctions “regime”.

Her response was nuanced. “There was no way the UK, Europe and US could maintain direct budget support to a government that could not be trusted with honestly managing money after several clear demonstrations of bad faith and financial impropriety”.

This included the raiding of people’s bank accounts and pensions and the excessively high levels of corruption and misdirection of resources meant for public services.

So in short, the answer was no! Government to government aid or assistance had ceased including for key service areas.

My next question was “what is likely to happen to a health or education sector if 40% of its budget is withdrawn? She agreed that it would invariably collapse.

It was clear to me that we were dealing here with a chicken and egg situation.

The finger pointing, accusations and counter accusations on who was the cause of the social and economic crises were essentially because neither the government nor its hitherto Western foreign funders was willing to accept any responsibility for the situation.

It was much easier to blame it all on the other side.

Undeniably, the long overdue, much needed but chaotic, violently and corruptly implemented land reform programme had triggered a disproportionate reaction from Western countries – who by the way, had said nothing in the 1980s when Mugabe massacred thousands of black Zimbabweans.

It was a quick and easy leap to perceptions of racially -motivated foreign policy positions given the undeniably and historically racial nature of land ownership that the land redistribution had sought to correct.

Although times had understandably changed since the 1980s the reaction of Western countries played well into the hands of Mugabe, who in any event had run out of cards and used the land card to kill several birds with one stone: first, the white farmers who had signalled a public shift in support for Morgan Tsvangirai after the 2000 constitutional referendum, which Mugabe unprecedentedly lost; second against Tsvangirai and his financial support from farmers and also his growing rural support base on white farms; and third, a golden opportunity to win back popular support by dishing out land, which he had promised but not delivered for two decades.

The formation and electoral success in 2000 by a political debutante, the MDC clearly scared Zanu PF and shaped its decisions.


Trading blame

For two decades, the Zimbabwe crises have endured on this horse trading of blame.

But the question of what is the cause of Zimbabwe’s crises still requires answering.

In other words “are Western sanctions the sole cause of Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises?”

I have already addressed the issue of direct budget support and the heavy dependence of the Zimbabwean government on foreign aid especially for the social sector.

The suspension of direct budget support to Zimbabwe indisputably had a devastating impact.

But it being voluntary and discretionary foreign aid, it was also clearly the prerogative of funding countries to withdraw it, if they believed it was likely to be abused or misused.

The Zimbabwe government had demonstrated a penchant for dipping its hands in citizens’ savings, pensions and other bank accounts.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that western donors pulled the plug.

The reasonableness and justifiability of the decision was, however, clouded by the what was seen as racially motivated grounds, which Mugabe used maximally to rally African and other developing countries under the anti- imperial mantra.


Beating Sanctions: Rhodesia vs Zimbabwe

It should be remembered also that this was not the first time in the history of the country that sanctions had been imposed on the country.

When Ian Smith came up with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, Western countries imposed sanctions, which they maintained at the insistence and urging of the liberation movements, who argued that until majority rule was introduced, Rhodesia had to be economically strangled.

Sanctions had then been maintained between 1965 and independence in 1980.

But unlike Zimbabwe, whilst the Rhodesian economy struggled under sanctions, it did not collapse.

Instead, the currency remained strong, trading stronger than the British Pound, manufacturing and agricultural exports remained robust and social services did not collapse.


Why is the case of Zimbabwe different?

Why have sanctions had a disproportionate impact on a country at peace than they did on Rhodesia, which simultaneously endured sanctions and a debilitating civil war?

The answer lies in the real reason for Zimbabwe’s long-term crises: bad governance, poor leadership and corruption by political elites.

Admittedly, sanctions cause harm to the economies of receiving countries but Zimbabwe is not unique as the example of Rhodesia shows.

Were the country honestly, ethically and properly governed and led, there is no reason why the suspension of foreign aid should have led to the catastrophe it did.


What caused it is actually the failure of leadership.

Instead of prioritising fixing and responding to the changed economic circumstances, reforming the political system to respond to the demand for pluralism that the MDC brought; Zanu PF, went into survival mode, dug its heels in and resorted to violent factory settings as well as plunder and scapegoating.


A tortured history

To better understand Zimbabwe’s political, social and economic decline and determine whether it is sanctions that brought the country to its knees, it is important to review the country’s tortured history.

Zimbabwe’s economic woes can be traced back to the early 80s.

The country was not spared the disastrous IMF prescribed economic structural adjustment, which had dramatically driven poverty levels up in the early 1990s.

In August 1997, following intense demonstrations by war veterans angered by a major corruption scandal, which saw senior government, military and party officials loot the War Victims Compensation Fund, Mugabe buckled and acceded to demands to pay about 60 000 war veterans the equivalent of US$3 000 each plus a pension of US$125 per month.

The once off payment of $3000 each that amounted to US$ 180 million was unbudgeted for and was about 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Important to note here is that what had incensed war veterans was that while they were generally struggling with life, several ministers and senior Zanu PF officials were living the high life but were not content and had gone on to loot the War Victims Compensation Fund mostly through claiming disability.

Most of these ministers were assessed by Dr Chenjerai Hunzvi who actually spilled the beans to the war veterans that ministers who already had cushy perks were raiding a fund, which had been kept as a secret from war veterans.

The payments to the war veterans raised the budget deficit to 55% by year end (1997) from the 1996 levels.

This prompted the World Bank to suspend over US$ 60million in credit lines for balance of payments support because of these unbudgeted payments.

Several months later in 1998, Mugabe dug a deeper hole in the economy by unilaterally committing and deploying over 5000 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo to save Desiree Kabila.

Coming on the back of the war veterans splurge, there was again simply no budget for this and no guarantee that the costs would be recouped from Kabila.

Instead, the proxy war became an opportunity for monumental plunder of Congolese minerals by Zimbabwean political and military officials that was condemned by the United Nations, which recommended specific sanctions against specified individuals.

As if that was not enough, around the same time (1997/1998) the country experienced a massive drought.

Facing runaway inflation, partly triggered by the impromptu war veterans pay-outs, the government introduced price controls which in turn caused shortages that in turn triggered food riots.

Mugabe ordered the army to the streets to restore order but the country was now firmly on a downward spiral.


Mugabe’s acid test


Already reeling from the implications of disastrous political and economic decisions, Mugabe faced another acid test.

For years Zimbabwe had an outstanding constitutional reform project.

The country’s constitution had been hurriedly adopted as a compromise supreme law at Lancaster House to end the brutal liberation war and facilitate a transition to black majority rule.

One sore point of the liberation struggle was the uneven and untenable distribution of land, which saw a small white minority of 4% own and control over 80% of the land.

The redistribution of land was already decades overdue. The Lancaster House constitution had prohibited it for ten years ending in 1990.

Mugabe sought a wholesale revision of the country’s constitution but uneasy about the process, civil society launched a counter initiative for a “people driven constitution.”

In 2000, in elections that were criticised as being rigged, the newly formed MDC garnered 57 seats and 47% of the popular vote compared to Zanu PF’s 63 seats and 48%.

The results sent Mugabe and Zanu PF into panic mode.


Three for the price of one

When Mugabe’s constitution was rejected he was shocked and livid.

Going into parliamentary elections in 2000, Mugabe deployed his “three for the price of one” violent solution against white farmers, the MDC – which was formed shortly after the referendum and the rural population that had voted down his proposed constitution.

The fast-track land reform programme, therefore, took place in a context of an already struggling economy and ostensibly sought to also deal with rising MDC support in rural areas, evident from the results of the constitutional referendum.

The land reform would itself bring an already ailing economy close to demise.

The violent land seizures caused a sharp decline in agricultural production,a key basis for exports, putting pressure on forex reserves and further weakening the currency.

This led to Zimbabwe failing to service its multilateral debt obligations for six months.

The World Bank further suspended lending to the country from its International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

A history of corruption

So, by 2000, when Western countries began to suspend government to government aid and later impose targeted measures, the Zimbabwean economy was already in a deep hole, the politics already violent and the behaviour of political elites long corrupt and predatory.

This is the backdrop to the political sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Corruption had long been an albatross in the county’s neck with countless corruption scandals involving senior Zanu PF and government officials.

As early as 1982, two years into independence, the Paweni Maize Scandal in which businessman Peter Paweni connived with government officials to inflate the price of maize sourced on behalf of the government rocked the country.

In 1987 the Air Zimbabwe Fokker Plane Scandal involving US$100m followed.

The Willogate Corruption Scandal came in 1988 with senior government ministers alleged to have corruptly bought and resold government subsidised motor vehicles.

One minister, Maurice Nyagumbo, a close comrade of Mugabe committed suicide in shame.

In a clear indication of his attitude to grand corruption by his comrades, Mugabe pardoned them after some were found to have lied under oath to the Commission of Inquiry established to investigate the issue, led by High Court Judge Wilson Sandura.

The ZRP Santana scandal followed in 1989 involving the purchase of police vehicles.

The War Victims Compensation Scandal came in 1994 and was followed closely by the GMB Grain Scandal, which like the Paweni Scandal of 1982 related to inflation of maize aimed at drought relief.

1995 saw the VIP Housing Scandal in which ministers and Zanu PF officials corruptly benefited from a government housing support scheme managed by the Ministry of Housing.

Grace Mugabe, then first lady was able to build and resell a house for $25 million and pocketed the profits.

In 1996, the Boka Banking Scandal followed. And in 1999 the Noczim fuel scandal made headlines.

In the same year, the United Nations reported on the plunder and exploitation of DRC diamonds and timber by senior political and military officials from Zimbabwe.

The Harare Airport Scandal in which Mugabe’s nephew, Leo Mugabe and his aptly named Hazy Investments company were implicated in preferential bidding, overpriced and substandard contracting of the new airport construction in 2001.

The pillaging and plunder of diamond revenue from Chiadzwa followed in 2005.

In 2012 senior Zanu PF and government officials were again implicated in the US$$80million Harare Airport Road construction corruption scandal.

All these scandals go back 15 or more years.

More recently, after the coup in November 2017, it emerged that the government had borrowed US$2.7 billion without approval from Parliament and for which it could not account.

It was suspected that the money was parcelled out to senior government, Zanu PF and military officials and used for the 2018 Zanu PF election campaign.

In the past year alone the International Monetary Fund reported that the RBZ preferentially allocated over US$$300million to Sakunda, owned by Kuda Tagwirei, a fuel baron and close confidante of the president and his deputy, which was taken out of the country at a time when fuel and forex shortages were severe and citizens bank accounts again raised ala 2000.

This year, the Ministry of Finance acknowledged to Parliament’s public accounts committee that it was unable to account for $3 billion from the agricultural subsidy scheme called “command agriculture.”

The bulk of the millions siphoned out of the country by Tagwirei’s Sakunda Fuels reportedly came from this scheme.

At the time, the government and the RBZ reported the suspension of Sakunda accounts but these were promptly reinstated.

Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises has its history and foundation in places other than sanctions.

When government to government aid was suspended in 2000, it brought severe disruption to the social services sector, which was hugely subsidised by foreign aid.

To the extent that this caused suffering to the citizens of Zimbabweans, despite the fact that they do not owe Zimbabweans anything, foreign funding partners should at the very least accept a share of the responsibility for proximately precipitating it.

But, this does not and cannot exonerate Zanu PF and the government for triggering and creating the economic crises by its retrogressively corrupt and undemocratic policies and practices.

Since 1982, Zimbabwe has endured one major corruption scandal after the other, all masterminded and benefiting senior Zanu PF and government officials.

Not a single official has ever been held to account.

After the ouster of Mugabe, despite spirited promises by Zanu PF and Mnangagwa, new and larger corruption scandals have emerged.

In addition, the government has shown a penchant for prioritising hiring of presidential jets for multiple overseas trips and other wasteful expenditure whilst public hospitals have turned into mass morgues, doctors, nurses, teachers and other government workers receive measly wages, and living conditions in the country have deteriorated to levels unseen before.

To highlight the crassness of the corruption, as the country faces one of its worst droughts in years, despite US$$3billion having been set aside for agriculture in 2017, the drought relief effort at augmenting maize supplies has again been rocked by another scandal in which maize worth US$$240 per tonne has presumably been bought for US$ $600.

That Zanu PF and government officials take advantage of a famine where over five million people in the country face famine shows the extent to which Zimbabwe’s economic challenges have little to with sanctions and more to do with repulsive and excessive greed.

It is easy to understand the obsession with the different positions regarding sanctions.

Western countries are reluctant to accept that back in 2000, their abrupt withdrawal of direct budget support precipitated a social service crisis in Zimbabwe. But it did.

It should be reiterated, however, that they do not owe Zimbabwe anything.

But it should have been easier to acknowledge this.

With nothing and no one else to blame on the evident results of their failure and corruption, Zanu PF has chosen to harp on sanctions.

Zanu PF doth protest too much: Unpacking Zidera

As stated above, the US first imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2000 by passing the Zimbabwe Democracy Act, which set out some justifications for their imposition that included the DRC deployment, the private appropriation of public assets (ala corruption) and the fast track land reform programme.

In 2018, Zidera was amended to remove the DRC deployment and fast track land reform issues.

The amendment also recognised the government’s effort at clearing its IMF arrears, which had blocked credit lines.

The amendment also included 2018 electoral and pre-electoral actions that the government was required to take to ensure free and fair elections including ensuring that there would be no involvement of the military and also that the state media would be equally accessible to all parties.

The amendment also introduced new issues.

First was the requirement for the government to implement the 2013 constitution and specifically to respect and protect human rights, to account for diamond and mineral revenue, to build peace and unity following the divisive July elections and the need to enforce the Sadc Tribunal’s decisions on human rights and compensation for dispossession of agricultural land.

On closer analysis there is absolutely nothing in the Zidera amendment that is oppressive, burdensome or impossible for Zanu PF and the government to deliver.

Many of the conditions laid out are actually obligations the government is required to meet but which it has conveniently avoided.

The government has continued to fail to account for diamond and other mineral revenues.

On the contrary corruption and the large scale looting of public as well as private resources continues unabated.

The raids into private bank accounts of citizens continue with the government and the RBZ unilaterally appropriating private citizen’s forex deposits.

The government has dragged its feet on implementing human rights provisions in the 2013 constitution and retained draconian and repressive legislation, condoned the use of violence by state security and protected known perpetrators of serious human rights violations from the police, army and intelligence services.

The killing of protesters by the army in August 2018, the violent clampdown of protests by the army and police in January 2019, the banning of protests and beating of protesters in August 2019 and the continuing spate of abductions, torture and at times killing of government critics, trade union leaders, opposition officials, satirical comedians and civil society activists clearly points to the relevance of the concern at the government’s continued terrible human rights record.

The issues related to the 2018 election have also been raised by electoral observers (including non- western ones) and commentators as well as the Montlanthe Commission set up by the government to investigate the August army killings.

Finally, the issue of enforcement of the Sadc Tribunal decisions is now moot.

Laid to rest by Mnangagwa, Zanu PF and the government’s commitment to compensate white commercial farmers dispossessed of land in the early 2000s.

The government via the Ministry of Finance has proceeded to make budget allocation – albeit paltry- for compensating some farmers in 2018.

To the extent that it has accepted and attempted to act on this, it doth protest too much about it

Double standards and sovereign prerogatives

It is my personal view that sanctions by super powers whether targeted or on individuals or specific entities are ideologically distasteful, ineffective and inconsistent as an instrument of foreign policy.

They are often selectively applied against countries that are considered as unfriendly and insignificant whilst strategically important countries are spared.

They are also not consistently applied with known allies of Western countries who violate democratic practice and human rights such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey not being equally sanctioned.

But, the foreign policy of any government, including its investment policy is its own prerogative.

Americans and Europeans can decide where to invest their money and who to provide aid to as part of their foreign policy.

The sudden withdrawal of government to government aid despite being justified hurt ordinary citizens more than it hurts corrupt elites.

This has certainly been the case in Zimbabwe where elites have continued to loot public resources whilst the masses suffer.

Apart from providing a bogeyman for Zanu PF, they have proved to be a blunt instrument.


Can Zanu PF have its cake and eat it?

The real reason for Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis is not sanctions.

In the final analysis, there is unquestionable evidence over 40 years that Zanu PF has plundered and mismanaged the economy.

It is clear that one the responsibilities of a government are to develop policies to ethically manage and steer the politics and economy forward regardless of the prevailing context.

In wanting to loot and plunder the economy, abuse the rights of citizens, subvert democracy and grossly violate human rights and then blame it all on the sanctions bogeyman, Zanu PF has sought to eat its cake and have it. It cannot.

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