Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Why the sanctions issue is a red herring

Posted by CM on September 25, 2007

The Mugabe government puts tremendous energy into blaming what it refers to as “illegal sanctions” by Western countries for the Zimbabwean economy being down on its knees, causing untold hardship to the majority of Zimbabweans. The claim is that international aid, credit and investment have largely dried up on the orders of Western governments, unhappy with change which took prime land away from white farmers.

When the representatives of the accused countries bother to respond to these charges, it is usually to say that what have been imposed are merely limited “targeted sanctions” against members of the ruling elite. They deny applying any sort of general economic embargo, or seeking to cause “regime change” by trying to instigate popular rebellion over the hardships. They also point to how they continue to contribute humanitarian aid to relieve the suffering of the most vulnerable Zimbabweans, despite the diplomatic impasse.

It is quite clear that economically, things have completely spiraled out of the control of the government. There is little prospect of any change for the better happening before next year’s expected elections, and it is not at all far fetched to imagine things might be much worse by then. Short of improving the situation, therefore, the government finds it convenient and necessary to latch on to sanctions as an explanation for its inability to make living conditions bearable.

The hope is that the electorate will find that classic political explanation (“it is the fault of the Great Enemy”) for their economic plight, and the government’s seeming helplessness in the face of it, convincing enough to avoid a feared thrashing at the polls after almost 10 years of steep decline. It is not likely to impress a significant number of the voters who have been fed this line as they watched their lives deteriorate dramatically.

There are several perspectives from which the Mugabe regime’s blaming sanctions for the economic state of Zimbabwe today is weak.

One major problem of arguing “your suffering is the fault of our enemies” is to seem to absolve oneself of responsibility. Yet whether or not there are Western sanctions against Zimbabwe in place, declared or undeclared; legal or illegal, it is still the responsibility of a government to reduce or prevent the deprivation of its people, and to put in place conditions for an improvement in their standard of life. Sanctions would certainly make this difficult, but they would just be one more out of many obstacles to success. The quality of a government can to a large extent be measured by how well and hard it works to work around these sorts of obstacles.

A Zimbabwean voter cannot be expected to accept putting primary responsibility for his economic fortunes on governments in Europe or North America, over that of his own government. He or she would be quite justified to say at election time, “if you find that the sanctions you allege are in place are an insurmountable barrier to doing your job of running the Zimbabwean economy better than this, then I am exercising my right to give another group of people a try.” This, of course, is exactly what Mugabe & Co. fear many voters will choose to do.

But instead of working harder to have them lifted, or to more effectively get around them, the government merely moans louder about the unfairness and “illegality” of those alleged sanctions. This merely entrenches the appearance of complete helplessness and inability to deal with the issue, which is what the average Zimbabwean cares about at the end of the day, regardless of why and how it came about. Screaming “illegal” sanctions ever louder, as things get worse, suggests the authorities have no coping strategies, and have given up. This is not the kind of image a ruling party that has presided over almost a decade of very dramatic decline can afford to go into an election with.

You cannot boast endlessly about your “sovereignty,” and at the same time whine about how your economy’s fate is not within your hands, but in that of your enemies. It must be one or the other. If we are as “sovereign” as Mugabe never tires of reminding us we are, then our economic performance should not depend on what any other countries do or don’t do. If, by crying “sanctions” every other minute, Mugabe and his regime are admitting that we are a small country whose economic fate cannot be divorced from the international diplomatic standing of it’s government, then we are not quite as “sovereign” as we imagine. In the latter case, diplomatic action beyond helpless whining is called for, and yet silly bravado is all we see and hear.

Suppose Mugabe “won” his sanctions argument. Suppose Western governments said, “You were right Mr. Mugabe, we did impose sanctions, and your fine speeches have made us see the error of our ways. We now hereby formally lift those sanctions.”

Do Mugabe & Co. really believe this is all it would take to make money, goods and investment suddenly flow into Zimbabwe, with no other actions on their part? Can they really be so divorced from reality that fail to understand that there are many other factors which make the typical hard-headed investor look elsewhere than the Zimbabwe of today for opportunities?

A question that is not asked often enough: if our economic calamities are because of sanctions imposed over land reform, why didn’t the government foresee and prepare for them? We are often reminded what tough revolutionaries our rulers are. In preparation for the wholesale takeover of farmland, did none of these revolutionaries think for a moment that it would cause a ruckus, and therefore have short, medium and long term plans to prepare for it? Why has the government seemed so surprised by the reaction its actions have received in Western capitals?

The point here is not that they should only have done what the Western countries approved of. It is, instead, that on having decided to go ahead with measures they knew would be disapproved of by economically powerful countries, they should have had a plan in place to deal with the effects of how that disapproval was expressed. Or was the hoped for “plan”to talk one’s way out of the disapproval with fiery, populist speeches at the U.N.? What naivete for self proclaimed revolutionaries!

Then there is the issue of sanctions busting. Nothing would have earned the Mugabe regime the respect of even its detractors more, than having shown particular agility at the “sovereign” ability to get around the claimed sanctions; to keep things working fairly normally despite them. Or to at least show prospects of even slight recovery after an initial dip, which could then have been explained as merely a transitional hiccup as “the revolution” took hold. This was especially important to show in the agriculture sector, whose overnight wholesale changes were the genesis for all that has followed since. If the government had been able to say, “yes, we know things are hard, but look at all the successes we are beginning to score in the agricultural sector, whose taking over caused the imposition of sanctions in the first place,” people’s reactions to it would have been very different from what they are today.

Comparing the American sanctions on Cuba with those said to be in place against Zimbabwe is pathetic, and ill-advised for the Mugabe government. Cuba has achieved notable successes in areas like agriculture and health despite decades of outrightly declared, strictly enforced U.S. sanctions. They have done this through quite innovative approaches we have not seen our government show in any arena. Cuba’s rulers at least give the appearance of being real revolutionaries, living modestly and wanting to be seen to be sharing any hardships with the people. In Zimbabwe the rulership takes great pride in showing off just how removed from the general populace they are, as if to goad them. So in Cuba one sees some genuine “solidarity” between the governed and the rulers; whereas in Zimbabwe the rulers delight in emphasizing their lordship over the people, “solidarity” being nothing more than a cheap slogan.

It is a pity our opposition parties are so distracted by so many peripheral things. A more focused opposition could have made mincemeat out of the Mugabe government for its attempt to absolve itself of responsibility for the pathetic state of our country with the weak official excuse of “sanctions.”

Chido Makunike

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