Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Sanctions won’t budge Mugabe

Posted by CM on July 9, 2008

Everybody in the world is a Zimbabwe expert these days, and it is very difficult to keep up with all the passionate expertise pouring out of about how to end The Zimbabwe Crisis.

It is almost amusing to observe so many people say, “The solution is obvious, why doesn’t everybody else just listen to me.” Except the inexorable escalation of The Crisis suggests there is no easy solution, or if there is one, no one has been able to find how to implement it.

But the inevitable has happened, and UK prime minister Gordon Brown & Co. have been pushing hard from their capitals, from the UN and from the G8 summit in Japan for formal sanctions to be imposed on the Mugabe government. “Inevitable” not because of the shameful way Mugabe has chosen to claim another five year mandate or because of the dramatic deterioration of the overall situation in Zimbabwe. There is much worse electoral tomfoolery, violence and economic deprivation taking place elsewhere in the world today, but that Brown and friends are not “deeply concerned about.”

I figure Mugabe’s goose was cooked as far as Brown was concerned when somewhere in between the two recent elections he dismissed Brown’s rantings about events in Zimbabwe with something to the effect that he (Brown) was just “one tiny little dot in the world.” I think Brown is determined to not let Mugabe get away with the kinds of insults he hurled at his predecessor Tony Blair for years.

I suspect Mugabe’s harsh, undiplomatic, unrelenting needling of Brown and his government (and of course Mugabe’s brazen, cocky refusal to behave like a good African boy) are a bigger factor in their outrage than is the fact ofMugabe being a ruthless and unfeeling despot,  or the violence or economic conditions in Zimbabwe.

But nevertheless, there can be little doubt that we will now be moving to the era of formal, declared sanctions of some sort. Even if Security Council members China or Russia veto a sanctions call at the level of that body, that will not deter Britain and friends from individually and collectively seeking to economically strangulate Mugabe.

For all the talk about economic sanctions being increased but still limited mainly to a handful of targeted officials, this is not realistic. The ‘targeted sanctions’ against members of the ruling elite that have existed have not made one bit of difference. Restricting their travel to Western countries and other such gestures may have caused them some minor inconvenience but little else. Their children are in schools and universities all over the Western world, names are easy to change, money can be moved around, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if finding ways around those kinds of sanctions has become a sort of game for members of the ruling elite, who Mugabe has been very careful to take good care of, and who lead lives in Harare that many well to do Westerners would envy.

The other rationale for sanctions, that increased suffering will force the populace to then put pressure against their rulers, will not work in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is proud to resist popular domestic pressure as much as he resists external pressure. And Zimbabweans do not need reminding how quick and eager Mugabe’s various armed forces have been over the years to put down even mild, peacefully expressed dissent with extreme, crushing brutality. For the time being, the conditions militate even more against any kind of popular uprising than ever before, and sanctions are unlikely to change that.

So tightening up the ‘targeted sanctions’ a few notches won’t make any difference to Mugabe’s behaviour.

On more broad terms, Zimbabwe has not been an attractive place to business in or with for years. That hostile investing, lending and general business environment is perhaps a much bigger reason for it having being a virtual business and economic Siberia for several years. But even the suffering and deprivation of that sort of isolation have not brought Mugabe’s government anywhere near to being on its knees.

Would a more general trade and economic embargo do it? I don’t quite follow the logic. If it is countries and companies taking what they consider a moral stand by refusing to do business with a Mugabe-led Zimbabwe on the grounds that this gives him a lifeline to continue tormenting the populace,  it is obviously their right to be consistent with their “conscience,” if you can call it that. I put the word in inverted commas because of the inconsistency and selectivity with which such moralistic outrage is expressed in the world today by the likes of Brown and friends.

Bloomberg economic news agency had a thoughtful article about this entitled Trade Embargoes for Zimbabwe Won’t Fix Anything, by columnist Matthew Lynn.

Writes Lynn, “Now, there is pressure on companies to end commercial ties with Zimbabwe. Tesco Plc, the U.K.’s largest food retailer, has said it will stop buying food from Zimbabwe’s farms. Germany’s Giesecke & Devrient GmbH won’t print the African nation’s banknotes anymore. Expect to see more enterprises close their Zimbabwean units or end contracts with its remaining businesses.

The trouble is, none of that will do any more than ease European consciences. If ruining the economy made any difference to Mugabe, he would have been toppled from power years ago.”

Exactly. Once having cushioned themselves, Mugabe and his inner circle couldn’t give a hoot if the country continues to implode around them.

Continues Lynn, “The truth is, forcing companies to get out of Zimbabwe is more about pandering to European public opinion than making any difference to the long-suffering Zimbabwean people. It is the equivalent of wearing a “Make Poverty History” wristband: a gesture of support that involves little personal sacrifice, and won’t change anything.”

Sadly true.

Lynn’s sober analysis will enrage those who want to be seen to be “doing something,” anything. It is fine when such people make it clear that their main motivation is to vent and display righteous indignation. That is better than calling for these kinds of “radical” measures on the pretense that they will hasten Mugabe’s departure or otherwise more quickly bring an end to Zimbabweans’ suffering.

“Tesco doesn’t want to be accused of propping up Mugabe’s regime when it can easily buy supplies from somewhere else. Companies of the size of Shell or Barclays aren’t going to miss their Zimbabwean units. With the country close to bankruptcy, it is hardly the most attractive place to do business right now. It certainly isn’t worth making yourself unpopular with your main customers to stay in the country.”

“Disinvestment can’t do much more damage to an economy that has already collapsed. Poverty and unemployment never triggered Mugabe’s downfall and are unlikely to in the future.

Economic sanctions have a poor record of bringing about change. They didn’t force Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and they haven’t forced the collapse of North Korea’s communist government. All they have done is add to the misery of the people. It is protest politics, designed to salve consciences, rather than bring about real change.”

“In fairness, sanctions may have contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa. But that was a rich, trading economy. There was a lot to lose by being cut off from the developed world. Zimbabwe has almost nothing to lose. It is already a subsistence economy, where money has long since lost any meaning.”

This very sober analysis still leaves us with the question, what then can be done by those who are genuinely alarmed at the situation in Zimbabwe? It is entirely justified for such people to not be content to simply fold their hands and let Mugabe continue rampaging as he wishes.

Lynn is on shakier ground in suggesting what companies could be doing instead, but my main point of interest are in his cogent points about how as far as dislodging  Mugabe is concerned, all the tough sanctions talk from Brown & Co. is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Formal sanctions will likely significantly increase the suffering Zimbabweans are experiencing, but they will not hasten the demise of the regime of Mugabe.

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