As Zimbabwe’s elections approach, U.S. sanctions take center stage

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When Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s long-time despot, lost power in a 2017 military coup, many Zimbabweans took to the streets, celebrating what they hoped would be the beginning of a new chapter.

Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, had promised sweeping political, economic and social reforms. Instead, Zimbabweans got a repeat of the past. In the last six years, Mnangagwa’s regime has become increasingly repressive, curtailing dissent and cracking down on political opponents.

And as Zimbabwe gears up for its Aug. 23 general election, activists and others say Mnangagwa’s regime is increasingly cracking down on critics.

“We are so scared of this repressive regime; we can’t publicly register our displeasure,” says a taxi driver in Zimbabwe’s eastern border city of Mutare, who wants to be identified only as Widzo for fear of reprisal from the regime. “But I hope and pray things will change for the better if Mnangagwa and his party lose the coming general election.”

The repression has continued in the face of targeted U.S. sanctions against senior members of the regime, sparking a debate over their effectiveness. While some argue the sanctions are helping to keep officials in check, reducing human rights violations and corruption, others are concerned Mnangagwa has used them as a convenient scapegoat for the country’s persistent economic woes.

“No politician wants to be on that sanctions list,” says Widzo. “But on the other hand, the regime is now blaming everything on sanctions: the poor health sector, the poor roads, crumpling local currency and the rising prices of basic commodities.”

Early this year, in an acknowledgement of the deteriorating conditions, U.S. President Joe Biden renewed the targeted sanctions against 80-year-old Mnangagwa and some of his associates.

“President Emmerson Mnangagwa has not made the necessary political and economic reforms that would warrant terminating the existing targeted sanctions program,” Biden said in a March message to the U.S. Congress. “Throughout last year, government security services routinely intimidated and violently repressed citizens, including members of opposition political parties, union members and journalists.”

Civil society groups and the opposition are doubtful the election – which will pit Mgangagwa, from the long-governing ZANU-PF party, against opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, from the Citizens Coalition for Change party – will be free and fair.

Several opposition activists, journalists and human rights activists have been arrested over the last year, including Job Sikhala, a Parliament member and senior official with the CCC. Obey Shava, a prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyer who has represented various opposition party supporters facing questionable charges, was violently attacked earlier this month. And in recent weeks, the police have banned the CCC from holding several campaign rallies, according to the party’s spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the ZANU-PF-dominated Parliament passed two bills – the Patriotic Bill and the Private Voluntary Organizations Amendment Bill – aimed at restricting dissenting voices and nongovernmental organizations perceived to be anti-government. The Patriotic Bill, signed into law by Mnangagwa earlier this month, imposes penalties on citizens for meeting foreigners to discuss sanctions or foreign intervention in Zimbabwe. Human rights group Amnesty International called it a “brutal assault on civic space.”

At the same time, government corruption remains a problem in Zimbabwe. The country ranks 157 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, a standardized measure of government corruption based on surveys of experts and business executives. This spring, Al Jazee​​ra’s investigative unit launched a series in which it alleged high-ranking officials from Zimbabwe were involved in smuggling and money laundering operations, allowing them to “get around the crippling grip of Western sanctions.”

The current sanctions are holdovers from the reign of Mugabe, who came to power in 1980 after a liberation bush war that turned leadership of the country – formerly known as Rhodesia – from white-minority to Black-majority rule. About 20 years ago, the Mugabe regime embarked on a bloody land reform program, violently seizing farms from white commercial farmers. During that time, Mugabe’s regime and rural militias killed and injured supporters of the newly formed opposition political party, Movement for Democratic Change, led by the late trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai.

In 2001, in response to the Mugabe administration’s economic mismanagement, human rights abuses and repression, the U.S. Congress passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which tied financial support to economic and democratic reforms. As long as the act remains law, Zimbabwe reportedly “cannot access loans or guarantees from international financial institutions without the approval of the U.S. government.”

Then, in 2003, after a disputed presidential election in Zimbabwe, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed targeted financial sanctions against “individuals and entities in connection with undermining democracy, human rights abuses and public corruption.” The U.S. also imposed visa restrictions on certain people in Zimbabwe, banned transfers of defense items and services destined for or originating in the country, and suspended some forms of government aid.

The U.S. has not been alone in implementing sanctions. Other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, implemented various targeted sanctions during Mugabe’s reign that continue in some form today. The European Union also enacted sanctions on the country in the early 2000s, though today restrictions are limited to an arms embargo and targeted asset freezes against a state-owned defense company.

Mnangagwa has blamed Western sanctions for the current economic crisis in Zimbabwe, where the annual inflation rate reached 175% in June. He has described the U.S. sanctions as a “cancer” sapping the country’s economy, and his supporters have denounced the measures during anti-sanction marches held around the country every year.

The government contends the sanctions have not only prevented the country from accessing multilateral lending, but have scared away other financial institutions and aid organizations from granting credit and providing assistance in the country. As a result, the regime says the entire Zimbabwean economy has been adversely affected, and particularly the country’s most vulnerable people.

The government’s message seems to be resonating with African leaders, some of whom have pushed for an end to Western sanctions altogether. At the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September 2022, Senegal President Macky Sall said the sanctions “continue to inflict a sense of injustice against an entire people and aggravate their suffering in these times of deep crisis.” And Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi described the sanctions on Zimbabwe as “a crime against an innocent people,” according to news outlet The East African.

The U.S., for its part, argues that Zimbabwe’s moribund economy is due not to sanctions, but to poor governance, corruption and economic mismanagement.

Mounting fiscal imbalances caused Zimbabwe to default on its loans in 1999. Two decades later, the country still struggles with external debt. In February, Mnangagwa committed to a plan to clear more than $6 billion of external debt arrears, saying that debt “continues to weigh down heavily” on the country’s development, according to Reuters.

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the SOAS University of London, says that while investors pay attention to sanctions, they place more value on the overall health of a country’s economic system.

“It would be wrong to say that [sanctions] are the major indicators studied by investors,” Chan says. “Of far greater note would be issues of available infrastructure, issues of corruption, stability of currency and exchange rates, guarantees of repatriation of profits, and fears of seizure of assets. These things cause far more investor hesitation than sanctions.”

Tendai Ruben Mbofana, a Zimbabwean social justice activist and political commentator, says the government’s attempt to link the country’s dismal economic performance to sanctions is simply inaccurate.

“There is nowhere [government officials] have provided incontrovertible proof that our economic problems are as a result of sanctions,” he says. “It has since been proven, even confirmed by the government itself, when the situation suits them, that the real reason is the failure by the government in repaying previous loans.”

But Mbofana notes the aim of the sanctions – to force the Zimbabwe leadership to desist from human rights abuses, state-sponsored violence, electoral fraud, economic mismanagement and corruption – has not come to fruition.

“Have these been achieved 20 years later?” asks Mbofana, who believes the sanctions should be canceled. “The answer is a big no. If anything, these abuses have continued unabated to this day. So the sanctions have failed pathetically. And, yes, the continued imposition of these targeted sanctions has only helped the government in finding a ready excuse for their own incompetence and mismanagement.”

However, Leonard Koni, a Zimbabwean political analyst and human rights defender, contends the sanctions are putting pressure on members of the regime and some of its key supporters. In recent years, travel restrictions have been expanded to include people like “notoriously corrupt” businessman Kudakwashe Regimond Tagwirei and Emmerson Mnangagwa Jr., the president’s son.

On the flip side, Koni adds, the sanctions are now making the regime more ruthless. The regime has accused members of the opposition of lobbying for sanctions (the opposition has not done so, at least publicly) and is using that as an excuse to punish them.

“It is like the government has gone on overdrive to retaliate because of sanctions,” Koni says. “However, the regime has always been ruthless even without sanctions, choking democracy and giving less space to breathe to the opposition and political activists.”

The sanctions may not be working perfectly, he says, but they’re better than nothing.