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The curious case of Zimbabwe sanctions

African leaders have strongly condemned sanctions against Zimbabwe but rarely condemn its deplorable human rights abuses.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS)



The Southern African Development Community (SADC) designated 25 October as a day for solidarity against sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the European Union (EU), United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) nearly 20 years ago. The targeted sanctions were applied in response to human rights violations, government policies and actions that impede democracy, rule of law and respect for human and property rights.

In Zimbabwe, the day will be marked by pomp and ceremony and an all-night music concert to protest against the economic hardship caused by the sanctions.

A month ago, the US updated its sanctions list on Zimbabwe. It added Police Deputy Commissioner-General Stephen Mutamba and removed 11 others deemed to no longer threaten democracy and human rights in the country. On the list were individuals who died or were removed from government, like Olivia Muchena, who was fired from her ministerial post in 2014.

SADC’s anti-sanctions day follows a major show of solidarity by the African Union (AU) and African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in September. SADC chair and Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi and other regional heads of state spoke out against the Zimbabwe sanctions. In his capacity as AU chair, Senegal’s President Macky Sall led the continent’s call for their removal. What Africa’s leaders didn’t proffer, however, was an alternative.


Does the silence of African governments on abuses and repression in Zimbabwe mean they condone these actions?

The US maintains two sets of sanctions on Zimbabwe. One targets ‘specially designated nationals’ who undermine democratic processes. The directives prohibit any American citizen or entity from having commercial dealings with such people or entities. The second set of sanctions – which aren’t in force – direct any US citizen in a position of influence in international financial institutions to block credit to Zimbabwe.

While African governments have united in denouncing the sanctions, they’ve been mum on the wanton rights abuses, weaponisation of the law and violence unleashed on Zimbabwe’s opposition and political activists. Does that mean Africa condones these actions? Where is the brutalised citizen to seek recourse?

Current mechanisms provide little assistance. Onerous procedures make it difficult for citizens to access the African Court of Justice and Human Rights to report state abuses. Closer to home, the SADC Tribunal is all but defunct after Zimbabwe put up a spirited diplomatic offensive against it. The Zimbabwean government is dexterous at such moves.

The targeted sanctions are more or less symbolic; a blunt instrument to enforce behaviour change. For most individuals on the US sanctions list, the prospect of travelling to the US has always been remote, so banning them is of little import. However, sanctions can be a deterrent to some risk-averse investors.

Zimbabwe’s inability to borrow from financial institutions has more to do with bad debt than sanctions

Most companies in the US, Canada and Europe would rather avoid doing business with Zimbabwean companies because of the cumbersome process of checking if entities are related to a sanctioned person or company. The risk of being caught on the wrong side by OFAC is high. Many companies in Zimbabwe have gone under or are operating at a suboptimal level – unable to procure goods and services from Europe, Canada, Australia, the US and UK.


The listing of companies such as Chemplex Holdings and Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company harmed food production as it affected the availability and affordability of fertiliser. The businesses were added because their ownership structure included the Industrial Development Corporation of Zimbabwe – an entity under sanctions. All this affects ordinary citizens, not least because some international financial institutions won’t process transactions involving Zimbabwe.

However, to blame all Zimbabwe’s economic ills on sanctions is disingenuous and untrue. The country’s inability to borrow money from international financial institutions has more to do with bad debt than sanctions. By 2000, way before the sanctions, the World Bank had suspended lending to Zimbabwe. In 2001, after multiple defaults, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared the country ineligible to access its resources. A few years later, the IMF started procedures for compulsory withdrawal from Zimbabwe.

Sanctions have largely failed to improve democratic behaviour among Zimbabwe’s ruling elites

The political and electoral playing field also remains deeply flawed. The road to the 2023 elections is already littered with violence as the ruling party makes good on its threats to silence the opposition.

What can be done? While targeted sanctions have helped maintain pressure on the Zimbabwean government, a different approach that involves SADC and the AU is required.

Currently, the AU imposes sanctions on regimes that came to power through coups but does little to prevent situations that lead to coups or unconstitutional changes of government. The continental body should consider sanctions to prevent violations of human rights and electoral processes, and actions that stifle democracy.


This wouldn’t mean lifting the current sanctions against Zimbabwe. Rather, complementary processes are needed that encourage behaviour change and enable the US, EU and UK to lift sanctions eventually. This could be via the African Peer Review Mechanism or SADC’s troika of three states responsible for regional peace and security. Given the principle of subsidiarity that gives regions the first bite at the cherry, SADC rather than the AU is the crucial player in this case.

What is not an option is the unconditional lifting of sanctions without concessions from the Zimbabwean government or an AU/SADC initiative to guarantee the protection of human rights.

ISS Pretoria