The United States of Sanctions
The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion
On September 30, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed the second stage of its review of Zimbabwe’s progress toward economic reform. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose rule since 1980 has been defined by widespread fear, economic ruin, and anti-Western bombast, and who for more than a decade has refused to repay Zimbabwe’s debts, is now hoping to normalize the country’s relationship with its creditors.
Zimbabwe’s new campaign to resolve its $9 billion debt problem is perhaps a positive sign. After all these years, Mugabe could finally be willing to fulfill his country’s obligations and reengage with the international community. At least that’s how the IMF, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank are interpreting Mugabe’s latest moves, and they are reportedly proceeding with a debt arrears clearance plan for the government. But Mugabe’s proposed plan seems more of a mix of accounting maneuvers and new credits than a genuine commitment to reform. More important, debt forgiveness would be merely a warm-up act for what Mugabe truly desires: new loans for his bankrupt government.
Zimbabwe’s main international creditors, including the multilateral development banks and major governments such as the United Kingdom, are anxious to reengage with Harare. And it is true that the international community will play a crucial role in helping Zimbabwe to eventually recover.
Yet now is precisely the wrong time to embrace Mugabe and his coterie, who for 35 years have done little but devastate the country and enrich themselves. While incomes have been rising rapidly across most of the continent, Zimbabweans are poorer today than they were a generation ago. Although the Mugabe government has taken a few token steps to comply with the IMF, his government’s economic policy and human rights and governance records have not fundamentally improved. In fact, on many measures, Zimbabwe’s situation is worsening. Significant lending before the regime has taken genuine steps toward much-needed reform would be premature and entirely counterproductive.
Until recently, the situation in Zimbabwe looked promising. A unity government helped to stabilize the economy in 2009, bringing world-record inflation under control and introducing stricter budgeting for government spending. After 11 straight years of contraction, the economy grew at double-digit rates from 2010 to 2012.
The July 2013 election, however, shattered those prospects. In an election that many observers considered deeply flawed, Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) once again resumed control of all government ministries. Shortly afterward, Zimbabwe’s economy hit a wall. The economy will expand by only 1.5 percent at best this year, and once again, every single one of Zimbabwe’s neighbors will outpace it.
Zimbabwe’s economic troubles have coincided with a reenergized crackdown on the country’s human rights community.
Domestic labor unions estimate that over 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past several months alone. In a country of some 14 million people, there are now only 700,000 formal sector jobs, half of which are in a civil service that consumes some 85 percent of the national budget. The World Food Program predicts that around 1.5 million citizens will go hungry this year, in a country that was once a net exporter of food. Nearly six out of ten children are suffering from anemia caused by inadequate nutrition.
Zimbabwe’s economic troubles have also coincided with a reenergized crackdown on the country’s human rights community, as well as a rise in political hate speech and bitter infighting within the ruling party. Taken together, these factors substantially increase Zimbabwe’s risk of an outbreak of state-led violence or even another major atrocity.
After all, it was Mugabe and his then minister for security and current vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who unleashed Gukurahundi, a military operation against the minority Ndebele in Matabeleland and Midlands Province in the 1980s that left some 20,000 civilians dead. The same inner circle used similar tactics against opposition supporters and civil society activists during and after the 2008 election, which the opposition initially won. A chief architect of both of these atrocities, Mnangagwa is now next in line to succeed Mugabe when he ultimately vacates the presidency.
More recently, in March 2015, a prominent activist was abducted in broad daylight on the streets of the capital. Itai Dzamara remains missing despite continued pressure from the diplomatic community and international human rights groups. By all indications, the government has made no serious effort to find him or those responsible. A probable state-sponsored murder, this case is a glaring example of the government’s enduring disdain for basic human rights. And the regime continues its persecution and harassment of the country’s best-known human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, and in the last week alone the government has arrested five journalists.
The 91-year-old Mugabe is not going to be in power forever. And the looming struggle over who will succeed him is another reason why rescuing the Mugabe government now with fresh loans and an infusion of cash would be poorly timed. The security and intelligence forces have decimated the opposition, so Mugabe’s successor will most likely be determined by competition within ZANU–PF. An international lifeline of new money is unlikely to improve conditions for ordinary Zimbabweans, but it will probably entrench those closest to Mugabe—namely, Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s increasingly influential first lady.
Zimbabwe will not fully recover without an open and honest reckoning with the causes of the country’s collapse.
The United States should have no qualms about refusing to provide Mugabe with financial relief. Washington has almost no national security and few economic interests in Zimbabwe, and so it can afford to stand firm on its democratic principles. The United States alone likely cannot stop the proposed arrears clearance plan. But the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama can use its diplomatic clout to insist upon clear and unequivocal human rights benchmarks ahead of any new lending or broader rapprochement.
A useful starting point is the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, sponsored by, among others, then Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001. This legislation requires that, prior to any debt relief or new loans to Zimbabwe, the president certify the restoration of the rule of law, satisfactory election conditions, transparent land reform, and civilian control of the security forces. Today, Mugabe is not close to meeting any of these requirements.
In addition, the United States should insist on clear and measurable steps to ensure the protection of private property rights, a free press, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The regime must officially acknowledge past crimes and hold accountable those responsible for the Matabeleland massacres, successive instances of mass election-related violence, and the recent abduction of Dzamara. Zimbabwe will not fully recover without an open and honest reckoning with the causes of the country’s collapse.
This is not the first time that Mugabe has promised reform. After independence in 1980, the former guerrilla leader surprised the world by speaking powerfully about peace and reconciliation, including in the pages of Foreign Affairs. In doing so, he engendered a decade of international goodwill. The world now knows that Mugabe’s lofty rhetoric was merely a cover for state-sanctioned repression and despotism. Now, as he asks for handouts from the international community, with his regime in crisis and his presidency nearing its end, Washington should not get fooled again.