Readers who have been keeping up with the murky Zimbabwean politics, would instantly dismiss President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest call for the US and EU to lift sanctions as nothing but an excuse for his failure to push through reforms to fix the moribund economy.
On Sunday Mnangagwa spoke to the nation in a televised address about how sanctions have stifled efforts to revive the economy that is in its worst crisis in more than a decade. It’s the second year running that the ruling Zanu-PF party veteran has blamed sanctions for his failure to reverse the damage of an ill-conceived plan to seize white-owned agricultural land in what was once a thriving economy.
Unfortunately, his calls seem to have found a receptive ear from leaders, including those of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government. The department of international relations & co-operation shamelessly put out a statement on Sunday, saying it joined other Southern African Development Community (Sadc) members to “collectively voice their disapproval and condemnation of sanctions” against Zimbabwe.
The Ramaphosa government’s endorsement of Mnangagwa’s efforts to pull the wool over the eyes of millions of Zimbabweans fighting for survival in an economy where there are shortages of everything from petrol to medicines, comes as human rights abuses in Zimbabwe hog the headlines. And it fails to acknowledge his counterpart’s failure to make good on his promises to revitalise the economy.
It did not take long for Mnangagwa, a former spy chief who was part of the coup that ousted Robert Mugabe in 2017, to reveal an instinctive heavy-handedness in dealing with antigovernment protests. A few days after an election two years ago, he unleashed an army backed by armoured vehicles and a military helicopter to crush demonstrations by stone-throwing opposition who had accused his party of rigging the elections. Six people were killed as troops opened fire with automatic rifles.
Five months later security forces rounded up hundreds of people in a brutal crackdown after violent protests triggered by Mnangagwa’s sudden announcement of a fuel price increase. At least 17 people were killed in the shooting, and more than 1,000 were arrested during door-to-door raids that conjured up memories of Mugabe’s ruthless pursuit of a one-party state in which he dictated terms.
“Despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa repeatedly voicing his commitments to human rights reforms, Zimbabwe remained intolerant of basic rights, peaceful dissent, and free expression,” the 2019 scathing review of the Zimbabwean government by the Human Rights Watch said.
We could not agree more.
There have been numerous reports of political repression offering evidence that Mnangagwa has failed to break with his predecessor’s authoritarianism, which is also synonymous with sinking the economy to the point where the central bank was printing 100-trillion Zimbabwean dollar bills and throwing millions of the middle-class population into poverty.
His effort to divert attention from failure to push through reforms and rehabilitate the country’s image as an investor-friendly frontier market should not be entertained.
For a start, the sanctions are targeted at individuals rather than the wider economy, and it would be reckless for the EU to lift an arms embargo on an administration that is not averse to using lethal force against its citizens. The government has long argued that it is unable to access funding from agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank as US officials are barred from voting for fresh funding for Zimbabwe.
Assuming they were not barred, it would be hard for the IMF to lend to countries it says is in debt distress, meaning it is choking under unsustainable borrowings and large external debt.
Before the Ramaphosa government lays the blame of economic destitution on sanctions, it would be helpful for everyone, including Mnangagwa, to acknowledge that Zimbabwe consistently fails to respect human rights and the rule of law and to push through fiscal consolidation reforms.
These are central to restoring the country’s credentials as a friendly destination for foreign capital, an important driver of economic recovery.