JUST over a week ago the United States extended sanctions targeted at “certain members certain members of the Government of Zimbabwe and other persons” whose actions and policies “undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions.”
US President Barack Obama invoked an executive order issued by predecessor George Bush in 2003 that declared a national emergency in relation to Zimbabwe for the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States” posed by the targeted Zimbabweans.
Their actions, the White House said, “had contributed to the deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe, to politically motivated violence and intimidation in that country, and to political and economic instability in the southern African region.”
National emergencies declared by the US president by proclamation or executive order, give the president extraordinary powers, including to seize property—a measure applied on the targeted Zimbabweans.
The initial executive order lists Mugabe and 76 other allies, and stem from the controversial election of 2002, even as Zimbabweans say they are a reaction to a controversial land reform programme started in 2000.
US citizens and firms are for example prohibited from dealing with the listed individuals.
The sanctions include an asset freeze and a travel ban on named individuals and entities.
Obama’s decision had been closely anticipated because the European Union, which had also imposed sanctions, has recently resumed direct aid to the southern African country.
Western countries further accuse Mugabe of human rights violations and electoral theft.
The reaction from Harare, which reads a regime change agenda, was as expected, biting.
“The irrational behaviour of the US to renew sanctions and label as a foreign policy threat is a classic case of errant behaviour by a giant,” War Veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa was quoted in state mouthpiece The Herald.
“One billion Africans are happy with President Mugabe as their chairman, so are 250 million citizens of SADC who adore him as their leader,” Mutsvangwa, who is a former Zimbabwe envoy to China, added.
Mugabe is serving chair of both the African Union and its sub-regional arm the SoutherN African Development Community (SADC).
The argument has been that sanctions tend to harm mostly citizens, which has seen their evolvement into being aimed at specific individuals and firms linked to them.
The US-Zimbabwe relationship has been strained for years, and Mugabe often turns the rhetoric up against what he says are “imperialists”. The impression can often be that the US has a lot of clout, or Zimbabwe is hard-hit by Washington sanctions.
But former US ambassador to Namibia George Ward, in an analysis for the non-partisan US think tank Council for Foreign Relations*, examines the relationship.
Mail and Guardian Africa picked out some facts about US-Zimbabwe relationship, and it is not what you think:
1) The claim: US sanctions have a big impact on Zimbabwe
The reality: The targeted sanctions are widely seen as having no impact, but Mugabe has been adept at playing up their impact and using them as justification for stirring up popular resentment toward the US.
Essentially, they are mainly symbolic.
2) The claim: the US has vast economic interests in Zimbabwe, which it would be motivated to protect, and would use, to apply pressure on Harare for reforms and rights obedience.
The reality: Ward notes that in 2012, just over $50 million worth of goods flowed in each direction. By contrast, China’s trade with Zimbabwe is estimated at $1 billion annually.
3) The claim: There are tens of thousands of American citizens in Zimbabwe, numbers which would complicate an evacuation in case of violence.
The position: In 2010, the US citizen population in the country was estimated to be at under 1,000.
4) The claim: The US can use aid to pressure Zimbabwe
The reality: While US assistance to Zimbabwe at $130 million is significant, it has mainly been channelled through civil society groups, allowing regime insiders to safely ignore any threat of their being cut.
5) The claim: The US has many allies that it can use to pressure Mugabe.
The reality: The major player in the area is the regional Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) bloc, which is dominated by South Africa. US-South Africa ties are hardly the strongest, in fact US influence in southern Africa is notably weaker compared to east and West Africa.
This is complicated by strong China-South Africa ties. China has major investments in Zimbabwe, but there may be a glimmer of light for Washington—Beijing has not been as eager to prop up Harare as it battles its own economic strains. A recent fishing trip by Mugabe, who was said to seeking up to $4 billion in commitments, came up largely empty.
The alliance with the European Union is also dicey—Brussels has more economic interest in Zimbabwe and therefore arguably more to lose. The resumption of aid is a precursor to direct budget support if certain conditions are met, with western envoys privately acknowledging that sanctions, bereft of leverage, have not worked and has progressively loosened them.
6) The claim: The US can push sanctions through the UN Security Council
The reality: They would likely be shot down by China, or a petulant Russia
7) The claim: The US can prop up the opposition and civil society groups to influence politics
The position: The main MDC opposition party remains in disarray, while pressure groups have been largely pummelled into submission.
8)The claim: As such the US would have little role to play in Zimbabwe…
The reality: If Zimbabwe runs into turmoil, either politically or economically, the US would have to foot the highest bill for humanitarian aid. A case of having to fix when broken but unable to take out insurance.