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US Sanctions on Zimbabwe: Unpacking the latest policy shift

US President Joe Biden and Zim President Emmerson Mnangagwa
The recent Zimbabwe sanctions adjustment order, announced by US President Joe Biden, has left many people perplexed. Amidst the intricacies of international relations and legal jargon, deciphering the true implications of this policy shift can be challenging for the average observer. As the world watches, questions arise: What does it mean for Zimbabwe’s economy? How will it impact human rights and governance? In this article, I attempt to unravel the layers of complexity surrounding these sanctions, shedding light on a topic often misunderstood. 

By Wilis Moyo

Let’s quickly delve into the historical context of the US sanctions’ political and legal framework to better understand the significant impact on Zimbabwe’s economy and political landscape.

Origins of ZDERA

The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2001. Its primary objectives were to promote democracy, human rights, and economic stability in Zimbabwe. The act aimed to address concerns related to land reform, governance, and electoral processes in the Southern African country.

The Key Provisions of ZDERA

Restrictions on Financial Assistance: ZDERA prohibited the U.S. government from providing financial assistance to the Zimbabwean government, except for humanitarian purposes.

Voting Rights in International Financial Institutions: The act instructed U.S. representatives in international financial institutions (such as the IMF and World Bank) to oppose any loans or grants to Zimbabwe unless specific conditions were met.

Targeted Sanctions: ZDERA authorized the imposition of targeted sanctions against individuals and entities deemed responsible for undermining democracy, violating human rights, or engaging in corruption.

Impact of ZDERA

Economic Consequences: The sanctions contributed to Zimbabwe’s economic challenges, affecting trade, investment, and access to international financial markets.

Political Tensions: ZDERA strained relations between the U.S. and Zimbabwe, with the latter viewing the sanctions as interference in its internal affairs.

Recent Developments: Lifting of Sanctions

As of March 4, 2024, there have been significant developments regarding U.S. sanctions on Zimbabwe. President Biden signed an Executive Order (E.O.) terminating the national emergency with respect to Zimbabwe. Consequently, all persons previously blocked under ZDERA are removed from the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list. This means interests in property previously blocked are now unblocked. And The Zimbabwe Sanctions Regulations are removed from the Code of Federal Regulations.

Focus on Accountability: The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 11 individuals, including Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, under the Global Magnitsky Program. This move emphasizes accountability for corruption and human rights abuses.

Now, let’s explore some of the criticisms and perceived shortcomings of ZDERA based on insights from critics and academics.

Land Reform and Sovereignty

There is a wide view that ZDERA is an infringement on Zimbabwe’s sovereignty, as it interfered with the country’s internal affairs and land redistribution policies.

“ZDERA’s imposition was a knee-jerk reaction to Zimbabwe’s land reform program. While the program had flaws, the act’s broad strokes failed to consider the complexities of land redistribution and its impact on sovereignty,” says Dr. Sarah Moyo, a Political Scientist.

Economic Impact

ZDERA’s restrictions on financial assistance and voting rights in international financial institutions had severe economic repercussions for Zimbabwe. Said Prof. James Chikwati, a renowned Economist: “ZDERA’s suspension of financial assistance hit Zimbabwe’s economy hard. The absence of IMF and World Bank support hindered development projects and exacerbated economic challenges.”

Lack of Nuance

Critics argue that ZDERA’s blanket approach lacked nuance. It did not differentiate between the Zimbabwean government and ordinary citizens, potentially exacerbating hardships for the latter.

“By treating the entire Zimbabwean government as a monolith, it inadvertently harmed ordinary citizens. A more targeted approach could have achieved better results,” says Dr. Grace Ncube, an International Relations Scholar.

Humanitarian Impact

While ZDERA allowed for humanitarian assistance, its overall impact on ordinary Zimbabweans was detrimental. The economic downturn affected healthcare, education, and basic services. According to Prof. Tendai Makoni, a Human Rights Specialist, “Healthcare, education, and basic services suffered, affecting vulnerable populations disproportionately.”

Limited Political Change

Despite its intentions, ZDERA did not significantly alter Zimbabwe’s political landscape. The ruling party remained in power, and democratic reforms were slow. Critics question whether the act achieved its stated goals of promoting democracy and economic recovery.

“Despite its lofty goals, ZDERA did not catalyze significant political change. The ruling party maintained its grip, and democratic reforms remained sluggish,” said Prof. Cynthia Dube, a Political Analyst.

The Way Forward

The changes in U.S. sanctions policy provide an opportunity for Zimbabwe to undertake key reforms. The focus is now on specific targets—President Mnangagwa’s network of officials and businesspeople responsible for alleged corruption and rights abuses. The hope is that these changes will encourage improvements in human rights, governance, and anti-corruption efforts in Zimbabwe.

In summary, while ZDERA had a lasting impact, recent developments signal a shift toward targeted measures aimed at promoting positive change in Zimbabwe.


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