Over the last few weeks, sanctions have gained a newfound popularity in popular discourse. This follows from the massive volley of these measures unleashed by various Western countries against Russia, targeting nearly every sector of the country’s economy, in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

States have deployed sanctions against one another for ages. Since World War II, Western governments, especially the United States, have acquired a certain facility for wielding them as an alternative to actual war. Because of the West’s centrality to the post-war global economy, these sanctions have been particularly damaging.

Across the globe

It may be the most famous at the moment, but Russia is not the only country currently targeted by Western sanctions. Some of the other well-known targeted countries are Iran and North Korea, which have been effectively kept out of the global economy on account of their nuclear programmes and other violations.

In China, too, American sanctions recently crippled Huawei, which was at one point the largest smartphone manufacturer, leading holder of 5G network patents, and largest supplier of network equipment in the world. Sanctions in China have also targeted officials and businesses associated with the oppression of Uyghurs.

Ineffective

I am too young to enter into a discourse on the morality or practicality of sanctions. But I know of very few cases where sanctions, alone, have helped achieve anything beyond precipitating negotiations.

Consider Iran and North Korea. The former hasn’t been able to create a nuclear weapon, not due to sanctions, but as a result of other measures like the killing of its top nuclear scientists and Israeli cyber-attacks, while the latter has been able to make them despite crippling sanctions and isolation.

In any case, the continent with the most sanctioned countries isn’t actually Asia. Africa takes that spot, with nine countries under the thumb of American sanctions: the Central African Republic; the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Ethiopia; Libya; Mali; Somalia; Sudan; South Sudan; and Zimbabwe. For context, that’s about one in five countries in Africa. For further context, among them are also some of the poorest countries on the continent, and in the world.

Western standards

Recently, while on a state visit to Kenya, the president of Zimbabwe, Emerson Mnangagwa, called on the international community to lift all the sanctions against his country. Speaking beside him, Uhuru Kenyatta, his Kenyan counterpart, labelled the sanctions as illegal, and promised Kenya’s support in lobbying for them to be lifted.

Aside from the United States, several jurisdictions currently have active sanctions programmes targeting Zimbabwe. These include the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The sanctions target various individuals and companies associated with the government.

The United States, under the Bush administration, first instituted its programme in 2002/3, after the Zimbabwean government, led by the late president Robert Mugabe, seized many pieces of white-owned land. Last updated in 2008, the programme has been extended by every administration since, to push Zimbabwe to carry out certain “democratic and human rights reforms” and lift “restrictions on press freedoms.”

Punishing the poor

Some observers have blamed the sanctions for being unfairly damaging to Zimbabwe’s economy and keeping its citizens poor. In the latter part of the 2000s, the country underwent a dramatic hyperinflation, which seems to be re-emerging at the time of writing.

In addition, the governments of neighbouring countries have complained that the sanctions depress and destabilise the economy of the entire region and urged the international community to lift them.

The sanctioning jurisdictions, like the European Union and United States, have defended themselves multiple times by maintaining that the sanctions target specific individuals and companies, not the entire country, and pinned blame for the poor state of the economy on government corruption and mismanagement.

Their critics (including various UN human rights experts) counter, not entirely spuriously, that the sanctioned individuals and companies constitute the main economic engine of the country. Sanctions against them, in effect, affect the entire economy. The distinction between the sanctioned parties and the economy is useless, in short.

In late 2021, during a visit to Zimbabwe, the United Nations special envoy on unilateral coercive measures, Alena Douhan, called on the United States to lift its sanctions, which, she argued, had “exacerbated the pre-existing economic and humanitarian crisis” in the country.

Outdated

Meanwhile, none of the changes the sanctions were meant to incentivise has been achieved. To the extent that Zimbabwe has liberalised since they were first instituted, it has had practically nothing to do with the sanctions. The downfall of Mugabe, and his later death, along with the ascendancy of Mnangagwa, cannot be attributed directly to any foreign interventions.

What’s more, the sanctions programme itself has been shambolic and unfocused for much of its existence. For instance, President Mugabe, who died in 2019, is still on the official list of sanctioned individuals, and the sanctions were last updated in 2008, fourteen years and three American administrations ago.

This signals either Washington’s lack of seriousness with the entire endeavour or, more likely, its lack of any real interest in Zimbabwe. Its steadfast defence of the programme whenever confronted feels somewhat like the obstinacy of an embarrassed child caught in the act of licking jam; except, in this case, the consequences are much direr and affect a lot more people.

Even if America were serious, it would be dishonest and hypocritical. There are many other countries, like Saudi Arabia, against which the United States does not currently impose sanctions, but which arguably have much worse regimes and less press freedoms than Zimbabwe.

Counterproductive

If the sanctions programme against Zimbabwe has achieved anything, however, it has been to give the government of Zimbabwe a rallying point, an obvious enemy to blame for the woes of Zimbabwe, even those which are demonstrably its own fault. The country now even has a national holiday for public protests against sanctions.

Neighbouring countries, and now many others further afield, are joining in the calls for the sanctions to be lifted. Some of these, like South Africa, Botswana and Kenya, have reasonably robust economies and democratic institutions, and are strategic allies to the United States and its Western chums.

Given all this, perhaps the United States should swallow humble pie and stop rubbing Zimbabwe’s nose in the dust for real and supposed crimes committed decades ago by the overthrown regime of a man who is now dead. The sanctions didn’t help anyone while he was alive, and they aren’t helping anyone now that he isn’t. It is time to explore other ways of supporting Zimbabwe’s democracy.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.