In an unexpected turn of events, EU foreign ministers reached a collective agreement that resulted in the immediate ease of sanctions against Zimbabwe in response to the Mugabe regime’s announcement of a referendum on a new constitution. Travel bans on senior government officials and asset freezes on numerous state-owned corporations, so-called “smart sanctions”, were lifted in an attempt to encourage liberal reforms from the (at least officially) unity government that was set to expire mid-2013 barring elections or further political negotiation. Should the forthcoming constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections be deemed credible and verifiably democratic by various election-monitoring NGOs, the EU will lift export sanctions on the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), which operates five of the largest diamond mines in Africa. Needless to say, there is much talk regarding the possibility of real change in Zimbabwe for the first time in thirty-five years, but diplomatic rhetoric and maneuvering aside, the question still remains: what options exist for the possibility of successful change in Zimbabwe: democratic or otherwise?
EU and US sanctions contra the Mugabe regime were first imposed in January of 2002 when the government had its lines of credit and international financial institutions frozen following concerns over serious human rights violations and restrictions on the media. As Freedom House and Human Rights Watch reports document, there has been a systematic strangulation of all means available for Zimbabweans to express themselves. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and protection under the law, are frequently violated by pro-government militias and law enforcement. Moreover, torture of political activists and trade unionists, the most notable of cases involving current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has come to occupy an increasingly prolific role in the Mugabe regime’s pseudo-democratic coercive agenda of oppression. Zimbabwe is best described as a country with rival political parties that meets several basic tenets of electoral democracy such as regular holding of elections, but fails to provide “a sufficiently fair arena for contestation to allow the ruling party to be turned out of power”. As such, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, “Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front” (ZANU-PF), manipulates the processes and content of reforms to its benefit, thereby facilitating flawed elections that promote status quo socio-political relations.
Although the recent economic woes, largely the result of forced land redistribution and the embezzlement of profits by senior ZANU-PF, resulting in hyperinflation on the scale of 516 quintillion percent, President Robert Mugabe was once renowned across Africa as a champion for the anti-colonial cause. For the better part of fifteen years, the white minority government of Rhodesia enjoyed de jure sovereignty, actively oppressing the native population. Following the Rhodesian Bush War in 1979 and international negotiations resulting in the Lancaster House Agreement, however, Mugabe was elected Prime Minister of the newly founded state of Zimbabwe in a landslide victory. The first five years under Mugabe’s rule saw a steep rise in literacy rates, immunisations, and a sharp drop in the infant mortality rate. At that time, Zimbabwe was a beacon of hope in sub-Saharan Africa, characteristic of the archetypical Cold War democratic transitional paradigm.
At present, however, Mugabe regime is now universally condemned as authoritarian in nature. The construction of personalism, manipulation of nationalism, and the systematic morphology of anti-colonialism into abusively pan-African rhetoric has become a major part of ZANU-PF politics. As the 2005 elections clearly demonstrate, outside monitoring indicated low turnout, voter intimidation, and widespread fraud. Likewise, in 2008, opposition party “Movement for Democratic Change” (MDC) won both the parliamentary and presidential elections sparking a run-off in the latter. In the interim months leading up to the run-off, the MDC claimed that hundreds of its supporters were murdered and hundreds of thousands of others were forcefully evicted from their homes by pro-government militia. In one case, Edward Chikombo, a Zimbabwean reporter who managed to send images of the abuses to foreign media, was abducted and subsequently murdered. Zimbabwe has typically reacted to accusations of human rights abuses by pointing to the hypocrisy of the West, citing such cases as the United State’s preventive war in Iraq, the marginalisation of civil liberties in the US and UK post-9/11, and the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. Additionally, economic sanctions have frequently been accused as simply an indirect means to sabotage the national economy and only result in the imposition of hardship on the middle and lower classes. Nonetheless, such counter-accusations of human rights abuses, however true, neither validate nor morally justify the actions of the Mugabe government. Pointing fingers and accusations of double standards in no way alleviate moral responsibility: killing is killing and history cannot be re-written.
On the subject of EU economic sanctions, a case can indeed be made for the ineffectiveness and general failure, more broadly leading to both moral and practical dilemmas. Although “smart sanctions” such as those recently lifted in Zimbabwe are intended to target only government elites deemed culpable for the current political and economic state of affairs, more often than not, they only result in further contributing to humanitarian crises already prevalent in developing countries. Consequently, many supporters and defenders alike of the Mugabe regime have avoided expressly trying to minimise or justify their actions, rather appealing to the quintessentially realist conception of survival politics in the face of perceived adversity from the ‘concerned’ West. Sanctions have also had the unexpected result of pushing Zimbabwe towards Russia and China’s sphere of influence, both of which have long histories of supporting and and sustaining repressive autocratic regimes.
Although optimism in Zimbabwe is on the rise, there are still many questions to be answered. Namely, how can a political party that is historically allergic to internal democratic processes abide by transparent procedural or minimalist democratic demands at the national level? Moreover, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister recently announced that only the African Union and Southern African Development Conference (SADC) will be allowed entry to observe and monitor elections. Hostile nations and IGOs such as the EU and US will not be allowed to monitor the electoral process. Accordingly, sceptics are perhaps rightly quick to dismiss the idea of democratic transition as merely an academic expression. On this view, elections do not work, have never worked, and will never work in Zimbabwe so long as the same individuals and institutions that have orchestrated them in the past exist. Regardless of speculation, the fact still remains that the next few months will be critical for Zimbabwe, perhaps determining whether a generation’s struggle for democracy and change can be consolidated toward the establishment of a freer, fairer, and more just society.