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On Monday 1 February 2021, the United Kingdom (UK) announced that it had designated four security bosses for sanctions for human rights violations.
This was the first of the UK’s major foreign policy measures outside the European Union after Brexit on 31 January.
The travel bans and asset freezes target four key officials:
- Owen Ncube, state security minister;
- Isaac Moyo, Central Intelligence Organisation director general
- Godwin Matanga, police commissioner general;
- Anselem Sanyatwe, a former brigadier general who commanded the presidential guard.
Rise to power
Mnangagwa ascended to power through a military coup that toppled his mentor and long-time ruler, the late Robert Mugabe, in November 2017.
The UK was one of the powers that supported Mnangagwa. Its then foreign secretary Boris Johnson – and current prime minister – met his counterpart, the late Sibusiso Moyo, in London on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April 2018.
Johnson, who was backing Zimbabwe’s re-engagement efforts with the West – mainly the country’s re-entry to the Commonwealth – praised Mnangagwa for making progress in the first 150 days in office.
Those hopes for improvements in Zimbabwe’s governance faded as Mnangagwa muzzled critics and political opponents using state security agents.
- In August 2018, when people were protesting the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s delay in announcing election results in Harare, the presidential guard commanded by Sanyatwe opened live ammunition on civilians resulting in six deaths and 35 wounded, according to the Kgalema Motlanthe Commission report.
- In January 2019, when people protested over Mnangagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices by 150%, the government deployed its security agents to quell protesters resulting in 17 people killed, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission report.
Lack of economic and political reforms
In a statement, the UK said these sanctions seek to encourage the government to stop the repression of civil society and to respect human rights.
Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer in the department of political studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, says the UK sanctions are a signal that the British have realised that Mnangagwa is not seeking change.
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“These sanctions are coming as a signal that Zimbabwe no longer has friends in the West because when Mnangagwa came to power they [British] wanted to see if they could re-engage Zimbabwe,” he tells The Africa Report.
“These sanctions are a manifestation of what has happened since 2017 – that Mnangagwa has not fulfilled his promises.”
Tawanda Zinyama, an academic at the University of Zimbabwe, says the UK sanctions show that Mnangagwa is fast losing allies who supported him after the military coup.
“It is indeed a bad sign that the Zimbabwe administration is fast losing not only the goodwill which it had following the November 2017 military action, but also the very few friends which it had made since then,” he says.
Makumbe says sanctions are evidence that the UK will no longer engage with Zimbabwe, even in debt rescheduling. The government wants to be eligible for new lending, but it has to pay back its arrears first and the country’s economy is performing poorly, with a weakening currency and high inflation.
The Southern Africa nation owes $1.2bn in arrears to the World Bank, African Development Bank and European Investment Bank.
Contacted for comment about repayment and reengagement with the West, the foreign affairs ministry said they were “not going to issue any statements regarding that, for now.”
The UK sanctions came two weeks after then foreign minister Sibusiso Moyo died of Covid-19.
Moyo, who was the diplomatic face of the military coup, made efforts to charm the West but his efforts were set back by the Mnangagwa government.
Mnangagwa appointed former ambassador – to the UN and China – Frederick Shava as Moyo’s replacement on 8 February.
Alexander Rusero, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report: “Zimbabwe’s domestic policy is bankrupt of ideas. There is a lot of confusion within the Mnangagwa regime.”
Tatenda Mashanda, a foreign policy expert at Wake Forest University in the United States, says: “We have a deeply troubled parliament, with members who lack any serious possibility of articulating Zimbabwe’s national interests and being champions of our foreign policy.”
Better luck in the East?
Zimbabwe’s ties with Asian countries including China and Russia date back to the liberation struggle.
The relationship continued after Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence as relations with the West got worse:
- The US imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001. It restricts US support for multilateral financing to Zimbabwe, following the controversial land reform programme under Mugabe in 2000 that saw blacks taking back their land from about 4,500 white commercial farmers.
- Some European countries followed suit, citing gross human rights violations.
Mugabe turned to the East for trade and investment, but Beijing and Moscow have not blindly bankrolled the government.
Makumbe says the Mnangagwa administration has no option except to pursue the Eastern path.
“Zimbabwe will turn back to China as usual. It has no option except to be in the hands of China,” he says.
“With China, we need a clear strategy. Our investment strategy regarding the Chinese has problems – its implementation is haphazard,” says the University of Zimbabwe’s Zinyama.
Mnanagwa’s initial post-Mugabe strategy was to say that Zimbabwe was “open for business”. But his government did not change its political and economic policies to encourage business.
His team continues to blame sanctions for the country’s economic woes.
The UK’s ambassador has responded to such arguments:
It’s not sanctions holding Zimbabwe’s economy back. Corruption and illicit financial flows rob Zimbabweans of their own resources. The lack of political and economic reforms undermines the chance of debt relief & international investment needed to rebuild Zimbabwe’s economy.
— Melanie Robinson (@HMAMelanieR) February 1, 2021
Will sanctions change anything in Zimbabwe?
The University of Zimbabwe’s Zinyama says that the government is not interested in reforms aimed at pacifying the West.
Meanwhile, the University of the Western Cape’s Makumbe argues that individuals who are on the sanctions list will still be able to travel and do business with the Eastern countries.
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