Lifting sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party “would give Zimbabwe an opportunity to move forward“, Jacob Zuma told reporters this week during his visit to Britain. South Africa’s president is right. The continued EU sanctions are seriously weakening the hand of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, in his efforts to implement a power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe.
This is because Zanu-PF’s response to the EU sanctions has consisted of an unrelenting propaganda effort to cast Tsvangirai and the MDC as “sell outs” who campaigned for the imposition of unjustified sanctions that are “racist” and a violation of Zimbabwe’s sovereignty. Zanu-PF has circulated this message since sanctions were imposed in 2002. It depicts Tsvangirai’s MDC as being in cahoots with imperialist western states.
Tsvangirai’s party denies it campaigned for the imposition of sanctions. But it has nonetheless failed to counter Zanu-PF’s propaganda because its message has never been as coherent and consistent. The fact that Zimbabwe’s public media is controlled and dominated by Zanu-PF scarcely helps.
Since the MDC began sharing power it has come under pressure to advocate the removal of sanctions because it supposedly “instigated” them. Zanu-PF refuses to implement democratic reforms it consented to in the power-sharing agreement for as long as the sanctions remain in place.
The sanctions standoff is one of the main reasons why the government has made little headway in democratising Zimbabwean institutions in time for the next election in 2012. This stalemate is what prompted Zuma’s call – although it is consistent with the position taken by several southern African leaders since 2002. The then Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, was scathing about the EU move: “As you have heard about Zimbabwe and the EU’s decision to impose sanctions, it seems they want to divide Africa at Brussels in 2002 just as they did in Berlin in 1884. Africa must be prepared to say no,” he said.
When Zimbabwe’s power-sharing deal was signed in 2008, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) called on the EU and the United States to remove all forms of sanctions. They declined, arguing that sanctions should only be removed when Zanu-PF had fully implemented the power-sharing agreement. Today, the EU contends that if it brings Zimbabwe’s isolation to an end, it will have less leverage to persuade Zanu-PF to fully implement the agreement.
The EU’s condemnation of Mugabe and the Zanu-PF elite would command more authority if the same standards were applied elsewhere. After Afghanistan’s inconclusive presidential election in August last year, Afghans were expected to vote in a runoff between incumbent Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah withdrew, citing vote rigging designed to ensure Karzai’s victory.
In Zimbabwe this drew comparisons with how Tsvangirai pulled out of the 2008 runoff against Mugabe because of its unfair nature. In spite of the evident electoral abnormalities in Afghanistan, the US and EU recognised Karzai as the duly elected president. Zuma and other SADC leaders who brokered power sharing in Zimbabwe deeply resent the EU’s refusal to lift sanctions when they applied no equivalent to Karzai.
Few, if any, African countries still look up to the EU, and the west generally, as champions of human rights and democracy. It is time to start listening and taking our cue from leaders like Zuma, who are far more engaged with the region and better placed to bring about free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.
Blessing-Miles Tendi, a researcher and freelance writer on contemporary Zimbabwean politics.