Zimbabwe marks the country’s 5th Anti-Sanctions Day on October 25, a public holiday introduced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to showcase the country’s resilience to what his government persistently calls ‘illegal and unjustified sanctions’. The date was declared as such in 2019, at the 39th SADC Summit held in Tanzania, some 17 years after the first package of sanctions hit Zimbabwe’s economy and its officials.
A Trail of Sanctions
As the government was pursuing a radical reform to confront discrepancies in land ownership, it also sought to solidify Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, the ruling party, hold on power. The reform, commenced in 2002, drew an outcry in the West, with reports on human rights abuses, uneven land distribution and cronyism adding to the idea of a ‘chaotic, poorly planned and often-violent’ reform that left ‘little hope for Zimbabwe’s large-scale farming.’
The country’s electoral tribulations played their part, too. In July 2000, the EU Observation Mission to Zimbabwe presented a report highlighting an opportunity for the upcoming parliamentary elections to cause ‘a major transformation’ and encouraging the EU to ‘use its influence’ and commit the country’s government to ‘re-establishing the rule of law and good governance’. For the EU, that was not the case, however, as Sweden’s Pierre Schori, who headed the Mission, said hours after the election: “The term ‘free and fair’ is not applicable in these elections.”
In 2002, Western observers were banned from the country, with Shori accused of ‘political arrogance’. His expulsion was what triggered the wave of sanctions, with the official reason being the escalation of violence, intimidation of Mugabe’s opponents and harassment of the independent media.
In February 2002, the EU, through its Resolution 145, imposed an arms embargo against Zimbabwe, a policy that the UK has been abiding by since 2000. Asset freezes and travel bans targeting 79 individuals were also part of the package. By 2008, the sanctions list expanded to 203 officials and 40 entities. Another resolution brought an end to financial and budgetary support, which were part of the Cotonou Agreement’s negotiations framework.
This, however, left humanitarian efforts out of scope, and the restrictions expired in 2014 after what the EU considered a successful constitutional referendum, so that direct aid to Zimbabwe’s government could continue. That same year, the EU Council Regulation scrapped financial sanctions on all listed persons, except for Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace. Zimbabwe Defence Industries remained sanctioned, too.
The U.S. did not hesitate either, as Washington implemented sanctions that ‘focus on the individuals responsible for or who benefit from politics that undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic institutions’ days after the EU. Soon, this translated into a two-pronged approach, as Zimbabwe was sanctioned through presidential executive orders and the Zimbabwe Economic Recovery and Democracy Act adopted by the U.S. Congress in a bipartisan vote. That meant the U.S. would oppose any extension of loans and credits to Zimbabwe by international financial institutions. Besides, the President declared ‘a national emergency’ on March 6, 2003 to deal with ‘the unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. foreign policy’ posed by the situation in Zimbabwe. In 2023, this policy option was still deemed relevant by the Biden administration.
Setback Turned Public Holiday
Therefore, the Anti-Sanctions Day is an integral part of Mnangawa’s re-engagement policy. Popular support among citizens, who joined the Anti-Sanctions March in the capital city of Harare, is billed as a proof of the country’s resilient economy. ‘Harnessing the Youth’ has become the watchword in the fight against sanctions all across the country, with Zimbabwe’s officials pointing to the failure of sanctions in spite of their obvious crippling effects. The demonstration in Harare was attended by Constantino Chiwenga, the Vice President. “Despite the sanctions, in the past five years, we realized growth that has seen our Gross Domestic Product surge from around USD 20 billion in 2018 to over USD 40 billion this year”, he said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reaching out to an external audience, has a different opinion, urging a sooner end to sanctions that have had a devastating effect on Zimbabwe’s credit lines, capital flows and investment, as well as mining, agriculture, healthcare, energy and tourism. As revealed further by SADC, the country lost more than $100 billion in donor support. To top it off, the UN’s assessment suggests that Zimbabwe has lost over $42 billion in revenue over the past 19 years.
Jenfan Muswere, the Minister for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, still emphasized that the adverse impacts of sanctions on the national economy were largely smoothed out, thanks to the efficiency of economic initiatives introduced by President Mnangagwa.
Other Countries Step In
The holiday had a broader, international dimension as SADC, Southern Africa’s regional bloc, held its virtual Anti-Sanctions Solidarity Summit. The current SADC Chairperson, President João Lourenço of Angola, called for a lifting of all the sanctions against Zimbabwe: “This reality, which is not new to the International Community, damages Zimbabwe’s image and limits its potential for access to financial and capital markets.”
Other international platforms largely share this perception. The African Union has reaffirmed its continued commitment ‘to support the brotherly nation of Zimbabwe in mobilising efforts for the complete lifting of all remaining sanctions.’ Earlier, in 2021, the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) noted the sanctions were ‘counterproductive’, while targeting ‘the most vulnerable populations’. The OACPS’s Secretary General urged to ‘reconsider the sanctions and adopt the constructive approach.’
Ever since the Anti-Sanctions Day was first celebrated, BRICS was endorsing the view that sanctions must be abolished. In August 2023, Chief Fortune Charumbira, the Pan-African Parliament President, highlighted that BRICS “have provided a means of relief against the debilitating sanctions.” Notably, Russia and China vetoed the punitive UN Security Council draft resolution as early as 2008.
Any Gains from the Day?
While the sanctions were officially imposed on account of the African nation’s perceived democratic backsliding, President Mnangagwa was quick to point out his country’s democratic achievements in his speech at the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly: “Zimbabwe continues to entrench democracy, constitutionalism, good governance and the rule of law, following the recently held 2023 harmonized general elections.”
Even though an all-out lifting of the U.S. and EU sanctions on Zimbabwe seems out of sight, allies and trade partners of the Second Republic led by Mnangagwa are firmly committed to changing the situation and assisting in the economic development of Zimbabwe.
Daria Sukhova, research fellow of the Center for African Studies, HSE University
Nikita Panin, Expert for the Center for African Studies, HSE University