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Unpacking the nexus between sanctions, the urgency and necessity of social, legal and economic reforms in Zimbabwe

Unpacking the nexus between sanctions, the urgency and necessity of social, legal and economic reforms and Zimbabwe’s immediate future under President Mnangagwa

By Brighton Mutebuka


Zimbabwe is at a cross-roads at the moment, with the unbridled sense of joy and euphoria that was unleashed when news filtered through that long standing dictator Robert Mugabe had finally conceded defeat and resigned steadily dissipating and giving way to a deep sense of anxiety and unease about the future. Things are clearly in a state of “flux”. In this vacuum, many contested narratives are emerging about our future and rightly so, given what is at stake.

Brighton Mutebuka
Brighton Mutebuka
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The importance of the moment should not be lost for a people oppressed for so long by their very own black government, in an independent African country after so many sacrifices were made by so many to get to that very moment.

This was also not lost on President Mnangagwa (EDM) during his inauguration speech, when he drew from the revered Nelson Mandela’s own hallowed inauguration speech delivered on 05 October 1994 and made dramatic references to “never, never again ..”

The irony could not be lost that he had only just dramatically returned to Zimbabwe himself only a few days before, after he had been forced to flee the country purportedly under the hot pursuit of the metaphoric “lions” unleashed by the former President, RGM. The challenge that he now faces is walking the walk amidst a cacophony of competing interests and defeaning narratives.

The options he has are:

i. totally ignoring reforms and taking the high Machiavellian approach of his former mentor, RGM,

ii. introducing limited reforms sufficient to project a veneer of a trajectory towards a democratic dispensation but not getting far enough,

iii. Introducing so little reforms that they are basically meaningless in the wider scheme of things and wholly insufficient to create the necessary gravitas that he needs on the geo-political spectrum.

All three choices have got very serious ramifications in meeting the immediate and long term needs of a restless population.

Delving deeper into matters critical to the political economy of Zimbabwe, one such subject is the sanctions imposed by the West and their role in shaping our political landscape. They are a deeply emotive subject and offer a window into our past and current national psyche. They present both an opportunity and a curse, depending on how they are dissected.

I now feel an even greater compulsion to address them given the scale of the interest shown in the visit of the founding / unified MDC triumvirate of Biti, Chamisa and Ncube, as well as Dewa Mavhinga of Human Rights Watch to Washington and the address that they presented to the US Congress on the 12th of December 2017.

I can only hope that my contribution enriches the debate concerning matters pertinent to the reconstruction of Zimbabwe at this moment in time and provides a platform for intellectual rigour and probity located in civilised discourse. The overriding concern is to bring “truth to power” in a way that our leaders are not accustomed to due to the attendant prevalence of sycophancy and self-preservation that imbues those who traverse the corridors of power.

Indeed I will grab the opportunity to warn the current President that harsh lessons must be drawn from the fall of the former President who must have been numbed into shock by the very eerie scenes and images projected around the world of Zimbabweans celebrating his demise when decades of being detached from reality misled, nay infused a sense of delusion into him, leading to him falsely believing that he was irreplaceable. The opportunity to learn and change must simply not be squandered.

The Contentious Subject Of Sanctions and Reforms

To tackle this subject with a sense of sobriety, I have decided to frame a few questions: What started first, sanctions or human rights violations? Were the sanctions imposed solely based on the MDC’s invitation? Is the MDC powerful enough to cause sanctions to be imposed without merit? Are Reforms a pre-requisite to a return to a thriving economy or they can wait? Is it politically palatable to call for sanctions or their retention at this moment in time?

Finally, has ZANU pf learned from the sanctions and RGM’s rule? Clearly, a lot of half-truths have been peddled on the above subject. The sincere hope is to peel the layers and get to the “core“. I feel that the best approach is to take a historical peek on the subject matter. It is common cause that ZIDERA was signed into law by former American President George Bush on 21 December 2001.

This was a direct response to the policies of the then President R.G. Mugabe’s government following the violent elections which took place in June 2000, the collapse in the rule of law which manifested itself through the violent dispossession of land primarily directed at white farm owners but also affecting their black workers & other black farm owners (not so prominently reported about) and the marked deterioration in the country’s general human rights situation at the time.

It is common cause that the opposition MDC supported those sanctions at the time, likely on the premise that they would help curb the ruling ZANU PF government’s excesses, level the playing field and ultimately lead to free and fair elections and a return to legitimacy.

The first controversy arises from the fact that the sanctions were said to be “targeted” towards ruling party’s officials, but it is contested whether or not this is how events turned out in practice. The other controversy centres on the efficacy of the sanctions as an enforcement tool, vis-a-vis the intended outcome.

Some said (especially in ZANU PF) they were meant to engineer regime change but only served to cause untold damage to the povo, whilst those in the MDC insist that they were targeted on individuals causing a political “menace” and they nearly delivered to the extent that they resulted in a largely free and fair election in March 2008, which resulted in the GNU, which, tragically was followed by another bloody, sham election in which real and perceived opponents of ZANU PF were targeted. The irony is not lost that even some prominent ZANU PF supporters and members perceived to be “disloyal” were also caught up in the bloodletting.

Answering my own questions from the subject / heading, in my view, it is not contested that gross human rights violations preceded the imposition of sanctions or continued long after the imposition of sanctions. The second question concerning whether or not they were only imposed on the basis of the MDC’s “invitation to treat” as it were, my reasoned opinion is that it would be naive to make an unequivocal conclusion on this.

What can be accepted is certainly that their representations then, just as now, did carry some weight. However, those who appreciate statecraft would surely know that each nation state ultimately uses its intelligence gathering tools through an array /network of agencies to come to such a conclusion, this includes local diplomats and those of other like-minded countries, NGOs, and intelligence operatives. The information is then assessed professionally, independent of the political imperatives. Much more importantly, many countries across the globe, even in Africa, took umbrage with the deposed President’s govt and its policies.

The next question is related to the one that I have just answered. However, there is the added caveat that at the present moment, the perception is that the West and the rest of the world have come to the point where they have suffered “fatigue” in relation to the MDC project.

This is why the coup was accepted without fuss. There can be no doubt that in the past there would have been a lot of “atmospherics” around this had there not been a definitive paradigm shift. It would appear that there is an acceptance that the opposition’s best moments have come and gone, and the relevant powers have now moved to embrace “strategic engagement“.

In fact, this much had been evident for quite some time, with the raft of re-engagement Entente Cordiales which took place after the 2013 elections being a case in point. Ultimately, this means that there is a lot of goodwill in the West and East, amongst others, to engage with EDM’s govt.

The challenge for EDM’s government is not to squander this moral capital. By the same token, the political standing of the MDC has clearly dissipated from the dizzy heights of the ’90s to mid-2000s. Naturally, this has got an impact on the nature of the influence they are able to exert on their former erstwhile allies.

A convergence of the above range of factors and adding on to it Morgan Tsvangirai’s very serious and unfortunate illness means that countries will probably be much more unwilling to introduce policies that antagonise the Zimbabwean regime without much more compelling evidence sourced independently of the MDCs. I thus conclude that the MDC is no longer powerful enough to elicit that kind of response from its former allies.

In relation to the next question concerning the importance of reforms to our political economy, I will draw from a module that I undertook at Leeds University in 2015, International Economic Law. As the module’s name suggests, it focuses on the architecture underpinning International Trade / Commerce. Essentially, the current body of commercial / economic / trade laws were conceived by the West over 300 years ago and have taken time to perfect.

They are a settled body of laws that are virtually unmovable, combining commerce / trade and law and politics. The major financial institutions are interconnected and have similar / overarching rules, with the idea being to channel capital across the world to create wealth for them and their nations.

In true capitalist style, the overriding principle is to create wealth exponentially. Human rights considerations are the last thing on their minds, hence why they are active in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Russia amongst others, countries which clearly not paragons of virtue. Before any loans are extended to any country, the financiers (including China / the East) carry out detailed due diligence. Political considerations are immediately thrown out of hand.

They have got their own sets of teams which carry out risk assessments, politically, economically and structurally. There are also “insurable risks” that insurance companies working with these bodies carry out. Factors that come into play in these assessments include a country’s political, legal, social and economic landscape (including payment record for previous debts).

The assessment is rigorous and carried out by seasoned, independent experts, with some of them using software to exhaustively fathom / explore various scenarios. Zimbabwe, like other countries doing trade on the international plane needs to have an insurance policy which takes into account all of the above and more.

In 2015 when I did my module, research indicated that we had not even bothered to obtain a policy or keep it fully paid, presumably because it was too onerous to do so owing to the levels of risk. Now, as you can see, it is more likely that as a country, Zimbabwe will struggle to access credit lines more because of its past and current policies (all of them), than what Chamisa or Biti or Ncube says in Washington. What they say is clearly relevant, but it is clearly not as definitive as is being suggested.

Reforms are crucial in the matrix referred above because the centuries old architecture I have referred to has got at its core certain values it holds as sacrosanct. These include the belief that countries devoid of the rule of law are likely to be plagued with corruption, cronyism, nepotism, impunity and a casual disregard for investment laws and protection of the investor, including Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPAs).

They also believe that in those countries, the absence of credible, independent institutions means that justice can easily be “privatised“, something that we clearly saw during RGM’s era and, finally, that a restive / captive population whose “condition” is predominantly that of emasculation is one or two episodes away from triggering massive social, economic and humanitarian convulsions following a “rupture.”

In light of this, it is clear that EDM has got no choice but to try and engineer some form of “controlled” reforms as a form of “signalling” to the West and the East and potential investors. As stated above, the West do not necessarily care about human rights, especially under the current environment where there has been a lurch to the right across Europe.

However, real politik dictates that they have to be seen to be engaging with regimes which are at least attempting to incorporate such norms.

If there are no discernible reforms introduced or even an attempt to do so or even half-hearted attempts to introduce them, the level of investments that will come will be qualitatively far below what is needed to meet the country’s economic expectations and will certainly put EDM under immense pressure to deliver very quickly and leave him with no choice but to carry out a repressive agenda.

It is clear that EDM is very hesitant about reforms for he would have thrown a bone or two, just the same way he moved quickly to acknowledge RGM through that national holiday. Thus, for instance, it clearly does not make any sense to condemn G40 and its ideology and yet be contend to retain G40 or Prof J. Moyo’s crafted & much maligned laws – e.g. AIPPA & POSA, or to talk about criminal elements around the former President yet nab only a few and, whilst doing so, employ similar methods to those used by the deposed President’s regime.

The contradictions are noticeable but are now spoken of in hushed tones.  The “human condition” of our people is dire and clearly presents a ticking time bomb. Euphoria can quickly turn in despair and rage over time, which is why the EDM’s political calculus should be trained on delivering qualitative, swift economic transformation which can only come through credible reforms. Hungry people have got short memories. They are high on emotion and short on patience intellectualism. They have also tasted freedom, albeit fleetingly during Bob’s demise.

If EDM chooses his cards correctly and strategically, even without wholesale (but well picked ones) reforms he may disembowel the MDC’s sanctions mantra pretty quickly. It is clear that those who advise him fear that such an approach would be tantamount to reforming himself out of power, something that is clearly unpalatable in light of the effort that was put into the project to seize power.

However, EDM must know that whilst it is understandable that the scale of the challenge that he faces is immense – to balance and reform competing interests such as those of the military who assisted him to come to power, power dynamics in ZANU PF, state institutions which have been moribund for many years and were fashioned more in true Maoist style than in the image of modern independent, credible state institutions by his former mentor, RGM (likely with EDM’s assistance) and yet still meet the needs of a restive population, the need to do so in unavoidably urgent.

As stated above, there are harsh and unforgiving lessons to be learned from RGM’s fall. The latter was recalcitrant and famously saw reforms as a sign of weakness. He rode roughshod over state institutions and conceded virtually nothing to his opponents, blurring the boundaries of the state and the party whilst unleashing the full might of those same institutions for power retention in true Machiavellian style.

What is instructive is that, when his Waterloo finally arrived, it is the people’s verdict that finally ebbed the last stubborn morsel of bone in his body and unceremoniously ejected him from “zete” into the dustbins of history. The verdict in relation to this is that ZANU PF has learned the lessons pertaining to sanctions from an economic standpoint, given the raft of almost unthinkable policy changes that were recently unveiled, e.g. compensating white farmers, carrying out land audits, culling the indigenisation laws and trimming the civil service, amongst others.

However, they have not learned the nexus between economic, social and legal reforms such as aligning the Constitution with the rest of the statutes, freeing the state media, creating and respecting independent state institutions such as the Judiciary, Police and Army, posing significant dangers for the future.

Much more importantly, by seamlessly moving to institute reforms, EDM opens a path to the much sought after legitimacy whilst simultaneously shifting the ground from the opposition’s feet culminating in the coup de grace which the investors and international community seek.

The final question concerns whether or not it is palatable for the MDCs to call for the retention of sanctions at this moment in time. My answer is a resounding no, but for different reasons being articulated by others. I must make it clear that I am convinced that it is unlikely that EDM is going to institute the kind of reforms that are necessary for a truly free and fair election – so the suggestion that somehow travelling to Washington at this time as opposed to campaigning will result in political haemorrhaging does not resonate with me.

I think that, ultimately, the key issue is timing, which is crucial in politics. At the moment, EDM has just assumed power. Although he has clearly bided his time in instituting reforms, the cards have fallen in such a way that the opposition have left themselves exposed to accusations of having “jumped the gun“.

Better political wisdom would have meant waiting until there is clear incontrovertible evidence of a lack of reforms, such as clear acts of flagrant human rights violations or a failure to reform a key institution like ZEC. What is now likely is that the three gentlemen in question will be “hoisted by their own petard” as it were, which is harsh given the lack of reforms, and their travails will be feasted upon for some time to come, especially by EDM and his regime and rightly or wrongly used to politically posture and justify resisting reforms.

However, it must also be conceded that since assuming power, EDM has not projected positively towards the opposition, vis-à-vis instituting even the barest of democratic reforms. Thus, it is striking that RGM’s coercive infrastructure is still intact, itself a relic from Ian Smith’s colonial regime and perfected over many years.

The unfortunate thing is that if EDM takes this course, i.e., of resisting significant reforms, he risks scattering the goodwill that his sudden and dramatic elevation brought and also a genuine, once in a generation opportunity for a ZANU PF leader to win free and fair elections on the altar of the national goodwill drawn from wielding the guillotine on Bob and thus gain legitimacy, which is currently not there. Also, the longer he stalls on reforms, the more hesitant investors will be, fearing a return to type, and the less likely he will be able to attract the qualitative leap in the level of investors he needs to get the economy going to forestall the ides of August or September next year.

Proposed Way Forward On Reforms

There can be no doubt that those fearful of reforms within the military, ZANU PF and state institutions fear a combination of being swept of out of power, out of habit following RGM’s default modus operandi, and being held to account in a new dispensation. These are undoubtedly real and immediate concerns. The country cannot be held to ransom over this.

The best way of unlocking this logjam is to create a credible framework for an amnesty which guarantees immunity from prosecution for certain crimes provided that certain conditions are met. It is for specialists to specify the conditions in question and then to sell this politically to Zimbabweans. Such a mechanism should clearly encompass transitional justice aspects to it.

There can never be a guarantee that power can never be lost, therefore, those fearful of this aspect must assess their fears credibly, in light of a range of variables on the local political terrain, such as the state of their opponent, the state of recent political developments, and the general state of geo-politics regionally and internationally at the moment and take their chances on that basis.

The next stage is the issue of sanctions, which are related to the above point. What is settled is that the mantra that sanctions should be removed first before any serious engagement is permissible during political rallies, but not when it comes to serious negotiations at international level.

There is a settled doctrine in legal practice that one cannot approach a court with dirty hands, they first have to cure their transgression. This also applies in this context via customary international law practices. The government will have to institute reforms first and then approach their negotiating partners, a development which clearly engenders rapport and shows good faith.

This is then likely to also result in reciprocal behaviour such as removal of sanctions and provision of developmental aid, budgetary support and general lines of credit. EDM can start with easy to implement reforms which send the right kind of “optics” nationally and internationally such as those relating to AIPPA, POSA, ZEC, ZBC, the Herald, the Police, Army and alignment of Statutes with the Constitution before moving to complex ones.

If these measures are implemented, then they can be genuinely embraced and celebrated by Zimbabweans and perhaps honour General Tongogara’s famous sentiments of building a free, non-racial post independent country.


It’s clear that at present the influence of the MDC vis-a-vis the continued application of sanctions on Zimbabwe is exaggerated. The evidence shows that what matters more are the policies enacted by the government of the day and the “intelligence” gathered by those minded to invoke sanctions and the MDC is but only one such source on a broad spectrum.

To this end, the public outcries we have seen are understandable but detached from political reality. It is in fact notable that even ZANU PF itself is now silent on the issue of sanctions and recently, EDM’s Advisor, Chris Mutsvangwa chose to cast this issue on the peripheries of our political discourse. I think things would have stayed that way but for the visit to Washington alluded to.

EDM’s regime has got more to gain from instituting reforms than it realises and the public have perhaps through ignorance underappreciated how intertwined economic progress is with social, economic and legal reforms. Conversely, the MDC’s role in the imposition of sanctions is overstated and there is an under-appreciation of the significance of the role played by the deposed President’s policies in triggering and maintaining sanctions.

This somewhat “amnesia” could be attributed to: a. the passage of time since the events in question, b. effective use of propaganda by ZANU PF, c. the general goodwill that is currently being directed towards EDM following his role in bringing down the former President, d. the decline in thrust / potency of the MDC’s own information architecture, e. poverty, desperation by the public / weariness from the effects of the implosion and an eagerness to see a change in their economic fortunes, and f. perhaps a combination of all the factors. These are all classical weaknesses of social democratic movements in times of economic crises.

After all has been said and done, the reality is that we all want what’s best for Zimbabwe and for it to return to its former glory of a thriving country at peace with itself. This can only be achieved sustainably, for the long term that is, through building credible, independent institutions, which can only happen if the necessary political will is there. Without this, it will be a question of false dawns.

EDM has got a unique opportunity to rebrand Zimbabwe as a young, vibrant, confident African country that is re-asserting itself on a global, changing world. He needs to be bold and avoid recoiling to the past. One of history’s defining lessons is that repression, though alluring, ultimately always ends in collapse and ignominy. The arch of history always bends that way.

Power creates an illusion of invincibility but only for a limited period before our mortality sets in. That final image of a dishevelled, rambling, incoherent Robert Mugabe flanked by the Generals beamed around the world is haunting and humiliating. That one of the liberation struggle’s defining characters chose to make choices that ultimately caused his standing to dramatically and vividly “shrink” in that manner is a question that historians will grapple with for the ages.

The dangers of sycophants in elevating leaders to deities should also be emphasised. The ease with which they deserted RGM and quickly shifted allegiance is telling. If reforms are instituted, including transitional justice mechanisms (not immediately but perhaps two or so years from now, once things have stabilised) to deal with our country’s painful past, there is a real window of moving away from a dark past and creating a new, exciting, dynamic, optimistic narrative.

Zimbabwe’s human capital is the envy of many. I have got no doubt that with the right policies, those abroad will, once satisfied about the trajectory of the current government or even a future one that emerges from free and fair elections, consider playing a part in creating a new future.

EDM has got a massive, unmissable chance to step out of the shadows of his discredited and much reviled former mentor, banish memories of the past and recast his image in the mould of a glorious, transformative figure in the form of former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping and create his own narrative, rather than steadily fold into another tinpot dictator and meet a similar fate to his mentor.

Only time will tell which path he chooses.

Brighton Mutebuka is a Zimbabwean Lawyer and Solicitor based in the UK. He runs Mutebuka & Co Immigration Lawyers and is an alumni of the University of Zimbabwe and Leeds University’s School of Law. He writes in his personal capacity.