Africa may be historically neglected by U.S. foreign policy, but it has been given an outsized focus by Washington in one area: sanctions. Washington has active sanctions against nine African countries — more than any other continent. One of the longest-running programs is Zimbabwe, which has been targeted by U.S. sanctions for nearly 20 years, with little to show for it.
The first sanctions, announced in February 2002 in response to violence and intimidation ahead of that year’s presidential election, came in the form of travel restrictions against senior Zimbabwean officials. Additional individual sanctions followed in 2003, 2005, and 2008, and today include 120 names, mostly government officials and affiliated businesses. The program was most recently renewed by President Joe Biden in March.
Announcing the 2002 sanctions, President George W. Bush said he hoped “that soon the people of Zimbabwe again will enjoy political and economic freedom.” But that has not happened. Instead, in the almost 20 years since sanctions began, conditions in Zimbabwe have continued to deteriorate.
Between 2002 and 2021, Zimbabwe has consistently ranked among the world’s most repressed economies, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Corruption, mismanagement, and two bouts of hyperinflation have left Zimbabwe’s economy smaller today in constant GDP terms than it was in 2002.
In the political sphere, things are no better. The Economist’s Democracy Index has classified Zimbabwe’s government as “authoritarian” each year since the Index was launched in 2006. Zimbabweans haven’t voted in a free and fair election in decades; instead, they have witnessed political violence, human rights abuses, and declines in civil liberties, press freedom, and judicial independence — all at the hands of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF).
Clearly, U.S. sanctions have failed to alter the authoritarian behavior of Zimbabwe’s political elite. But why? For one, they have never been truly multilateral. The European Union initially joined Washington in imposing individual sanctions but suspended them in 2013. And larger multilateral bodies like the African Union and United Nations Security Council never took similar measures, thus limiting the effectiveness of U.S. and EU sanctions even at their peak.
Nor have sanctions been attached to a clear policy objective. Instead, as Brian O’Toole, a former senior U.S. Treasury official who worked on sanctions programs, put it, “Zimbabwe is an example of the U.S. government using sanctions as policy, rather than a part of a larger strategy.”
But where U.S. sanctions in Zimbabwe have failed most strikingly is simply in staying relevant and up to date. Between 2003 and 2008, more than 180 Zimbabwean individuals and businesses were placed under sanction by President Bush. In 2008, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, was given the authority to place sanctions on additional individuals or entities associated with the government President Robert Mugabe.
But despite OFAC having this power, since 2008, it has imposed few new sanctions, while the existing list has shrunk by roughly a third. In the past four years, only seven new names have been added, despite enormous changes in the senior-level composition of Zimbabwe’s government since the 2017 coup d’état. Of the 52 ministers and deputy ministers currently serving in Zimbabwe’s cabinet, only four are subject to U.S. sanctions. Evidently, Zimbabwe is very low on OFAC’s action agenda.
Even what remains of the shrinking sanctions program is largely ineffective. Of the 73 Zimbabwean officials who appear on the current U.S. sanctions list, at least 46 — a majority — no longer held public office as of this year, and seven are deceased. Mugabe is still listed, despite his having died in 2019.
The U.S. sanctions program against Zimbabwe is undeniably stagnant and ineffective. But worse, it has been actively counterproductive. While sanctions haven’t produced the outcomes U.S. policymakers envisioned, they have been a boon to the Zimbabwean government. Unwilling to account for its own governance failures, ZANU–PF eagerly uses them as a scapegoat. Like Mugabe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa frequently blames sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic woes — even though they apply only to a small number of individuals and companies. Nonetheless, at a rally in 2019, he described U.S. sanctions as a “cancer” that affects “every… sector of our economy.”
This approach has been effective at shoring up both domestic and regional support. In 2019, the 16-member Southern African Development Community declared October 25 to be “Zimbabwe Solidarity Day” and called for the lifting of all sanctions on the country.
Without the support of international bodies like SADC, the AU, the UNSC, or the EU, U.S. sanctions will continue to fall short of their purpose — and will remain little more than a weapon in ZANU–PF’s propaganda arsenal. If U.S. sanctions towards Zimbabwe are to continue, a new approach is needed. This includes ensuring the list of targets is comprehensive, current, and regularly updated – as well as working with international organizations to restore sanctions’ multilateral nature, and ensuring they are used as a tool, not in lieu of a larger strategy.
Such a strategy should incorporate not only punitive measures like sanctions, but also positive incentives for changed behavior such as offering economic partnerships in exchange for measurable improvements in governance and human rights.
As the 2023 general elections approach, Zimbabwe faces steep barriers to genuine democracy. Now more than ever, Washington has an important role to play in helping Zimbabweans achieve the political and economic freedom they have long been denied. Targeted individual sanctions could be one important component in pursuing this goal. But barring significant changes to the status quo, it is worth asking if U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe should continue at all. As they currently exist, sanctions do nothing for U.S. policy objectives and give moral power to Zimbabwe’s corrupt and authoritarian political regime.