Are the Sanctions on Zimbabwe Working?5 min read

EU and US Sanctions

On Friday, October 25th, the US Department of State designated Owen Ncube, Zimbabwe’s Security Minister, as being ineligible for entry into the United States. Ncube joined about 85 other Zimbabwean leaders, including President Mnangagwa, and 56 companies that face financial and travel restrictions from the US. In a statement, the State Department declared that it only places sanctions on individuals “involved in significant corruption [and] a gross violation of human rights.” The statement further went on to condemn the Zimbabwean government’s human rights violations and announce the US’ standing in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people.

Similar to the US, the EU targets “specific individuals both within the Zimbabwean government and associated with it,” and they also claim that their restrictions “have no impact on the economy.” Both the EU and US sanctions began during the dictatorial rule of Robert Mugabe and continue today with Zimbabwe’s new competitive authoritarian regime. 

In their book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way articulate how Western countries use both linkage and leverage over other countries as a means of pushing them towards democratization. They define Western leverage as being a state’s “vulnerability to Western democratizing pressure.” Sanctions are just one example of the leverage that the West can exert over other countries.


The day that Owen Ncube was sanctioned by the US happened to coincide with a recently declared public holiday that called on Zimbabweans to take to the streets in protest of EU and US sanctions which the government blames for the country’s struggling economy. An article for the DW, a German-based international news broadcaster, highlights some of the economic backlash that the country has faced as a result of the sanctions citing the inability of Zimbabwe to “access lines of credit from international money institutions” and  the lack of business deals/ trade between American and Zimbabwean companies. 

While these sanctions might be contributing to the failure of the country’s economy, they are certainly not the deciding factors. Other than the sanctions on individuals and companies, “there are no broad economic sanctions, no nationwide punishments for the country, [and] no crippling outside impositions.” The problems with Zimbabwe’s economy are a result of internal factors as opposed to external ones. According to Carren Pindiri, a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Zimbabwe, “data from 1980 to 2015 shows no evidence sanctions had a negative effect on formal employment and poverty.”

The low turnout at the government-sponsored protests despite the cancellation of school and work show that Zimbabweans are not buying into the government’s propaganda. According to Courage, a Zimbabwean scholar and activist, the people of Zimbabwe do not particularly care for sanctions because they do not make an impact on their lives. They present a slight inconvenience to those being sanctioned by limiting their travel options, but they do not have any impact on the governance of the country.

Effectiveness of Sanctions

While Western leverage and linkage can often be deciding factors in a country’s democratization, in the Zimbabwean case, sanctions are not helping. While the sanctions are certainly not harming the economy as the Zimbabwean government claims, they are not producing their desired result of forcing the “government of Zimbabwe to implement necessary political and economic reforms to provide Zimbabwean citizens the prosperity, security, and well-being they deserve.”

The sanctions on Zimbabwe can be classified as targeted sanctions because they “focus their impact on leaders, political elites and segments of society believed responsible for objectionable behavior, while reducing collateral damage to the general population and third countries.” The goal of these sanctions is to force the hand of specific leaders by punishing them, but I think that the severity of the Zimbabwean case makes it so that leaders are indifferent to the sanctions.

While the government of Zimbabwe is bothered enough by the sanctions to call for a public holiday in order to protest them, they do not care enough to change their regressive practices. Zimbabwe is home to rampant electoral malpractice and human rights violations; and these factors are exactly what keeps the ruling Zanu PF party in power. Should they succumb to the desires of the West and democratize then they would most likely lose power. While not being able to travel to the US or EU countries might be a slight inconvenience for the country’s leaders, it is not enough of an inconvenience for these leaders to make moves towards democratization that might result in their being ousted from government.


While targeted Western sanctions on Zimbabwe may not be worsening the country’s economic situation, they are not doing enough to improve the country’s economic situation. I think the key questions surrounding this situation are whether the sanctions can be improved to become more effective. Is there some form of targeted sanction that will be more threatening to Zimbabwe’s leaders than the thought of losing power? In a paper for a symposium on “Sanctions Reform? Evaluating the Economic Weapon in Asia and the World,” Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Barbara Oegg argue that targeted sanctions are used as opposed to multilateral ones because of “widely shared concerns about humanitarian and third country effects.” Sanctions applied generally against countries can often have the negative impact on the economy that Zimbabwe claims is currently occuring and disproportionately affect those on the bottom of the economic ladder. If the West were to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe that actually do negatively impact the economy, are Zimbabweans more likely to blame the West or blame the government? Could widespread protests against the government be enough to push them towards democratization and reform or will they react with even more repression?

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  1. When considering Zimbabwe’s history, it seems likely that something drastic would be necessary in order to reform its regime. Even if multilateral sanctions were imposed, the effect would most likely be negative–the general economy would be weakened, making ordinary citizens’ lives more difficult, and the government would only blame sanctions for economic failure even more. If larger protests occurred, a crackdown would be the most likely reaction from the government if the recent past has been any indication: after the disputed 2008 elections, when many people took to the street in favor of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the violence was so widespread and severe that the opposition eventually dropped out of the runoff race entirely. A clear solution to the corruption of the Zimbabwean government does not seem to exist. If widespread demonstrations were combined with the use of U.N. peacekeeping forces to protect the protesters, perhaps some headway would be made. When looking at the track record of targeted sanctions’ potency, that manner of coercion does not seem to be the best path forward (Zimbabwean officials continue to act with impunity). In the near future, effective measures should be taken by international actors to bolster the democracy that many Zimbabwean citizens have been fighting for. –

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