The Power of Sanctions

By Simon Bere

HARARE – This article is not about disputing whether or not Zimbabwe is under United States sanctions because this has been a subject for inconclusive discussion for decades now.

My interests here is to delve into a strategic analysis of the situation in the hope that the analysis may provide a practical solution for dealing with the issue in a way that creates a real way forward for Zimbabwe.

In terms of our effort towards reviving our economy, the issue of sanctions is now a like an annoying monkey harassing someone who is busy dealing with an issue that requires total focus and concentration on the ball. With its antics but without any doing any physical harm to the person, the monkey can seriously disrupt someone’s attention to a point of causing a disaster. There are only two ways in which someone can handle the monkey;

Either kill the monkey or totally get used to the monkey’s antics, accept it as normal and stop paying attention to it no matter what it does to you.

There is very common philosophical stratagem that took years to accept and embrace, but one I latter found to have a profound merit. It is this;

It is not the environment that matters, but how you respond to the environment that determines your long term success or outcomes.

I could also argue for a similar philosophical stratagem that,

It is not the circumstances that determine your long term economic success, but how you respond to the circumstances. 

The core interest of the majority of Zimbabweans is, sanctions or no sanctions, to see their economy recover to a point where it gives them the quality of life they want and they truly deserve given their natural potential of their country and their capabilities and abilities. They want to work with their government and all other stakeholders to retrieve the economy from its current abyss and propel it towards growth with equity and broad-based prosperity. I am sure like, many would like the country to take a decisive position on the issue of sanctions and move on with the job. The subject of sanctions distracts so many people from focusing on finding or contribution solutions to the recovery of their economy.

I appeal to the political and economic leadership of the country to consider this. When a society or a group is faced with a situation or difficulty, they look up to their leadership for answers, solutions, for inspiration and for direction. What the leaders say, and how they respond to the situation determines how the society also reacts or responds to the same situation. Even in the face of situations of life and death, inspirational leadership can be the only deciding factor between perish and survival. In the same vein, even if Zimbabwe is truly on havoc-wrecking sanctions, what the political and economic leadership say about has a serious impact on the moral of the citizens. There is nothing more scary and demoralising for followers than their leaders signalling that a situation is overwhelming them. This is not say leadership must show empty bravado; they must instead face the situation as soberly as possible but without creating panic and demoralisation among the followers, some of whom may have possible solutions to contribute.

I have already said this article is not about whether or not US sanctions exist but more about how best we can move past this sanctions issue and refocus our minds on what we can and must do to return our economy to prosperity and growth, with or without sanctions.  According to Washington, Zimbabwe’s sanctions have no real power and influence on Zimbabwe’s economy. US Envoy Brian Nichols, in an article published in the Zimbabwe Independent of 12-17 April 2019 wrote,

“Some people would like to blame US sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. However, the US does not seek to harm the Zimbabwean people; US sanctions targets their abusers and oppressors. There are currently 84 individuals and 56 entities on the list. The purpose is simple, to hold accountable human rights violators and corrupt individuals, and signal that the US will not turn a blind eye on those who undermine Zimbabwe’s constitution and democratic institutions. These narrow and limited sanctions do not restrict commerce between the US and Zimbabwe firms.

Many people confuse the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) with targeted sanctions. This is a misunderstanding. ZDERA requires the US to against new international lending through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial institutions-nothing more.

Zimbabwe is already ineligible for new loans due to its default and prior unpaid debts, the US has never voted to block an international loan to Zimbabwe. Thus ZDERA is simply a road map to a peaceful, democratic, just, and prosperous Zimbabwe and aligns with the commitments Mnangagwa has made throughout his tenure; economic reforms, legal and transparent land reform, harmonisation and implementation of the 2013 constitution, free and fair elections, good governance and the rule of law and human rights.”

I will not make on comment on these words because as I have already stated, my argument here is not about whether or not sanctions exist but about how best to deal with the sanctions issue.

There is a story of the American cowboys we used at first use to dig perimeter trenches as a way to control the movement of their cattle. The bad thing with the trenches was that many of their cows were breaking their legs. One of the cows decided to switch the trenches for white paint and at first combined the white paint and the trench. Eventually the cowboys removed the trenches and left only a white paint perimeter. Interestingly, the cattle never crossed the boundary, believing it to be a harmful trench. This strategy work for a long time until one day, one cow asked what would happen if it tried to cross the white line. It dared cross the white line and nothing happened. It crossed back and nothing happened. Initially, the other cows watched from afar, wondering what this cow was smoking. Sooner, they realised it was no fluke and that the while line was a fake boundary. Then all the cattle followed suit and were crossing the line at will. The cowboy’s strategy had been busted. They now needed a better strategy!

The moral of this story is so powerful for modern day Zimbabwe and its economic situation. First, economic and political leaders need to be careful about what they say and the impression they create to Zimbabweans about sanctions and their impact on Zimbabwe’s ability to recover. Any exaggeration from the true position regarding the sanctions can have serious impacts that can severely undermine the ability of Zimbabweans to play a part in Zimbabwe’s economic recovery. If the leaders give the impression that the sanctions are so powerful that the country cannot do anything meaningful to turnaround the economy, then people will become completely demoralised and lose any hope. Loss of hope is a disaster; it makes mad situations catastrophic. If leaders gives the exaggerated impression that they in full control of the sanctions situation when they do not have an easily accessible, credible sanctions management strategy for making sure the country prevails, they set the country and themselves for failure and disappointment when people do not see any signs of progress.

Sanctions are like this boundary that the cowboys used to control the movement of their cattle. The important questions to ask are’

Do these sanctions really exist in the way they are portrayed by the country’s economic leadership or they are like the white wash perimeter that the cowboys used to control the movement of their cows, making them believe that crossing the white line was as dangers as trying to cross a real trench?

If these sanctions exist, how really powerful are they to stop Zimbabweans from turning around the economy using the power of their minds, their knowledge and their expertise?

If these sanctions are so powerful that even our leadership admits that the country has no power to turn around the economy while under the sanctions, what must the followers then do next? Must they stop trying any solutions because any effort at economic turnaround is effort in futility? Must they embrace economic doom and brace up for perpetual poverty and suffering until those who imposed sanctions have decided, at the time of their own choosing, to be lenient enough to remove the sanctions?

If sanctions are real and have the most powerful effect on our prospects for economic recovery, what is our most practical strategy for either having these sanctions removed or beating them so thoroughly that they will be rendered completely useless in stopping us from creating the kind of economy we want?

As a country we must deal decisively with this sanctions issue in the most practical way we can. By now Zimbabwe must know it is alone in this sanctions playing field. Why have our allies from the east, especially our economic giant China, not paid heed to our cries of help from the crippling effect of sanctions and fought on our side by pouring in all the financial resources we need so that we can neutralise the effects of sanctions? Why are our allies not putting in real economic punches against our punishers on our behalf? We have tried the strategy of enlisting our allies including South Africa, China and Russia to fight with us against sanctions and all they have given us are publicity stunts of weakly denounce the sanctions from public fora and the media when they know fully well that Washington won’t take seriously anyone who denounces it in public and demands the removal of sanctions by speaking through the media.

There are three possible options for Zimbabwe to pursue; If these sanctions are really crippling and we cannot do anything meaningful on the economic front without their removal, then we might have to bite the bullet and pursue a proper and sober negotiation with America so that it can remove for us.

If the opposition of biting the bullet is not for us, the second option is to figure out powerful strategies for busting the sanctions and move ahead without ever using the sanctions as an excuse again but as another challenge than we must overcome on our way to economic prosperity.

The third option is to simply move ahead and operate as if the sanctions do not exist and see how far we can go on our own. Sometimes we give power to something my paying too much attention to it.

Each of the options has its own consequences that we must be prepared to face. The bottom line is if we really want to make it with our economy, we must assume full, complete and total charge and responsibility for everything good or bad. We cannot expect victory with our own efforts while claiming that someone else somewhere has the absolute power over the results that we produce. If how well we do economically depends on what other nations do to us, then we can never enjoy the status of being the true masters of our own economic destiny. The choice is ours.

While we are still at the issue of sanctions, it is important that I mention the importance of us guarding against focalism and fundamental attribution error. Focalism is a psychological phenomenon where a person will focus only on one element in a problem caused my many elements working together to create the problem. It is also a situation where a person thinks of a one element solution where the actual solution is made up of many elements combined together. Fundamental attribution is a situation where a person will blame external elements and circumstances for all one’s problems and failures but accredits oneself for all one’s successes and good outcomes even those in which he never invested any conscious effort. These two phenomena undermine one’s chances of success and lead to flawed decisions and poor solutions. What happens to individuals can also happen to organisations and economies. In conclusion;

It is not the circumstances that determine our long term success or outcomes, but how we respond to the circumstances. In the same vein, one can argue that it is not the sanctions that determine the long term success or failure of any economy, but how the citizens of an economy respond to the sanctions. We cannot control sanctions, but we can control how we respond to the sanctions. And the power to control how we respond to the sanctions is the only true economic power that we possess.

Bere is one of Zimbabwe’s leading economic analysts and critics. He can be contacted on