The European Union has failed on Zimbabwe — but it’s not too late to change course

After the recent weeks of state-directed violence and repression in Zimbabwe, this year’s decision will be another stern test for the credibility of the EU’s response. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

After the recent weeks of state-directed violence and repression in Zimbabwe, this year’s decision will be another stern test for the credibility of the EU’s response. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

On February 18, twenty-eight European Union foreign ministers will meet in Brussels to answer the same question they have faced every year since 2002: ‘What should we do about Zimbabwe?’ After the recent weeks of state-directed violence and repression in Zimbabwe, this year’s decision will be another stern test for the credibility of the EU’s response. In truth, seventeen years of restrictive measures on Zimbabwe have provided a tough lesson in the limits of the EU’s influence and global reach.

Put simply, the EU is nursing a failed Zimbabwe policy in the absence of better alternatives. It must now decide how much confidence it has in its restrictive measures policy and whether it is time to re-explore more imaginative options to pursue in parallel.
This decision probably won’t make anything better in Zimbabwe, but it could yet make things worse.

The restrictive measures — financial and travel restrictions on a series of specific named individuals — were originally imposed in 2002, as a statement against violent, repressive and undemocratic actions directed by senior government and security sector officials. The scope of the measures has waxed and waned over the years, initially applying to 20 individuals  — including Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Constantino Chiwenga and Perence Shiri. By 2004, the list numbered 95 individuals, then rising to 203 individuals and 40 entities in 2009, following the severe electoral violence of the previous year. Since then, the EU has progressively reduced the scope of its measures, both during and after the period of the inclusive government, essentially as a confidence-building step to improve relations with the Zimbabwean government, to foster better, less violent and more democratic governance, and to prepare for the inevitable post-Mugabe future.

In their current, much-reduced state, restrictive measures are only active against two people, Robert and Grace Mugabe, as well as an arms embargo against state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries. There are also a small number of suspended measures targeting five securocrats, including current Vice President Chiwenga, Agriculture Minister Shiri, and Chief of Defence Forces Philip Valerio Sibanda. The irony should not be lost: the EU is currently subjecting two (albeit involuntarily) ‘retired’ private citizens to active measures, whereas it treats more leniently everybody currently serving in the Zimbabwean government and security sector. Therefore, the causal link between this posture and the EU’s presumed objective of shepherding the current government to less violent, more democratic behaviour is, to be charitable, somewhat elusive.

At its meeting later this month, the EU must decide whether to maintain or revise this curious and untidy status quo position. Formally speaking, the EU needs to make three separate but interconnected choices. First, how do you solve a problem like the Mugabes, now out of power, but for so long the focal point for abusive state power in Zimbabwe? Second, how should the EU treat those who are currently under suspended measures, especially those who are still, like Chiwenga, in very senior positions and are presumably instrumental in the current round of repression and violence? And third, a decision must be made about whether the current crisis is sufficiently grave to justify further actions, over and above re-activating suspended measures, possibly to include new listings for other senior government and security figures, perhaps even re-listing the current President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The EU must answer each of these questions and its answers will tell us something about how seriously it regards the current crisis in Zimbabwe. They will also tell us something about the EU’s confidence in its own diplomacy, particularly its view of the effectiveness of restrictive measures as a tool to improve the behaviour of Zimbabwe’s regime. Aside from restrictive measures, the EU foreign policy toolkit looks bare. Individual member states might be able to explore different options independently, but we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of ‘Zimbabwe fatigue’ that exists — or overestimate the capacity of foreign governments to generate fresh ideas about how to make progress.

As the culmination of a lengthy review process, the meeting in Brussels on February 18 will certainly not approach these issues unprepared. Restrictive measures have already been discussed in Brussels, on January 10 — shortly before the latest eruption of violence in Zimbabwe. From what I understand, at this earlier meeting little change was proposed to the EU’s existing approach, with measures against the Mugabes to remain active for another year. But now, after serious reports of violence and repression in recent weeks, the EU may well be forced to reconsider that provisional decision.

Faced with the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe, it’s difficult to see how the EU could possibly justify a combined decision to continue to suspend measures against Chiwenga, Shiri and Sibanda whilst maintaining active measures against the presumably much less powerful, less influential former first couple, neither of whom now have a state or party position. If the case against the Mugabes is not simply a ‘lifetime achievement award’ for wrongdoing, and instead hinges on their continued influence behind the scenes, then surely a case at least equally persuasive can be made against those currently in a position of direct command and control of security forces? If the EU is determined to keep active measures on the Mugabes, then in current circumstances the very least it can consistently do is to re-activate measures on Chiwenga et al.

The original purpose of suspending measures on Chiwenga and other securocrats, rather than de-listing them altogether (the more permissive route that was taken by the EU with senior politicians, such as Mnangagwa himself in 2016), was effectively to put them ‘on notice’ as a deterrent, making it easier to re-activate measures if the security sector is again credibly tied to allegations of violence and repression. Which is to say, the suspension was designed for precisely the situation which Zimbabwe now faces. If the EU believes in the effectiveness of its restrictive measures, it should re-activate them, signalling in the process the opposition of each of its 28 member-states to the deplorable tactics currently being unleashed on Zimbabweans. If, on the other hand, the EU decided that recent weeks were neither sufficiently violent nor repressive enough to justify re-activating these measures, this would send a very different signal to Chiwenga and others: it would resemble an EU ‘green light’ for similar violence and repression in future — a response not all that different in practical effect from ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule’s recent comments blaming the current crisis, and implicitly the government’s response, on unrest orchestrated by the government’s enemies.

Failure to re-activate measures against Chiwenga, Shiri and Sibanda would call into question what purpose the EU thinks is served by renewing suspended measures for another year. Perhaps it would be better, if no consensus existed in favour of re-activation, for the EU simply to de-list everyone and draw a line under the whole era of restrictive measures. After all, the measures have long since become a red herring, useless for changing the regime’s behaviour and even counter-productive. For years, Mugabe confronted the measures (and their US counterparts) as something like a free gift, which he re-packaged to deft rhetorical effect, hammering home the narrative of ‘Western sanctions’ — a narrative to which many are receptive, including, it seemed recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Having already lost the battle of strategic communications, perhaps the EU should just surrender and confess its inability to configure a constructive diplomatic response to the crisis.

Of course, in the current crisis, the EU could not take such a step, even if it wanted to, such would be the abdication of its responsibility to adopt some form of stand against state violence and repression, even if that stand was practically ineffective either as a means of deterring the regime from embarking on such action in the first place, or as a way to compel it to stop those actions that are already underway. The decision about restrictive measures will be an indicator of EU member states’ appetite to revise and refresh this long-running, failed approach to Zimbabwe.

Although the policy has failed for seventeen years, Zimbabwe is not a major strategic priority for the EU, so fresh thinking is hardly an institutional imperative. The EU member states that care the most — especially the UK, which is probably not going to be sitting at the EU table when the measures are next discussed in February 2020 — should take this opportunity to kickstart a thorough review of the existing strategy and explore the prospects for replacing or complementing restrictive measures with a different set of policy tools. As ever, and aligned with the US government’s approach, the prospect of real international assistance should remain clearly on the table, if the Zimbabwe government will commit to a less violent, more democratic and credibly reformist path. 

Restrictive measures have not been the key to unlock this diplomatic progress, but nor were they ever expected to be: as once described by a former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, restrictive measures were never likely in themselves to alter the behaviour of President Mugabe and his regime. Rather, they stood as a symbol of EU disapproval, hopefully serving as a signpost or rallying cry to further action by more influential actors in the region — chief among whom at the outset was the then South African President, Thabo Mbeki, but each of his successors have had to deal in turn with the Zimbabwe problem. Yet even on this basis, the EU’s restrictive measures and diplomatic overtures to South Africa have singularly failed to influence events.

South African diplomacy moves at its own pace, according to its own dynamics. The EU – or for that matter the US government — has never exerted significant influence over any of this. The failure of South African diplomacy is entirely sui generis. Foreign governments perhaps had unrealistic expectations about what Pretoria could achieve, but it is undeniable that successive South African presidents have been averse to taking risks to solve the Zimbabwe crisis, preferring to manage and mitigate the problem in the hope that it would eventually disappear. At best, this approach was short-sighted. The South African government will most likely only recognise this when it finally sees the domestic costs of the Zimbabwe crisis becoming sufficiently serious to compel it to take a different course of action. Of course, by that point the crisis might require much greater, more protracted and costly intervention from South Africa to have any hope of success.

Throughout all this, the impact of EU or US targeted measures (and the US ZDERA legislation) has been limited: they have clearly signalled moral disapproval, communicating to those in power in Harare what would be necessary in order to secure a better diplomatic relationship, as well as improved international trade and economic assistance; they also serve to remind Pretoria and elsewhere that the problem is unlikely to go away on its own, and should be addressed with unprecedented focus and imagination. But no one can pretend that they have exerted significant influence over the shape of events.

The EU’s seventeen years of restrictive measures on Zimbabwe are a case study in policy failure and the limits of global influence. There is no more telling proof of this than the fact that the only currently active measures relate to the ousted Mugabes. At this point, just about the only thing worse than seriously implementing this failed policy would be a decision to implement it half-heartedly and inconsistently, by approving a continuation of suspended measures against those actually in charge whilst retaining active measures against a couple of people associated with Zimbabwe’s past and not its future. This should be an uncomfortable fact for the EU to acknowledge — but acknowledge it they must. Muddling through, hoping for things to get better, would be a tacit confession of failure and powerlessness.

Dr Joe Devanny is deputy director of the Centre for Defence Studies, and a lecturer in the Department of War Studies, at King’s College London.

Joe Devanny

Joe Devanny

Dr Joe Devanny is deputy director of the Centre for Defence Studies, and a lecturer in the Department of War Studies, at King’s College London.  Read more from Joe Devanny

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