Zimbabwe’s anti-sanctions march: Much ado about nothing?

If anything, the anti-sanctions march brought Zimbabwe back into the geopolitical clashes of “big” powers in Africa

Cringe Gerald  | 22.11.2019 - Update : 22.11.2019
Zimbabwe’s anti-sanctions march: Much ado about nothing?

- The writer obtained his MA degree in International Relations. He is now an independent researcher living in Belgium. 


Zimbabwe has been under European Union (EU) and United States (U.S.) sanctions since 2002 and 2003 respectively, for “undermining democratic institutions”, “gross human rights violations”, and “threatening regional stability”.[1] This remains a contentious issue as Zimbabwean government rejects both the justification and rationale of these sanctions. On Oct. 25, 2019, Zimbabwe held a march against the sanctions following a “solidarity” declaration by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This march deserves a closer examination in terms of its implications, especially for Zimbabwe’s foreign policy.

In the context of the post-Mugabe regime, the anti-sanction march raises critical concerns in foreign policy circles. Following the military coup that overthrew Mugabe in November 2017, his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, first abandoned the anti-sanctions rhetoric that had characterized Mugabe’s leadership. The new leader launched a vigorous campaign with the motto “Zimbabwe is open for business”, inviting the EU and the U.S. for re-engagement. Zimbabwe’s new president urged Zimbabweans to rise above the sanctions blame-game. While acknowledging the existence of sanctions, he urged citizens to stop talking about sanctions and find solutions: “we must have solutions, and already, we have solutions in agriculture.”[2] It is the same sanctions mantra that made Mnangagwa’s strong ally, Christopher Mutsvangwa, the then leader of the National Liberation War Veterans Association, to challenge Mugabe to resign as the country’s president if he had failed to rise above blaming sanctions for the economic challenges in the country.[3] If this is really the case, how can we explain this shift? Is President Mnangagwa’s new government charting a new foreign policy, and what should we expect this new policy to look like?

Anti-sanctions march

Discussing the issue of Zimbabwe’s sanctions is a challenging task as it is an emotional and polarizing matter. Within Zimbabwe itself, views about sanctions are so divisive that it is difficult to speak about this as a Zimbabwean issue. The poor attendance in the anti-sanctions march held in the capital city, even though many sections of the society had been forced to attend, attests to the grave challenge Zimbabwean leaders face in galvanizing a truly national view on sanctions. So far, debates on this issue center on questions about the impact and justification of the sanctions. The government, the SADC, which is supported by the African Union (AU), and the general public within the anti-sanctions camp have been arguing that sanctions have been crippling the economy and taken a serious toll on Zimbabweans. In his address to the 74th UN General Assembly in September, Mnangagwa blamed “illegal economic sanctions” for Zimbabwe’s “collapsed economy.”[4] At the anti-sanctions march, he called sanctions a “cancer that has affected all sectors of the economy”.[5] Zimbabweans are familiar with such rhetoric from the time of Mugabe. Thus, within the anti-sanctions camp, some reason that Western countries should remove the sanctions to eliminate the government’s excuses about being constrained by sanctions. So, “remove the sanctions and lay bare all their failures,” these groups argue.

The other side of the debate calls on Western countries to maintain the sanctions until the government implements reforms. They question whether the government is genuine about restoring the rule of law, human rights, and repealing draconian laws that criminalize civil liberties, among other conditions laid by the EU and the U.S. Nelson Chamisa, the country’s main opposition party leader, has strongly dismissed the anti-sanctions march as “mere propaganda, and a hopeless waste of time, effort and money”. He blames the government’s failed leadership, corruption, bad governance and rigged elections for the suffering of Zimbabweans, challenging the government to implement reforms and restore democracy. [6] Some Zimbabweans on social media have wittingly said they are under “state sanctions” -- that is, poverty, police brutality, and other forms of state repression. So, such voices have called on the state to start by removing its own “sanctions” before Western countries remove theirs.

Look east policy

To better understand Zimbabwe’s contemporary foreign policy in relation to sanctions, readers need to be reminded about Mugabe’s “Look East” policy. The Look East policy was born out of Mugabe’s fallout with Western countries in the early 2000s, following a violent land repossession program and widespread violence against opposition supporters and labor unionists. In response to the state’s brutal reaction, the EU and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Mugabe’s administration and business companies that were linked to his regime. Realizing that he was facing international isolation, Mugabe turned to the East, mainly courting political allies from Southeast Asia, the Far East and Pacific countries. Mugabe saw hope in the East as he once said, “we have turned East where the sun rises, and given our backs on the West where it sets.”

This rhetoric re-defined Zimbabwe’s foreign relations as the country sought to align itself with countries that were opposed to the “hegemonic and imperialist powers” of the West. Mugabe was arguably taking a strategic step by revitalizing historical ties with China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, which had also contributed immensely to Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. These two “big” friends later proved to be crucial in blocking further sanctions by the Security Council. The Look East policy seems to have worked well for the ruling elite and strengthened Mugabe’s international image as a “pan-Africanist”.

Mnangagwa has at best given unclear signals about his foreign policy. Upon taking over from Mugabe, he distanced himself from the Look East policy, declaring that “Zimbabwe cannot just belong to the East or the West”. [7] It seems he wanted to develop a policy of “opening up to everyone” as evident in his efforts to try to lure states and potential private partners in Europe, the U.S. and East Asia, up to his trips to Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Clearly, the march has not transformed the Western position concerning the sanctions. If anything, the anti-sanctions march brought Zimbabwe back into the geopolitical clashes of “big” powers in Africa.

Major powers face off

The EU and the U.S. have accused the Zimbabwean government of deliberate misinformation. The EU’s Twitter page started the hashtag #DidYouKnow, to run counter-narratives, strongly emphasizing that its sanctions against Zimbabwe are targeting a few ruling party officials and companies that are complicit in human rights violations. The EU further stated that its sanctions do not affect trade flows and are annually reviewed depending on improvements being shown by Zimbabwe. [8] The EU also informed Zimbabweans about its investments, charity work and other development projects that “support” Zimbabwe’s economy.

The U.S. embassy has been even more direct. It posted a series of tweets and informational short videos translated into Zimbabwe’s three main languages, presenting “facts about the targeted sanctions”. U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols stated that his country’s “targeted” sanctions are not responsible for the “catastrophic mismanagement by those in power and the government’s abuse of its own citizens.”[9] He continued, “The biggest sanctions on Zimbabwe are the limitations it puts on itself.”[10] U.S. Senator James Risch, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, also openly said, “The ruling party should focus on the needs of Zimbabwean people instead of bad governance, corruption, and state capture.” He also warned regional institutions to stop supporting what he called “kleptocratic regimes”.[11] Just a few hours after the anti-sanctions march, the Trump administration added Zimbabwe’s Minister of Security Owen Ncube to the sanctions list.

However, China and Russia came to Zimbabwe’s support again. The Russian embassy showed support by sending representatives to the march. China also declared its solidarity with Zimbabwe against sanctions in a detailed statement a month before the anticipated march. A statement by Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe Guo Shaochum further expresses Chinese support for Zimbabwe’s efforts to protect its “sovereignty, national security and development interests”. China therefore commits to stand with Zimbabwe to “fend off foreign interference into its domestic affairs.” This statement reflects China’s foreign policy of non-interference which it has held for many years in its relations with Africa in opposition to what it views as hegemonic policies of the West. In his statement, the Chinese ambassador relates Zimbabwe’s situation to the ongoing conflict In Hong Kong, which he links to Western interference. [12] For China and Russia, this is an opportune time to prove to the West that their Zimbabwean project is still in their hands.

A “cunning state”?

Mnangagwa’s speech on the anti-sanctions march fell short of clearly declaring which side Zimbabwe will fall to. Although he condemned sanctions, he did not directly declare an anti-Western position, nor divorce the country from the West, like his predecessor Mugabe did. He only went so far as to say “enough is enough, the sanctions must go”. This could be a strategy of a “cunning state”. According to Professor Shalini Randeria, the modern state is far from being weakened or losing its power as some scholars have assumed. In fact, modern states have become cunning as they manipulate their perceived weaknesses to avoid accountability to their citizens and the international community. [13] In this case, Mnangagwa’s leadership might be playing their cards within the ideological differences between the West and the East to gain sympathy and justify their failures to provide public welfare. The state may also be cunning by using each of the sides of the big powers to lure another side into negotiation.

Whatever choice Mnangagwa makes, he should also think about how a foreign policy may in turn exacerbate internal threats to his leadership especially considering the dwindling hope and support from the general population due to the economic crisis. Some are now citing how Ian Smith’s regime (before Zimbabwe’s independence), managed to survive under international sanctions and maintain a functioning economy. Cuba has been under American sanctions for a long time, but still has a functioning economy. So, it seems citizens are not convinced by Mnangagwa’s sanctions excuse. [14]

This brings to mind the question as to whether the SADC and AU member states will do anything tangible to force Western countries to lift the sanctions. Giving solidarity statements is different from taking concrete action. Outside regional or continental bodies, each African country has different interests pursued through independent bilateral relations with the EU and the U.S. As Senator Risch’s veiled warning to “regional” organizations indicates, the West is ready to isolate Zimbabwe by warning other African leaders to stay out of the sanctions issue or face consequences. Perhaps the anti-sanctions march was an ill-advised move that came too soon and could likely jeopardize re-engagement with the West. Zimbabwe desperately needs Western support to revive its economy. Mnangagwa’s administration is spending huge sums of money on American public relations companies to lobby Western countries to lift sanctions yet confronts the same countries that it seeks to engage with anti-sanctions marches. At home, the state is also considering introducing a law to prosecute Zimbabweans who support sanctions against their country. All these measures indicate desperate and reactionary policies devoid of robust, well-thought and consistent decision-making processes.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

[1] For more information on EU ; and U.S. sanctions:

[2]The Standard (2018, Jan 14). We can’t continue blaming sanctions, says ED.

[3] Majaka, N. (2017, April 22). Don’t blame sanctions: VP. Daily News,

[4] UNGA 74 (2019, Sept 25).

[5] Reuters. (2019, Oct 25). Zimbabwe’s president says Western sanctions a cancer eating the economy. Reuters,

[6] Chamisa’s tweet (2019, Oct 24).

[6][7] Smith, P. & Norbrook, N. (2018). Interview: Emmerson Mnangagwa, President of Zimbabwe.

[8] EU in Zimbabwe tweet (2019, Oct, 24).

[9] Ambassador Nichols, (2019, Oct 24).

[10] Ibid,

[11] U.S. Sen. Risch. (2019, Oct, 24). Zimbabwean Leadership is the Cause of Crisis, Not Sanctions. U.S. Foreign Relations.

[12] Ambassador Guo Shaochum (2019, Sept 04). What Zimbabwe needs is assistance, not interference. Chinese Embassy in Harare,

[13] Randeria, S. (2003). “Cunning States and Unaccountable International Institutions: Legal Plurality, Social Movements and Rights of Local Communities to Common Property Resources.” European Journal of Sociology, 44(1): 27–60. JSTOR,

[14] President Kagame’s response about Zimbabwe’s situation: Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.