Frontline Africa Advisory

Sanctions in Africa have not worked: is it not time for a rethink/change in strategy?

Sanctions in Africa have not worked: is it not time for a rethink/change in strategy?

For decades, international and regional bodies have favoured economic and political sanctions to put pressure on political leaders to institute democratic and human rights reforms in their countries.

Peter Wallensteen and Carina Staibano (eds) published in 2005, titled International Sanctions: Between Wars and Words (1st ed.) write that sanctions have been used since the end of World War II as an alternative to military force in controlling the behaviour of subversive entities in the international system. Sanctions have remained a major instrument by which individuals, non-state actors and states that threaten international peace and security are controlled.

Numerous countries on the African continent have been subjected to economic and political sanctions due either to political coups or gross abuses of human rights. Yet, undemocratic seizures of power continue unabated, with a noticeable uptick in recent years after a long quiet, particularly in West Africa. This raises the question; have sanctions been an effective tool for punishing African political leaders who carry out unlawful seizures of power or has their impact tended to disproportionately affect ordinary citizens, further condemning them to more poverty and underdevelopment? Furthermore, it should be asked if multilateral bodies on the continent have done enough to punish and prevent acts of violence and illegal seizures of power?

Currently, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, South Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Mali are under various sanctions from international bodies and major world economies. On 2 January, the United States announced that it has cut Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) over alleged human rights violations and recent coups. The AGOA trade legislation provides sub-Saharan African nations’ goods with duty-free access to the US market. Total two-way goods trade between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa was worth $39 billion in 2017.

At its 60th Ordinary Session held on 12 December 2021 in Abuja, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resolved to uphold and impose additional economic and financial sanctions on Mali and on the transition authorities. The imposition of additional sanctions followed the coup leaders reneging on their promise to restore civilian rule in February 2022 and scheduling presidential elections for the end of December 2025, setting the duration of the transition for a total of five and a half years.  

In 2021, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), United Nations Envoy, China and Russia called for the lifting of the pro-longed travel and financial sanctions against Zimbabwe, calling them a fundamental constraint and hindrance to the country’s prospects of economic recovery, human security and sustainable growth. Originally imposed during the era of former President Robert Mugabe, sanctions against most leaders of ZANU PF and companies have been extended under the leadership of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The sanctions have done little to change the political and humanitarian picture in the country. Instead, Zimbabwe continues to reel from high levels of inflation, severe shortages of fuel, power and water. The breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the situation. The dire economic situation in Zimbabwe has seen neighbours such as South Africa coming under strain, as Zimbabweans are crossing the border on a daily basis in search of employment opportunities. This in turn has created tensions in South Africa and have led to xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans.

With military intervention costly and largely undesirable, it is time for a rethink and change of tact to stymy political and military leaders, especially in Africa to curb illegal seizures of power, violation of human rights and violent conflicts, without adversely affecting the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. The African Union (AU) and regional bodies in particular need to grow teeth and should be led by legitimately elected leaders. For decades, these bodies have operated as brotherhoods.  Instead of taking firm action against human rights violations, they tend to protect each other. In so doing, they have created an environment for oppressive leaders to violate human rights and undermine democracy with impunity. The consequence is ordinary citizens bearing the brunt of the AU and Regional Bodies’ inaction by way of increased poverty, underdevelopment, and economic collapse.

Written by Calvin Matlou

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