Every year since 2019, African leaders have commemorated October 25 as Anti-Sanctions Day to protest against the longstanding restrictions on trade and commerce with Zimbabwe, imposed by the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and their allies.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) grouping of 16 regional nations started the trend but the occasion has since been adopted by the wider African Union.
Every year – like clockwork – an obligatory chorus from Africa condemning the sanctions against Zimbabwe grows louder as October nears. In September, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and African Union (AU) chairperson and Senegalese President Macky Sall demanded that the sanctions be lifted.
And on Tuesday, October 25, SADC chairman and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi accused the West of trying to use sanctions to force a regime change in Zimbabwe.
Yet, after the public protestations and failed lobbying subside, Zimbabweans must grapple with the existential impediment that SADC and the AU choose to disregard: their own illiberal and incompetent government, which is to blame for those sanctions.
After all, why did the US, UK and EU impose sanctions on Zimbabwe in the early 2000s?
The country’s ZANU-PF government claims that the punishment was simply the consequence of the West’s opposition to its fast-track land reform programme, which was designed to correct a colonial legacy and redistribute land from 4,500 white commercial farmers to 300,000 Black farmers.
In reality, however, the sanctions were imposed in response to the government’s refusal to allow independent scrutiny of its elections, the crushing of political dissent and human rights violations.
And contrary to the government’s narrative, Zimbabwe’s economy was already tanking before the sanctions came into place. In 1997, for instance, the government spent billions of dollars on unbudgeted payouts for disgruntled veterans from the 1970s war for independence. As a result, the Zimbabwe dollar fell by 71.5 percent against the US dollar, while the stock market crashed by 46 percent on a day that the country knows as Black Friday.
Later, the government stood idle as war veterans invaded commercial farms and industrial factories, inflicting significant damage on the economy.
Together, the hefty payouts and land invasions resulted in a comprehensive socioeconomic and political crisis that the government failed to resolve. Unable to govern effectively, the government, as usual, sought to silence its political opponents, especially the then-recently established Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
I can attest to this fact.
In 1999, the year when the MDC was established, I had just completed university, and was a teacher at Sagambe Secondary School in a small village in Honde Valley, near Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique. There, my lodgings comprised a tiny room and a small pit latrine (that I shared with two teachers).
Our school had no running water or electricity; it lacked sufficient textbooks and classrooms, and it had no computer or science labs. It was a mirror to the government’s economic and developmental shortcomings – and the political intolerance it nurtured.
With the economy in freefall, the government decided to scapegoat three sections of the population to secure electoral victory in the 2000 general elections: white commercial farmers, teachers and the MDC.
A prominent ZANU-PF official who also led the school development association specifically told teachers not to express anti-government sentiments or support the opposition.
However, despite my best efforts to moderate my thoughts and stifle my speech, I couldn’t. I spoke candidly about democracy, human rights and the government’s extensive failings in public.
That openness made me a marked man, and I received threats to my life. So, I fled Sagambe.
To avoid scrutiny and silence dissent, the government established a shadowy surveillance state and labelled dissenters as Western stooges: traitors deserving of contempt and considerable physical harm.
I was lucky to “escape” unharmed. Scores of teachers were beaten in public, humiliated and forced to resign from their jobs. Many white commercial farmers were killed as farm invasions spread like veld fire across Zimbabwe. Several MDC supporters, activists and leaders were killed or subjected to severe violence as the government smothered civil and political freedoms in the name of getting land back from white farmers.
It was this sadistic violence and the deliberate assaults on constitutional liberties and democracy — and not the land reform programme — that spurred the US, EU and Britain into imposing sanctions.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean government’s gross incompetence and corruption destroyed the economy and triggered a significant exodus of economic migrants to England and SADC member states, especially South Africa.
Today, Zimbabwe’s government is still as repressive as ever and refuses to abandon its undemocratic practices or accept opposition to its rule.
With the 2023 legislative and presidential elections approaching, it has cracked down on the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party. CCC Vice Chairman Job Sikhala and many party members, for example, were arrested for allegedly “inciting violence” in June.
The police have banned several CCC rallies for dubious reasons. CCC members have also been assaulted and killed, allegedly by ZANU-PF activists. Owen Ncube, a senior ruling party official and Zimbabwe’s former minister of security, has said the 2023 elections will be bloodier than the “2008 bloodbath”, where hundreds of opposition members reportedly died in election-related violence.
Such are the blood-spattered priorities of the government at a time when the health sector is in a shambles amid a still-lingering pandemic and the economy continues to plummet to new depths. In April, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency reported that inflation stood at 94 percent. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the employed population earns just $51 a month or less.
Yet on Tuesday, the government organised a giant music festival — which it described as an “anti-sanctions gala” — and public marches against the West.
Behind ZANU-PF’s performative anti-imperialist demonstrations is a simple set of aims: to deflect attention from its shortcomings, portray itself as the sole custodian and defender of Zimbabwean interests and depict CCC leaders and members as stooges of the sanctioning nations.
If the government were serious about getting the West to remove sanctions, it would implement reforms to the way elections are conducted, and ensure media access to the electoral process and the safety and security of voters. That — and not demonstrations — is what Zimbabwe needs to get sanctions relief.
Instead, ZANU-PF is still employing the discredited tactics it used to win fiercely disputed elections in the past.
African leaders must remember that it is ultimately Zimbabwe’s own government that is holding its citizens to sanctions ransom by refusing to act responsibly. It is Zimbabwe’s government that the SADC and AU need to be pressuring — to strengthen democratic norms and human rights.
Peace-loving Zimbabweans do not deserve sanctions. ZANU-PF must stop punishing them for its crimes.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.