The Ineffectiveness of Western Sanctions on "African Leaders"

The US elections have been sucking up all the oxygen and conversation.  News that is taking place in my backyard are passing me by; and aren't being reported on CNN, either (NOT that they should be reporting our news, that onus is on us as Africans to report our news and inform ourselves of ourselves); where I've been getting most of my news these past days.

Reports coming out the the Democratic Republic of Congo are that, President Joseph Kabila is using tactics to delay the elections, as the opposition calls for elections before the end of the year.  Kabila's delaying tactics include postponing the elections until 2018, so they "avoid locking out a huge number of people, most of them young voters; [as] many as 10 million unregistered voters could miss out on the chance to vote if we proceed with the elections."

Some are saying that these delaying tactics by President Kabila are his way of trying to stay in power for much longer than the constitution grants him.  Accusations which he denied, according to News24.

But as with every abuse of power on the African continent, mostly, and rightfully so, follows Western sanctions against the abusing leader & his/her (mostly his, because it's mostly men who are abusers of power) government, and those closest to him; his family, and his officials family members.  And President Kabila's case is turning out to be no different.  In a letter posted by All Africa, The Human Rights Watch is calling for the European Union to impose sanctions on the Congo.  "Taking action now could help prevent the situation in Congo from spiraling out of control in the coming weeks - with potentially violent and widespread repercussions across the region," the letter reads.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch argues that targeted sanctions "against senior security force and intelligence officers and government officials responsible for the violent crackdown" which reportedly killed at least 56 people in the capital, Kinshasa, "would send a strong signal" to the senior security force that there are consequences to their actions, and put pressure on President Kabila to step down peacefully at the end of his term.

As well-intended as these sanctions might be, they mostly end up hurting the everyday, powerless man more than they do their intended targets, the presidents and their governments' officials.

Zimbabwe is a good example of just how ineffective these sanctions can be.  According to the US Embassy's website in Harare, as of October 10, 2016, US targeted sanctions applied only to 88 Zimbabwean individuals and 66 entities (mostly farms and legal entities owned by the 88 individuals).  Some of the entities on the US Sanctions Search List are, Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company, & Sino Zimbabwe Cotton Holdings.  The European Union's Zimbabwe sanctions have been extended to February 20, 2017.  They include among other things an assets freeze and travel ban on Robert Mugabe, Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe Defense Industries, plus an arms embargo.

These numbers seem insignificant compared to Zimbabwe's population of 14 million.  But like Michael W. Dawson, I beg to differ.  Michael notes that over the past several years, government spending in Zimbabwe has been as high as 98% of its gross domestic product; thereby making these sanctions against the rest of the country.  So, a Zimbabwean government that already faced challenges before the sanctions hit in 2003 would now be facing even severe challenges, and the people who bear the brunt of these sanctions are the poorest of Zimbabwe's population, the ones who were already struggling before the sanctions.  It's like they are made to pay for the sins of their leaders.  But these are the powerless among us, women & children, the disenfranchised among us.  Mostly, these leaders who are targeted by these sanctions tend to be corrupt, and they end up illegally appropriating funds (which are already scarce) for them and their families.  The leaders become more powerful, while the everyday men become even more powerless, leading to an endless cycle of counterproductive sanctions policy.  Instead of empowering the people, these sanctions end up making them more and more powerless.

Sino Zimbabwe Cotton Holdings' "primary objective is to promote cotton production and ensuring farmers have equal and free access to high quality inputs at viable and sustainable prices", according to its website.  What that mean, is individual farmers across Zimbabwe selling their stock to the Cotton Holdings company, who in turn sell it to a much bigger market.  But when that company is facing American sanctions, it means, there are fewer and fewer people willing to do business with it, fearing sanctions against themselves by the American government for aiding a company that is on the sanctions list.  Which in turn has the effect of causing the Sino Zimbabwe Cotton Holdings having to sell their cotton at below market prices, thereby in turn meaning they buy cotton from individual farmers at below market, "sustainable" prices.  Individual farmers are therefore making much less from their harvests post-sanctions than they would have made had there been no sanctions, or had the Americans set up operations in Zimbabwe which helps individual farmers who are not on the sanctions list - which would only serves to empower them.

With the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation also on the sanctions list, this a possible cause of concern if one thinks of just how widespread the trade of black diamonds is.  Not only are diamonds sold below market prices on the black market, but working conditions for such miners are usually dangerous.  Paying little to no attention at all towards industry safety measures because they have to cut costs as much as possible since profit maximization is still the order of the day more so since their diamonds are being sold at below market prices.  Not only are the workers working in unsafe conditions, but they are also getting paid so much less and sometimes with no health benefits in a country where sometimes unemployment is reported to be as high as 90%.

It's time a new strategy is looked into when dealing with leaders like Robert Mugabe on the continent and the handing down sanctions on these leaders.  The US and the EU need to stand up, and stand alongside the powerless people of these countries, and really empower them.  Targeted sanctions only have the effect of giving the already powerless people to the vultures, and not giving them their freedoms.

We demand a much better approach because these targeted sanctions are hitting more than just their intended targets.  And the numbers of the unintended targets are so significant that they cannot be ignored.

Edward-Mekondjo Nailenge is African by birth, but a citizen of the world by choice. He is an opinion writer at aKoma.  He can be reached at

More from aKoma