by Hopewell Chin’ono
CHIPO Dendere’s testimony on Wednesday at the US Congress, looking at the post-Robert Mugabe era has been the subject of various discussions online. She made some interesting points, some which I don’t agree with. This is not a general critique of her testimony, but rather an expansion of the discussion through offering alternative views, insights and clarity on sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Dendere said, and I quote, “It would be a greater injustice to uplift these sanctions before a thorough investigation has been conducted. Zimbabwe cannot have economic growth divorced from addressing human rights abuses. Robert Mugabe’s exit from politics is not enough to absolve individual crimes.”
Chipo needs to understand that sanctions, regardless of their intended targets and outcomes, end up affecting the vulnerable and the weakest in our society. The law of unintended consequences invariably ends up affecting the very people suffering due to politics of the elites.
As a political science lecturer, she would have had 17 years of sanctions history to examine the impact they have had on the poor and the effectiveness or lack thereof in bringing the political elites to heel. The US government imposed sanctions which are separate to The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, commonly known as ZIDERA. So, these two are cousins targeted at Zimbabwe.
ZEDERA has never been utilised – it calls for the US to vote against Zimbabwe in the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Zimbabwe has never been on the agenda of IFIs because of arrears. Although Zimbabwe is no longer in arrears to the IMF, it is in arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank. The US does not have a veto at the IFIs but ZEDERA would still require a NO vote by the US if and when Zimbabwe pays off its arrears and tries to access lines of credit from any of the IFIs.
Former US President George W Bush, by way of executive order, placed sanctions on individuals and certain entities. These are an addition to, and separate from, ZIDERA that is why I have called them cousins. There are currently 85 Zimbabwean individuals and about 55 corporate entities on the sanctions list.
The US dollar is the world currency so funds in NOSTRO accounts go through the New York clearing house. A foreign or American company would have to employ at least one or two compliance officers to ensure that it can do business in Zimbabwe without having its funds held.
A NOSTRO is a bank account held by a Zimbabwean bank with a foreign bank, usually in the currency of that country. The terms “nostro” and “vostro” are derived from Latin terms meaning “ours” and “yours” respectively. Given that Zimbabwe is a small economy and that banks have de-risked throughout Africa, most companies choose not to do business in Zimbabwe to avoid the hassle.
Zimbabwean citizens and companies have also had monies held or seized because of the sanctions against the country. Many have also been victims of overzealous compliance officers who constantly misinterpret these laws. The result, however, is the same. Money or donations are lost or delayed indirectly.
I had a chat recently with a physician, Dr Khameer Kidia; he told me about how he tried to fundraise in the US with his colleagues at Kushinga(https://www.kushinga.org) for the Zimbabwe Mental Health Review Tribunal which deals with mental illness cases of patients in prison.
After many well-wishers had responded to Dr Kidia’s call for help for this good and important cause, the legal team from the crowdsourcing website blocked the money from being sent to Zimbabwe because of the prevailing sanctions regime. The legal team cited the US government’s sanctions on Zimbabwe as the main reason for blocking the funds raised by Dr Kidia and his colleagues at Kushinga.
This has happened so many times to innocent individuals and entities and the blame has been put on compliance officers. However, as I have always argued to many proponents of these sanctions, the law of unintended consequences is NO defence to demanding for what is essentially a corrosive set of laws to punish your own country.
Many Zimbabweans who have gone to ask for these sanctions not to be removed have conveniently tried to avoid a backlash back at home by asking for the corporate world to be removed from these measures. This either shows a measure of ignorance and naivety or it is a dishonest way of trying to look sympathetic to good causes whilst being harsh on the political class.
This is because these measures will not be separated easily; they were imposed by congress and senate and to remove them would take a long process and time going through the same houses of congress and senate again before an American president can sign them off. So, it is either someone wants the sanctions in place or they don’t. Put simply, they are a major inconvenience to any country’s expectations to thrive; more so Zimbabwe which is trying to emerge from years of economic ruin.
The political elites will never miss a meal because of these sanctions; it is our relatives struggling for survival who will bear the brunt of these measures. These sanctions are a political tool and statement which has never stopped Robert Mugabe from getting his multi-million-dollar health treatment in Singapore or his goons receiving top class medical assistance in China, India or South Africa.
However, these sanctions have condemned many ordinary men and women to their graves due to the unintended consequences which include Dr Kadia’s experience when he tried to fundraise money for the mentally ill in Zimbabwean prisons. Dr Kidia’s unique commitment to mental health in Zimbabwe is not only great, but it is an asset to a medical specialty with only 12 psychiatrists looking after the mental health of a whole nation. He comes to Zimbabwe from his current base in the US, where he is doing a medical residency at Harvard in Boston.
These are the professionals who could have been on holiday in the Caribbean, but they chose to come home and contribute towards the betterment of their people under stressful social and professional circumstances. That is why I disagree with Chipo Dendere’s misplaced call to encourage the Americans to retain any form of these sanction measures because they are hurting the poorest of the poor in our society.
The money from individual US donations that could have paid the Mental Health Review Tribunal to sit and decide on cases of prisoners with mental illness conditions was blocked. This resulted in these vulnerable people remaining and languishing indefinitely in prison and in most cases without the requisite treatment. Some of them meet their maker whilst in prison because they will not be receiving any form of treatment in these jails.
When our citizens are invited to give testimonies by the American government on their country, they should put country first and write their testimonies after carefully applying their minds to the consequences of such submissions. They should understand the relatedness of the social and economic impact their testimonies will have on the ordinary women and men who have NO control over the political actions of the ruling elite.
I spent the whole of 2017 shooting a documentary film on mental illness in this country with leading Zimbabwean psychiatrist, Professor Dixon Chibanda, who has been leading a frontline war on mental illness conditions. I bear testimony to heart-breaking and emotionally moving stories in this documentary film, many of which are as a result of restrictions put on fundraising to buy psychiatric medicines in the US.
I have spent days and months witnessing how these mental health professionals never give up on their patients and, in some cases, using their own personal resources to help nurse their patients back to good mental health. These professionals get upset when they hear and read of such testimonies given in front of foreign governments by their compatriots asking for the extension of measures that hurt their work in pursuit of narrow political objectives.
I think, as a country and as a people, we need to redefine our terms of engagement regarding how we influence change and demand a better deal from our government and president.
We cannot rationally expect Emmerson Mnangagwa to feel encouraged to implement the required progressive agenda if we are asking for impediments to be thrown in his path.
I am not sure how other citizens feel, but I think it would upset anyone trying to bring about some political change to watch your own compatriot calling for your ability to do so to be made difficult if not impossible by a foreign government. The choice of language and words we deploy when we are addressing and commenting on our political problems, should be informed by how we think the target of our statements will feel and respond to the demands we seek.
Politicians are human beings with emotions and an ability to turn on and off depending on how we engage we them.
This is not the first time a Zimbabwean national has sat before American politicians asking for the extension or selective application of these sanctions. These testimonies serve NO purpose in advancing the democracy and human rights agenda as we have seen in the past 17 years of abject poverty and human suffering in Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe was not removed by ZIDERA or the European Union sanctions; it was his comrades in ZANU PF and the military that forced him to go over his succession plans to impose his wife overlooking his liberation war colleagues. So, I fail to understand the logic of bowing to the Americans and asking for more of the same which we now know with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that it can and will only punish the most vulnerable members of our society.
Whilst the rest of the world is busy trying to help us move away from 37 years of Mugabe’s tyranny, misrule and repression, doesn’t it sound morbid that individual Zimbabwean citizens are lining up at Capitol Hill to throw spanners into the very ripple of hope that we are nursing?
Chipo Dendere said that it would be a great injustice to lift sanctions before there has been a thorough investigation in human rights injustices. We have all been victims of Mugabe’s governments in different ways. But are we supposed to be audited by the Americans before we can start moving on with our lives?
Can we not have an internal conversation about what needs to be done and only seek outside help when we have become disagreeable? I personally believe that the use of language and words that elicit anger and despondency is unhelpful as it only feeds into creating divisions and quarrelling amongst ourselves.
We need to be politically astute and understand the impact that our actions will have on President Mnangagwa and his government. I don’t think that they would feel encouraged to engage with people who are doing everything possible to make their time in office difficult.
Let us assist our political class both in the ruling and opposition parties to feel that we are pulling together with them.
Until our government starts killing citizens using the state security services as Mugabe did, I think that it needs our goodwill and support to help it achieve its promises which we all agree are noble if carried through. Anything that makes life worse for our people at the village is not worth pursuing regardless of the narrow political outcomes from such measures as sanctions.
Many argue that sanctions should be retained on the political elite whilst other entities are removed. This is politically naïve; you can’t engage a country and its leadership and then ban them from traveling to your country to negotiate economic agreements. When political leaders travel on government business, they are doing so for the whole country not just for ZANU PF or the MDC.
I hope we can expand on this debate and shine some light in the dark political corners which continue to thrive due to ignorance and selective application of knowledge and ideas. This will certainly not be the end of this debate or discussion. I hope we can continue sharing ideas and sharpening our understanding of issues that affect our lives today and shape our tomorrow.a
Hopewell Chin’ono is an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is a CNN African journalist of the year and Harvard University Nieman Fellow. His next film, State of Mind looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe is coming out in March. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @daddyhope