The European Union lifted sanctions limiting aid to the Zimbabwean government on Monday and made preparations for removing sanctions against Mugabe’s top brass. Unsurprisingly, Zanu-PF called it “nonsense”. No wonder: without sanctions, who will they blame for the country’s failures?
South Africa's Navi Pillay prepared the stage for the removal of sanctions on her visit to Zimbabwe a month ago. "There seems little doubt that the existence of the sanctions regimes has, at the very least, acted as a serious disincentive to overseas banks and investors," said the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
"It is also likely that the stigma of sanctions has limited certain imports and exports. Taken together, these and other unintended side effects will in turn inevitably have had a negative impact on the economy at large, with possibly quite serious ramifications for the country's poorest and most vulnerable populations," she said.
Discussing the sanctions on Monday, the European Commission inadvertently acknowledged that aid sanctions hurt Zimbabwe's population and resolved to put a carrot in front of a fair vote. Under the trade agreements with its former colonial subjects, the EU resolved to resume sending aid to Harare in 2014, scrapping the limit to only give aid to NGOs.
The real incentive, however, comes from the constitution. More than three years since the formation of the government of national unity, the draft constitution was handed to parliament on Monday. If Zimbabwe holds a "credible" referendum on the draft, said the EU, it will remove travel bans and asset freezes against Mugabe's top brass.
"The EU agrees that a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum would represent an important milestone in the preparation of democratic elections that would justify a suspension of the majority of all EU targeted restrictive measures against individuals and entities," read a statement from the EU's foreign ministers.
The MDC, which has publicly lobbied against the sanctions, welcomed the EU's move. "My preference remains for a full lifting of the measures in keeping with the agreement between the parties in Zimbabwe and resolutions of SADC," said Prime Minister and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
"Linking the suspension to the successful implementation of the constitution referendum is evidence that the EU is willing to respond to progress in reform of the democratic process in Zimbabwe."
The Australian government, which had issued sanctions along with the EU and US over the last decade, is also considering lifting sanctions, it said, as Tsvangirai held discussions with Canberra on Monday.
"We will be listening to advice from Prime Minister Tsvangirai about the issue of sanctions," said trade minister Craig Emerson.
Mugabe's Zanu-PF, however, used the opportunity to criticise the EU. "We are happy on one hand that our case is being validated, but we are unhappy on the other that they are retaining some of the illegal, immoral and unjustified sanctions which are based on falsehoods," said spokesman Rugare Gumbo. "We want all these sanctions removed because they are illegal, but we will never allow anyone to interfere with our domestic affairs."
Gumbo said Zimbabwe "never depended on the EU" and all sanctions should be lifted. "It's all nonsense We depend on ourselves so their decisions on sanctions make no difference."
Zimbabwe's unemployment figures make South Africa's burden look like child's play and the lifting of sanctions should encourage the nation, but Zanu-PF have reason to be upset by their possible removal.
Mugabe and his cronies have constantly blamed the country's failures on Western sanctions and neo-colonialism. Using state media outlets, he has deflected criticism for the failure to provide jobs and basic services by positioning himself as a crusader against the imperial forces out to rape the country.
If sanctions are removed, Mugabe would have lost a massive excuse (should he indeed continue being alive and kicking) for the shortages of food, health and crumbled infrastructure. The EU has stated it won't end sanctions against the octogenarian leader, regardless of the referendum outcome, so he still has some ammunition in his propaganda machine.
The EU's announcement heralds a large change: the sanctions, despite their intent, have hurt the average Zimbabweans while protecting Mugabe's allies, who have the connections to evade their limitations.
Zimbabwe's draft constitution will lead to a referendum. Depending on its result, that will lead to an election. SADC has recommended Zimbabwe go to the polls by June 2013.
Each step towards another election provides hope for a democratic Zimbabwe, free of the poverty Zanu-PF is happy to enforce on its rivals.
But what should worry Zimbabweans and all of us living in the South African Development Community is that, except for Mugabe's deteriorating health, little seems to have changed since the 2008 elections.
This time, the EU's holding a lucrative carrot out for the country to avoid a repeat of the violence. Zimbabwe may be on the cusp of change these days and the EU's move might help. Then again, we hoped it may happen many times in the past, with ever-increasing poverty and desperation the only result.