Africa: U.S. Sanctions On Africa Need an Overhaul

Map of Africa
23 October 2020

US sanctions in Africa needs an update. They've allowed Sudan to become pawn in the US election campaign. Plus the list of sanctioned individuals contains someone who has since died.

President Donald Trump has said the US will remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism once Sudan follows through on its pledge to pay $335 million to American terror victims.

Sudan's central bank said the funds were transferred on Tuesday.

The move is part of broader deal that could bring international loans and emergency financing needed to revive Sudan's battered economy and help the country's transition to democracy.

The US, under the administration of former President Barack Obama, lifted most economic sanctions against Sudan in 2017 but retained the country on its state sponsors of terrorism list.

There are reports that taking Sudan off the blacklist may also be dependent on Sudan normalizing relations with Israel - something which is expected to be announced in the coming days, according to Israeli media.

Having more countries recognize Israel is a diplomatic goal for President Trump who faces an election on November 3.

But this doesn't have anything to do with the original reason for imposing the sanctions, says Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa program at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

"The reason for the sanctions was originally terrorism," he told DW. "That doesn't have anything to do with the recognition of Israel."

And maintaining the sanctions against Sudan contradicts the US's stated goal of supporting the new Sudan after the ouster of long-time president Omar al-Bashir. As long as Sudan remains on the terror list, however,r much needed investors will stay away.

US has sanctions against nine African nations

The example of Sudan illustrates the vagaries of the US sanctions policy.

As well as Sudan, eight other African countries are on the US Treasury Department's sanctions list, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Libya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The sanctions are mainly against individuals or companies and organizations for human rights violations or fueling a conflict. These include asset freezes as well as bans on travel or cooperations.

Independently from sanctions on states, the US can sanction individuals under the Global Magnitsky Act, which targets corrupt officials and practices and human rights violations. African citizens on the list include Yahya Jammeh, the former president of Gambia from 1996 to 2017, and his wife Zineb, as well as South Sudan's First Vice President Taban Deng Gai.

Zimbabwe sanctions fall short of their goals

Some 141 individuals and companies, including current President Emmerson Mnangagwa are currently under US sanctions in Zimbabwe, which were first imposed in 2003.

It's one of the US's most unsuccessful sanctions programs, says Hilary Mossberg, an anti-money laundering expert at The Sentry, an organization which tracks dirty money from Africa.

The sanctions have "simply not been effective" in changing the attitudes or behavior of Zimbabwe's political elite, she told DW.

The Zimbabwean government has developed such as strong rhetoric against the sanctions that the measures have "lost every momentum they might have had years ago," Mossberg said.

Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo described the US sanctions against his country as a "weapon of mass destruction" in an interview with DW in July. However, others say there is little evidence to prove that US sanctions were responsible for Zimbabwe's woes and pin the country's economic problems on government mismanagement.

Oddly enough, one of those on the US sanctions list is long-term ruler Robert Mugabe, who died in 2019.

Despite the modest balance sheet, Trump extended the sanctions on Zimbabwe in March 2020 by a year. He said Zimbabwe's new government, which came to power after Mugabe's ousting, posed an "unusual and extraordinary" threat to his country.

DR Congo sanctions shown greater impact

Mossberg feels that US sanctions have been more effective in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The US first imposed sanctions on DR Congo, then under the rule of President Joseph Kabila, in 2006 because of "widespread violence and atrocities". It subsequently increased the range and severity of the measures.

But placing individuals on the Magnitsky Act helped influence then President Joseph Kabila not to stand for reelection in 2018.

"I am not saying that the sanctions were the only reason why President Kabila didn't run again," Mossberg said. But, she says, research shows the US sanctions were part of the reason.

Despite signs of a recent rapprochement between the US and Congo under new president Felix Tshisekedi, sanctions are still in force against 55 individuals, companies and organizations, plus others from the Global Magnitzky Act.

I don't think we're at the point of lifting sanctions, Mossberg said, as too many people close to Kabila are still in positions of power.

US sanctions could do more

"Our main recommendation for the United States is to concentrate on multilateral efforts instead of going it alone, which is so typical for the US," Mossberg said.

Solidarity with the United Nations or the European Union would make sanctions much more effective, she said, pointing out that Zimbabwe is an example of lack of international strategy.

Her organization The Sentry also recommends using network sanctions: as well as sanctioning individuals, measures should be imposed on those who operate on the individual's behalf or provide support enabling a regime to stay in power.

In addition, there should be a clearly-defined exit strategy setting out the criteria to fulfil in order for sanctions to be lifted, so as to avoid cases such as the current situation with Sudan.

Murphy feels the US sanctions policy isn't part of a larger strategy for Africa on the part of the US government.

To a certain extent, however, sanctions depend on who is president, she says. What their priorities are, who fills crucial posts and how many personnel are assigned to relevant departments.

Research by The Sentry shows that the US failed to maintain pressure on Kabila in the Congo when Trump took over from Obama in 2017.

Should there be another change in the White House after the November presidential election, Mossberg expects a more strategic approach from Joe Biden to the sanctions programs.

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