Monday, 23 July 2012

Debating the EU's 'credible referendum' conditionality on Zimbabwean sanctions

By Takura Zhangazha*

The European Union has decided to put a conditionality on the long standing issue of sanctions on Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean individuals. In a statement released on Monday, July 23, 2010, EU foreign ministers stated that they would suspend sanctions on Zimbabwe only after the country has held a 'credible referendum' on a new constitution. The same statement also sought to make it clear that the sanctions being referred to are not those that relate directly to President Mugabe or any one who is linked to political violence. The latter point is one that will obviously rile members of President Mugabe's party and may also cause SADC to warn against selective application of the sanctions when the country has an 'inclusive' government and a political agreement that calls for the lifting of all sanctions on Zimbabwe.

It is however the prerogative of the EU to decide its foreign policy and the onus of changing its 'cold' approach to Zimbabwe resides more in the ability of Zimbabwean leaders to negotiate for the reneging of these sanctions. That the Zimbabwean leaders have failed to find a common strategy on how to get the sanctions lifted is no longer in any doubt especially after this new conditionality of a 'credible referendum' that has  been announced by the EU foreign ministers.

It would however be necessary to examine what this new EU position on sanctions means for Zimbabwe and our politics. The first effect of this new conditionality will be that of making the constitutional reform process as the 'only' mechanism through which free and fair elections can be held. This in itself is a disputed point but what the EU has essentially placed on the table is that either the inclusive government comes up with reforms that lead to a 'credible referendum' and with it a 'credible' referendum result or the sanctions will be extended.  Whether this will mean a new law on referendums in Zimbabwe that is approved by the EU or alternatively, a constitutional campaign that will lead to a 'yes' vote to the COPAC draft is really up to the three principals in the inclusive government. What is however self evident is that the EU has literally placed the ball in the court of the three parties in the inclusive government, and either way, the same parties will have to dance to the tune of EU should they want sanctions suspended or lifted in the short term.

It is also important to observe that because of the rather condescending announcement by the EU foreign ministers, the three parties in the inclusive governemtn are going to react differently on the matter. Zanu Pf is going to be slighted and will raise its internal party stakes around the exact purpose of the whole COPAC process. The same party will also be more shrill in seeking to put the blame for sanctions firmly at the MDCs doorsteps after this particular development. There will however also be internal divisions as to whether to call the EU's bluff and go ahead with the referendum or put a stop to the constitution drafting process all-together citing controversial arguments such as 'interference with sovereignty' or the oft-used refrain of 'regime change agenda of the West'

The MDCs on the other hand, will view this as a 'victory' in the sense that it makes their case for a new constitution via a referendum internationally recognized and therefore seemingly irreversible domestically. These parties will also seek to raise the matter with SADC in order for the issue to have resonance with Zimbabwe's neighbours and in terms of the much vaunted electoral road-map. They will however face the challenge of being accused by Zanu Pf and some ruling parties in the region of not having done enough thus far to get the sanctions lifted or to have actively played a part in their retention. This more so where Prime Minister Tsvangirai is reported to have  stated  that sanctions must be suspended, not lifted, while in Australia this week. In true fashion, the MDCs will issue ambiguous statements on the same matter in the confidence that their actual position on sanctions is of limited interest to their supporters or their electoral base.

To all intents and purposes, the announcement by the EU foreign ministers on the conditionality of a 'credible' constitutional referendum as the basis of a review of sanctions, is a serious development in Zimbabwe's politics. Whether the EU ministers made this decision on the advice of any other players is of limited consequence because it remains their right to determine their foreign policy. This is also true of Zimbabwe's political leaders who also remain with the sovereign right to respond to the EU's announcement hopefully in the best interests of Zimbabwe and not of themselves. Now that the constitutional referendum has been internationalized, the political stakes are higher, and it is my fervent hope that our own common sense will prevail.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (