Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Foreign Relations & International Law

A Better Way to Use Sanctions in Africa

Hilary Mossberg
Friday, November 8, 2019, 8:00 AM

How effective are sanctions in Africa? The Sentry recommends ways to make the foreign policy tool more effective in the continent.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa (Source:

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Few things are as constitutive of the Western foreign policy orthodoxy toward Africa as sanctions. Sanctions programs abound in the continent, yet they frequently fall short of their goals. We propose some ways to recapture the foreign policy value of sanctions.

In recent weeks, both Sudan and Zimbabwe have experienced dramatic political changes—Sudan has a new transitional government, and Zimbabwe navigates the death of its longtime and controversial president, Robert Mugabe. The twin political shifts offer an occasion to revisit the sanctions regimes against these countries and reflect on the effectiveness of sanctions programs more broadly. After many years of sanctions against sub-Saharan African countries, what lessons can be learned?

In Sudan and Zimbabwe, the international community has long imposed economic sanctions as part of a policy effort to address human rights violations in both countries. Sudan has been under sanctions for decades for supporting terrorism and human rights abuses in the Darfur region, and while many of the sanctions were lifted in 2017, Sudan remains listed as a state sponsor of terrorism and subject to a host of sanctions. Zimbabwe has been under sanctions, also for decades, for suppressing opposition groups and the democratic process.

Imposing economic sanctions is often the international community’s default response when a crisis erupts in an African country. Policymakers want to be seen to be doing something to address a crisis, and sanctions are attractive: They send a stronger message than diplomatic engagement but are less extreme than military action. Economic sanctions may be imposed on perpetrators and supporters of violence and human rights violations, as in Sudan and Zimbabwe, but sanctions can also address a variety of other threats to regional and international stability—terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, organized crime and corruption.

There are currently 25 active sanctions programs in 11 sub-Saharan African countries. They are being implemented by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. These sanctions operate as a tool to encourage behavioral change. While it should always be carefully debated whether sanctions are the right tool to address a particular foreign policy challenge, a recent in-depth study by The Sentry found that sanctions can be effective when designed, implemented, and enforced thoughtfully and transparently.

The Sentry’s new report, published last week, details a mixed record. While some sanctions programs saw limited success, most of the sanctions regimes we analyzed suffered from poor conceptualization and weak enforcement, making it difficult to assess whether sanctions are effective in Africa as a general matter.

The Sentry interviewed dozens of current and former sanctions experts, bankers, civil society representatives, regional organizations and government officials to understand their views on the effectiveness of sanctions in Africa. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the interviewees largely came to the same conclusion: Western powers can do better. The Sentry recommends that the international community should strive to develop better strategies for achieving the identified goals in each sanctions program and to promote more coordination between governments and regional organizations both during and after the deployment of sanctions.

More than anything else, poor design and a lack of enforcement lead to wasted opportunities. The EU and U.S. sanctions programs in Burundi, for example, is emblematic of the poorly designed programs that third parties deploy in Africa far too often. The sanctions programs in Burundi were launched in 2015, in an effort to prevent ethnic cleansing and promote conflict resolution. The U.S. sanctioned leaders from both the government and the opposition in an attempt to show balance, including one opposition leader who was jailed for life by the Burundian government. Since sanctions were implemented, however, the programs have not been maintained. No further names have been added to the lists of sanctioned individuals, nor have names been removed based on behavioral changes. Compounding the problem, the U.N. Security Council was unable to agree on any sanctions, so no U.N. sanctions were implemented. Furthermore, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, responsible for ordering much of the ethnic violence, was able to spin a counternarrative, blaming the sanctions for the country’s economic woes. This shored up support for the government against “external meddlers.” Yes, the international community did something to address the humanitarian crisis in Burundi. But was a poorly maintained sanctions program really the best answer?

Instead of these haphazard sanctions regimes, we recommend “network sanctions,” a term that refers to the strategy of freezing the assets of not just the primary target for sanctions designation but also the individuals or entities that act on their behalf or provide support for their activities. This type of sanctions program would go beyond just singling out the leadership of a government responsible for atrocities, as happened in Burundi, and instead target the larger network responsible for supporting the individuals committing atrocities or engaging in corrupt practices. For example, network sanctions also target the companies or property that are “owned and/or controlled by” the primary target. Experts interviewed by The Sentry all agreed that network sanctions targeting the groups responsible for threats to peace and security are more effective than the broad, blunt approach of traditional comprehensive sanctions across a whole country.

While a transition to network sanctions anchors our recommendations, the report includes other suggestions for states and international governance institutions to consider. The Sentry’s recommendations, based on the report’s findings, are meant to encourage the development of intentionally designed and well-maintained targeted network sanctions programs. Network sanctions should be deployed as part of a comprehensive foreign policy response to prevent or end African conflicts and deter grand corruption and human rights abuses.

The Sentry recommends that sanctions architects consider four factors when designing network sanctions: (a) Sanctions are most effective when imposed multilaterally; (b) sanctions are more effective when attached to clearly articulated policy goals; (c) sanctions must include from the outset a well-defined exit strategy to delist individuals or companies, or even to end entire programs when warranted; and (d) sanctions must be consistently maintained, updated and adjusted to prevent evasion and remain effective.

With some changes, sanctions could become far more effective in Africa. Sanctions bolstered by improved strategy development, communication, and enforcement—and combined with other foreign policy tools (e.g., diplomacy, humanitarian aid and technical assistance) hold promise as a foreign policy tool in the continent. Policymakers must focus on the full conceptualization of a sanctions plan at the outset of any new program. For existing programs, policymakers should conduct thorough reviews and develop enforcement tactics and, if appropriate, delisting road maps. Most importantly, targeted sanctions must be implemented against entire networks involved in sanctionable misdeeds, not just against the individuals committing the abuses.

Without such improvements, sanctions could lose their power as a tool of foreign policy and run the risk of obsolescence. By contrast, properly implemented programs that deliver network sanctions can be a core component of international policy that serves to support security, sustainable peace and human rights.

Hilary Mossberg is The Sentry's anti-money laundering expert for Africa. She has over a decade of experience in illicit finance and national security and was formerly a senior advisor for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and a graduate degree from the U.S. International University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Subscribe to Lawfare