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Sanctions are a potent coercive economic tool in the international community’s arsenal and can be used to address a variety of threats to regional and international stability, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, organized crime, armed conflict, corruption, and human rights abuses. In recent history, sanctions programs have become almost the de facto response from the United States, the United Nations (U.N.), and the European Union (EU) to African crises involving armed conflict or human rights abuses. The goal of these sanctions programs is usually to bring about the end of a conflict, to coerce a particular actor or group into negotiating a peace deal or abiding by an existing one, or to impose consequences for human rights abuses. In this context, sanctions are attractive to policymakers because they send a stronger message than diplomatic engagement, but are far less extreme than military action, and policymakers can be seen to be “doing something” in the face of a conflict. In other cases, the goal of sanctions programs is to protect the U.S. financial system from abuse and disrupt illicit financial activity. There are 25 active sanctions programs in 11 African countries, with hundreds of individuals, entities, and companies designated under these programs. But how effective are these programs in achieving their goals? How is success measured? Is it possible to measure success at all, given that sanctions are often used alongside other tools to achieve a policy goal? And how are these sanctions perceived on the continent and by those who are expected to implement them?

The Sentry carried out a six-month study analyzing sanctions effectiveness in Africa in the 21st century. This paper provides several case studies to illustrate the different ways sanctions have been effective or ineffective, and culminates with a set of recommendations for improving the use of sanctions to respond to crises in Africa.

Countless academic and journalistic articles have been written on the effectiveness of sanctions programs. However, there is still no agreed-upon method or set of metrics for measuring the impact and success of a sanctions program. In almost all cases, it is extremely difficult to separate out the effects of sanctions, as they are generally not the only tool deployed to achieve a particular foreign policy goal, and there are different types of sanctions imposed at different levels. The Sentry examined seven African countries for which sanctions programs are or were in place, and analyzed the outcomes of the sanctions strategies used by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations; one major challenge encountered here was that it was not always clear whether sanctions had been levied as part of an intentional strategy. The Sentry found that while some designated individuals did exhibit behavior changes—indicating sanctions may have had tangible effects—all of the sanctions programs suffered from poor conceptualization, coordination, implementation, and enforcement.

In addition to analyzing the sanctions strategies and behavior changes in the seven countries profiled here, The Sentry spoke to dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign government officials, sanctions experts, bankers, civil society representatives, regional organizations, and individuals from African countries affected by sanctions to solicit their views and experiences in understanding sanctions effectiveness in Africa. The interviews yielded a resounding message when it comes to improving African (and other) sanctions programs: better strategies for achieving identified goals in each sanctions program must be developed, more coordination between governments and regional organizations is required both during and after the deployment of sanctions, and the implementation and enforcement of sanctions regionally and around the world should be prioritized if sanctions effectiveness is to improve. The experts interviewed all agreed that network sanctions targeting the groups responsible for threats to peace and security were more effective than comprehensive sanctions applied broadly against an entire country, or even targeted sanctions applied against individuals without also pursuing their support networks.

Sanctions are used more and more often—unfortunately sometimes as a default—as a tool to encourage behavior change. While it should always be carefully debated whether sanctions are the right tool to address a given foreign policy challenge, The Sentry’s research shows that sanctions can be incredibly effective when designed, implemented, and enforced thoughtfully and transparently. The Sentry’s recommendations—designed for the United States, European Union, and United Nations—are meant to encourage the development of intentionally designed and well-maintained targeted network sanctions programs as one part of a comprehensive foreign policy response to prevent or end African conflicts, deter grand corruption, and deter human rights abuses.


The Sentry has also compiled a database detailing almost every sanction levied in sub-Saharan Africa by the United States since the early 1990s. To view the database, click here. The Sentry hopes this compilation will help researchers analyze data and trends in regards to sanctions implementation and effectiveness in Africa.

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