By Toyin Ajao
The breaking news at the crack of dawn on Friday, January 18, 2019 had it that Zimbabwe had followed in the DRC’s footsteps of pulling the Internet plug completely, as opposed to the partial access given two days earlier. The answer to peoples’ protests over the recent hyper-inflated fuel price (a 150% increase) and unbearably high standard of living was to squelch the uprising and shutdown Internet access across the country. Social media became inaccessible to numerous Zimbabweans who had begun a series of hashtag campaigns such as #ShutdownZimbabwe to grab the attention of those in power, and get them to address the overarching problems plaguing the country. Since the ousting of Mugabe, the country has tottered on the edge of a precipice barely avoiding plummeting into a sudden collapse. To further complicate the dire situation, the new government decided to violate citizens’ rights by stamping out the street protests and blocking cyber activism.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and MISA-ZIM had taken the Mnangagwa’s government to court to challenge the legality of the Internet shutdown, and the court had ruled that it was illegal for the government to shutdown the Internet. Thus the Zimbabwe High Court ordered the government to restore full Internet access to the country. However, the technicality of the court’s ruling on the power that the state has to shutdown the Internet has a strange dynamic. It was declared that the Minister of State for National Security, Cde Owen Ncube, who ordered the Internet shutdown, had no right to do so, except when permission was given by the president. Is there an assumption that the minister acted of his own volition without the consent of the president? It makes it somewhat vague and disturbing that the president has the right to shutdown the Internet without stating clearly under what circumstances this clause can be exercised.
Not only has it become difficult in recent times for Zimbabweans to cater for their basic needs, the government has also incarcerated them from exercising their human rights, by violating several rights such as freedom of information, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and right to life among others. These violations that have led to the death and injury of several people and rape of women, which were committed under the cover of “darkness” by the security agents can be linked to how the unresolved Gukurahundi genocide of 1983-1987 arose and thrived. The Gukurahundi genocide, which was a series of massacres of the Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army under the command of Mugabe ZANU-led government to extinguish the growing “power” of ZAPU dissidents headed by Joshua Nkomo, took the lives of about 30,000 Ndebele people.
Zimbabwe is yet to recover from the bitter enmity that this unjustifiable onslaught had left on the fabric of their fragile unity. Some Zimbabwean soldiers have also claimed lately that their lieutenant sent them to systematically attack Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists, a strong opponent of the ZANU-PF party. This recent development suggests retrogression in the leadership’s competence and intent to lift Zimbabwe out of the dungeon of sociopolitical and economical ruination and divisions.
What is Up With Zimbabwe?
When Mugabe was unceremoniously ousted on November 21, 2017, the leadership transition from Mugabe to Mnangagwa left some people with great expectations and several others remained highly skeptical. There were those who believed a change of power is needed to overhaul the system and build a formidable institution, capable of cleaning up the debris of decades of stagnation. There were others who believed that as the “chief enforcer” of Mugabe’s toxic politics, nothing good would come from Mnangagwa. There were also those who chanted the “give ED a chance” mantra. Is the “give ED a chance” mantra still credible in the face, not only of the Internet shutdown, the August 1st post-election killings and worsening economic problems, iniquitous violations of human rights during the recent fuel-hike protests?
Because Zimbabwe did not experience Internet shutdown of this magnitude during the long days of Mugabe, a comparison between Mugabe and Mnangagwa had ensued. A diaspora Zimbabwean who is a friend had shared on his Whatsapp Status the need for the immediate return of Mugabe to power, as he feared that Mnangagwa’s dictatorial tendencies exceed those of Mugabe. Although this might have been a tongue-in-check post, it should be reiterated that nothing good is known to come from “the devil you know” compromise. Nonetheless, this particular friend’s concern highlights the gloomy reality of the current situation in Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa, who had declared once he got to power that “Zimbabwe is open for business” and that the “new dispensation” would bring about remarkable change, has begun to compromise on this promise. His promise of progressive leadership had beckoned the international community’s attention, with Great Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) in the lead, to part with $4.2 million in grant to the World Bank’s Zimbabwe Reconstruction Fund (ZIMREF). But the controversy, which characterized the 2018 elections leading to the August 1st shootings and the ZANU (PF) factions have continued to cast serious doubt in the minds of the people as to whether or not the Mnangagwa leadership will be fruitful. After all, it is believed that a regime which is "open for business" cannot shutdown the Internet with a view to repress legitimate demands from the citizens.
It is apparent that the Mugabe led ZANU (PF) government had left the country on the rim of socio-economic collapse, before Mnangagwa who was a part of the ruling elites rose to presidency. In an attempt to save what was left of the ruined state of the economy, Mnangagwa has embarked on neoliberal reforms that seemed to be sinking the country deeper into a chasm of incessant austerities. Perhaps he needs to borrow a SAP note from several African countries that had swum and drowned in the pool of Bretton Woods Institutions.
Although the Emerson Mnangagwa-led government had inherited a dysfunctional political structure and crippled economy, it has so far failed to focus on the collective socioeconomic and political reformations required through active citizens’ engagement. His rather high-handed response to the recent protests against the hike in fuel prices raises questions about the continuation of human rights abuses under the new government. More than 100 Zimbabweans have been reported injured while at least 8 people have brutally lost their lives as a result of the government’s crackdown on protesters. The government’s action can be seen as recourse to undemocratic practices in spite of a return to constitutional rule. This begs a fundamental question of how the state intends to strengthen democratic governance when it sees its people as “internal enemies”?
The Emerson Mnangagwa “austerity for prosperity” economic reform programme that attempted to provide solutions to the financial collapse in the country has simply worsened things. This neoliberal reform that has created a cobra effect, which has left the country stuck in a catch-22 situation, began as a measure to spur the stalling economic growth in Zimbabwe. To implement the austerity measure, the finance minister Mthuli Ncube had announced the layoff off about 3,000 workers, a cut of 5% wages top government official among others. But as Dr. Nkosana Moyo, a Zimbabwean economist and politician stated, more than 95% Zimbabwean fiscal budget continued to go into recurring expenditure, such as staff salaries, allowances and travels, without any visible investment in place to replenish the state’s depleted coffers. With the steep cost of fuel that has jacked up the prices of other commodities, in addition to the existing volatile costs of living, it is clear that the new government’s neoliberal economic policies have failed to reverse the effects of a prolonged economic crises on a beleaguered populace.
According to the Internet World Stats, Zimbabwe is home to 17 million inhabitants of which over 6 million are netizens. It has a growing network of Internet activists and concerned netizens whose efforts are directed towards socioeconomic and political transformation. Kubatana.net (info/online activism community) stands out as one of the earliest citizen journalism platforms that tackled head on, autocratic Mugabeism. This is done through active representations of the voices of diaspora and home-based Zimbabweans on political and governance matters, especially on elections and the overdue transition of democratic power. However, the hope that Zimbabwe was ripe for a change following the unceremonious exit of Robert Mugabe who had hoarded power for 37 years and was ousted at the age of 93 is fast becoming a mirage.
Yanking off citizens’ rights to protest and publicly voice their objection to the unceasing austerity that characterizes Mnangagwa’s government is by no means clever. Eroding their right to access the ubiquitous Internet that has democratically globalized human interconnectivity and activism is the final nail in the coffin of the government’s inclusivity mantra. Besides, access to Internet is a democratic right that should not be snatched away on a whim because a government is feeling threatened by the peoples’ protests. Rather, investing in e-governance, as is the case of the Nordic nations, could offer more inclusive solutions needed to lead Zimbabwe away from the shadows of economic brink. This is not to exculpate the protests from turning violent, with the reported cases of looting and vandalism, but to remind us that the state agents are equally culpable of exacerbating the situation. In retrospect, the August 1st 2018 post-election killings by the state security points to existing impunity in the system. Although, a joint statement was released by the state security forces to absolve themselves from the violence while informing the public that the violations were perpetrated by disgruntled army and police force deserters. But has this brutality ceased to be the case?
There is no logical framework that makes the recent Internet shutdown a wise decision; rather, it speaks more to political regression than a genuine attempt at economic advancement to better the lot of the citizens. This is rash and ill thought out on the part of the “new dispensation”. The inflow of taxable income from Wi-Fi and mobile data usage also halted in the witch-hunt process, as is people’s freedom of information and global economic opportunities represented by digital communications. Thus, Zimbabwe is cascading faster towards perennial economic and political decay, and the morbid silence that has greeted this unfortunate development from the AU and SADC bloc is a cause for concern.
The future prospect for socio-political and economic transformation for Zimbabwe is bleak, if the leaders do not strategically engage the citizens in public affairs and instead continue to deploy state violence, as well as stifle people’s human rights by shutting down the Internet and preventing them from protesting on the streets. 21st century problems require 21st century insightful solutions. By this, it means the government of Zimbabwe ought to take a breather and stop shooting itself in the foot. It is not too late to proactively invest in e-/inclusive governance to escape plunging the country into an abyss of human rights violations and furtherance of socioeconomic deteriorations. Even though the economic turnaround will be excruciatingly painful, meting out injustices on civil and political society will not solve the problem. Putting human security first and doing away heavy-handed security regime offers a better chance of institutional building and transformative governance. Failure to do this will be putting a homeless person under house arrest.
Hopefully, the Mnangagwa government has learnt that the Internet cannot be silenced by the court rulings, as well as by the diaspora Zimbabweans who have lit up the new media by occupying every social media space, especially Twitter, to demand justice through #WeWillNotBeSilent hashtag. As a consequence for the state audacity to shutdown the Internet, peoples’ mutiny is rising, and the latest on the list, is Anonymous Kickstarts hacktivism DDoS protest against the Zimbabwe government. It has been reported that up to 72 government’s official websites are hacked and pulled down. Also, an ongoing #KeepItOn campaigning of a coalition of 175 organizations in 60 countries is pressuring the government of Zimbabwe to restore full Internet access to the people. The rising cyber activism within and outside the country shows the dogged determination of the governed to participate in human-centred governance. For #ThisFlag not to fall, the government must make sure the flag is kept with steady hands, high up in the sky, allowing it to flutter with the wind of change.
Toyin Ajao is a Research Associate of the African Leadership Centre.