On Friday, January 18, 2019, news media announced that Zimbabwe had followed in the DRC’s footsteps by forcing internet providers to block access to the internet completely, an escalation of the partial shutdown implemented two days earlier. The state’s response to protests over the recent 150 percent fuel price hike for petrol and diesel and the unbearably high cost of living was intended to squelch the uprising by shutting down 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 ouster of Mugabe in November 2017, Zimbabwe has teetered on the edge of a precipice, barely avoiding collapse.
Not only has it recently become more difficult for Zimbabweans to meet their basic needs, but the government has also prevented them from exercising their human rights by violating their freedom of information, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and right to life, among others. These violations have led to the death and injury of several people; multiple women have reportedly been raped by security agents. This brings back memories of some of the atrocities committed during the unresolved Gukurahundi massacres of 1983-1987. Some Zimbabwean soldiers also claimed that they were instructed to systematically attack activists of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a strong opponent of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
What is Up with Zimbabwe?
When Mugabe was unceremoniously ousted on November 21, 2017, the leadership transition from Mugabe to Mnangagwa left many with great expectations while others remained highly skeptical. The skeptics believed that as the chief enforcer of Mugabe’s toxic politics, nothing good would come from Mnangagwa. Others urged that “ED,” as he is commonly known, should be given a chance. But is the “give ED a chance” mantra still credible in the face of an internet shutdown, worsening economic problems, and the human rights violations committed during the recent fuel-hike protests?
Mnangagwa, who on assuming power declared that “Zimbabwe is open for business” and that the “new dispensation” would bring about remarkable change, has begun to compromise on his promises. His promise of progressive leadership had received the international community’s attention, with the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) contributing $ 4.2 million to the World Bank’s Zimbabwe Reconstruction Fund (ZIMREF). But the controversy of the 2018 elections, which led to the August 1 shootings and ZANU (PF) factionalism, raises serious doubts as to whether Mnangagwa’s leadership will be fruitful. Many argue that a regime that is “open for business” cannot shut down the internet to repress legitimate demands from its citizens.
Before Mnangagwa—who was first vice-president until November 2017—ascended to the presidency, the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF government had left the country on the brink of socio-economic collapse. In an attempt to save what was left of the ruined state of the economy, Mnangagwa has embarked on neoliberal reforms that appear to be dragging the country deeper into the chasm of incessant austerity.
Although Mnangagwa’s government inherited a dysfunctional political structure and a crippled economy, it has so far failed to focus on collective socioeconomic and political challenges by engaging citizens. His high-handed response to the recent protests against the hike in fuel prices raises questions about his government’s attitude toward human rights abuses. More than one hundred Zimbabweans were reportedly injured and at least eight people lost their lives as a result of the government’s crackdown on protesters. Despite a professed return to constitutional rule, the government’s actions represent recourse to undemocratic practices.
The president’s “austerity for prosperity” economic reform program, which attempts to provide solutions to the country’s financial collapse, has simply worsened the situation. These neoliberal reforms, intended to spur Zimbabwe’s stalling economic growth, have had unintended consequences, leaving the country in a catch-22 situation. To implement the austerity measures, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, announced that about three thousand workers would be laid off, in addition to a five percent cut to the wages of government officials, along with other measures. However, according to Dr. Nkosana Moyo, a Zimbabwean economist and politician, more than ninety-five percent of Zimbabwe’s fiscal budget still goes toward recurring expenditure, such as staff salaries, allowances, and travel, without any visible investment in place to replenish the state’s depleted coffers. With the steep increase in economic hardship, it is clear that the new government’s neoliberal economic policies have failed to reverse the adverse effects of a prolonged economic crisis.
According to Internet World Stats, Zimbabwe is home to seventeen million inhabitants of which over six million are internet users (netizens). There are growing networks of internet activists and concerned netizens. Kubatana.net, an online community of activists, stands out as one of the earliest citizen journalism platforms that tackled autocratic Mugabeism head-on.1“Mugabeism” is a term used to capture the complexities of Mugabe’s leadership and policies in Zimbabwe. However, the hope that Zimbabwe was ripe for a change following Mugabe’s unceremonious exit after thirty-seven years in power is fast becoming a mirage.
Eroding people’s right to access the internet, which has democratically globalized human interconnectivity and activism, is the final nail in the coffin of the government’s inclusivity mantra. Besides, access to the internet is a right that should not be taken away on a whim because the government feels threatened by protests. Rather, investing in e-governance, as in the case of the Nordic nations, could offer more inclusive solutions and innovative investment opportunities needed to lead Zimbabwe away from the brink of economic collapse.
There is no explanation that makes the recent internet shutdown look like a wise decision. It suggests political regression rather than a genuine attempt at economic advancement to better the lot of citizens. The inflow of taxable income from Wi-Fi and mobile data usage was also stopped, contributing to a revenue loss for the state. The silence of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community’ (SADC) on the unfortunate developments in Zimbabwe is a cause for concern.
Following the suppression of the protests, which resulted in many deaths and arrests, questions persist regarding the prospects for socio-political and economic transformation for Zimbabwe. A continuation of human rights violations by security agencies in Zimbabwe will not bode well for the country. Zimbabwe’s leaders must strategically engage citizens in governance and decision-making. 21st-century problems require 21st-century solutions. Putting human security first offers a better chance for institution-building and transformative governance.
Hopefully, the court ruling that the internet blackout was illegal and the public outcry exemplified by the hashtag #WeWillNotBeSilent have taught the government that the internet cannot be silenced. Moreover, online protest is rising. The government’s latest enemy is “Anonymous,” the decentralized international hacktivist group, which has launched a series of DDoS attacks (which render computer networks temporarily unusable) against the Zimbabwean government. It has been reported that up to seventy-two official government websites were subject to these attacks. Also, the ongoing #KeepItOn campaign—a coalition of 175 organizations in sixty countries—is pressuring the government 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-centered governance. For #ThisFlag not to fall, the government must make sure the flag is held with steady hands, high up in the sky, allowing it to flutter with the winds of change.
- 1“Mugabeism” is a term used to capture the complexities of Mugabe’s leadership and policies in Zimbabwe.