Arthur Gwagwa is an Open Technology Fund Senior Research Fellow at Strathmore Law School. Jeffrey Smith is the executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit that supports free and fair elections in Africa. You can follow them at @arthurgwagwa and @Smith_JeffreyT.
Earlier this month, the government in Zimbabwe, which is already one of the most repressive in the world, signaled its intent to further crackdown on human rights in the lead up to next year’s anticipated elections. This latest move came in the form of a newly created Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. According to a government spokesperson, its mission will focus on eliminating “abuse and unlawful conduct” in cyberspace like “a trap used to catch rats.” The move has widely been viewed—among both domestic and international activists—as yet another attempt to curb freedom of speech online and further entrench the long-abusive regime of Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980.
In an attempt to head off the expected outcry over its sweeping surveillance powers, the Mugabe government has expediently used the language of national security to justify the new ministry, as well as the government’s newfound, and now legally legitimate powers, to clamp down on constitutionally protected rights to free speech and to hinder political participation. Importantly, this move comes at a time when Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, is in the midst of unprecedented internal fractures and repeated leadership crises, exacerbated by Mugabe’s failing health. This effort to further monitor and curtail the online activities of Zimbabweans and intimidate critics is an early indication that Mugabe and his coterie remain intent on maintaining power at all costs beyond 2018.
Momentum towards a more concerted crackdown on free speech in Zimbabwe has been building for some time. Last year, the country’s telecom authority issued a “public warning” on the “gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services” at a time when new citizen-led civic movements were gaining resonance with Zimbabweans across the political spectrum. For example, a video in which a pastor vents his frustration with the state of the country went viral last year, triggering a movement known as #ThisFlag in which other Zimbabweans share their exasperation. The pastor now faces subversion charges and a potential twenty-year prison sentence.
These concerning developments in Zimbabwe fit a pattern exhibited more broadly in Africa, which has witnessed a sharp rise in internet censorship, often occurring in the lead up to elections or during periods of civic unrest. Since the beginning of last year, for example, African governments have shut down the internet at least eighteen times. Most notably this year, Cameroon enforced a 93-day blackout in its English-speaking regions amid mounting protests; Togo has repeatedly shut down the internet to stifle growing resistance to the long ruling Gnassinbe family dynasty; and Ethiopia and Rwanda, veritable pioneers in the realm of restricting digital activism and free speech, have repeatedly sealed off access to its citizens.
Viewed in this context, developments in Zimbabwe reflect how illiberal governments in Africa—and indeed across the globe—are becoming more assertive in the digital realm, strengthening negative norms that have formed a counterpunch against the once perceived inevitability of online mobilization, access to knowledge and democratization. In this way, governments like Zimbabwe are seeking to shape cyberspace in ways that merely serve to legitimize their repression, their political self-interests and long-term survival. It is thus no surprise that leaders in Zimbabwe have unabashedly looked to China and North Korea for “successful” models to emulate.
In order to respond to this trend, digital rights activists and donors should undertake several important steps. First, raise awareness—online and elsewhere—about the latest encroachment on privacy, free speech and political expression in Zimbabwe. Abusive leaders like Robert Mugabe and his regime grow strength in darkness; sustained exposure, public advocacy and a targeted, strategic response to his growing repression will be critical to retaking the initiative and gaining needed momentum.
Second, activists need to convince donors to invest in projects that better assess and respond to cyber security threats and other technological challenges to human rights. For example, donors should encourage and support cybersecurity training to enhance the capacity of civil society actors to operate in repressive spaces. Ideally, this approach would include tools to navigate around website blocks, connection blackouts and widespread censorship. Similarly, encouraging telecoms to push back against government pressure to censor the internet will be crucial; evidence from Lesotho suggests that this strategy can be successful.
Finally, activists must work proactively and creatively with tech companies to convince African leaders of the devastating economic impact that internet shutdowns, and other related disruptions, have had on African economies. One study, for example, found that the internet shutdown in Cameroon cost business in the affected regions US$1.39 million in lost sales—an enormous sum in a country with a per capita GDP of just over $1000. This economic argument will not resonate with everyone. Autocratic regimes such as Mugabe’s will always prioritize survival above all else. However, this approach might work with more pragmatic governments and help to build an important counter-narrative that appeals to different segments of society who share a collective interest in advancing their personal well-being.