by Arthur Gwagwa**
The Zimbabwean military’s re-framing of its recent coup as a constitutionally-mandated power transfer, rather than an illegal seizure of power, is a clear example of the impact that authority-led information manipulation has on the public during popular uprisings. In the case of Zimbabwe, rather than cutting access to information and communication, the military allowed information to flow freely online, but carefully controlled the discourse and opinions expressed in the public space. Crucially, it used soft power to project an image of harmonious civilian-military relations, which was key to ensuring local and global acceptance of the coup.
Further, through cleverly-orchestrated choreography it allowed the besieged President Robert Mugabe and his coterie to helplessly watch the drama play out on social media, as the military wrested power from them. Whichever way one looks at it, the military’s successful manipulation of digital technology to suit its goal of projecting an open and peaceful constitutional process sets a regional precedent: it defied the increasing trend in Africa of clamping down internet usage during popular uprisings. However, critics feel that the army’s conduct, which in the end merely led to an internal transfer of power within the ruling political party, ZANU PF, has short-circuited true democracy. For democracy to truly take root in Zimbabwe in future, digital rights activists now need to debunk the notion that the internet needs to be controlled in order for it to be safe.
18 November 2017 was a momentous and rare day for Zimbabweans; the country’s military, which is better known for its ruthlessness, allowed citizens freedom of speech, including on social media. This came in defiance of Grace Mugabe’s order to shut down WhatsApp and Twitter, which she issued to a Cabinet minister when she realised that social media was buzzing with pictures of armoured vehicles driving along roads to Harare in Zimbabwe, sparking frenzied speculation about a coup.
The military kept the internet open as part of a grand strategy to project the coup as a legitimate intervention intended to avert a constitutional crisis precipitated by the pro-Grace Mugabe faction. In this way, it could rely on the fast-paced exchange of information within and outside Zimbabwe to convey the developments openly and transparently, which was key to letting the African region and the global audience know that it was intervening to prevent a constitutional crisis. In addition, this approach allowed citizens to broadcast the subsequent events, such as the solidarity march, and show the world that the people of Zimbabwe wanted Mugabe gone.
By abandoning its usual tactic of crushing all forms of dissent against Mugabe’s rule the military left him exposed, since dictators are only safe from the threat of nonviolent mass mobilizations when they can rely on a military allegiance. Winning the hearts and minds of the people through showing cordial military-civilian relations was key to gaining acceptance from regional bodies such as the African Union, which has previously suspended the membership of countries in which military takeovers have occurred.
The Zimbabwe scenario presents a conundrum on the role of technologies during political upheavals. While they have sometimes catalysed democratic practices, for example, during the Arab Spring, they have also given lifelines to dictators. For example, Turkey’s President Erdogan used FaceTime to appeal to his supporters to resist military takeover in July 2016. In this instance, authority-led manipulation of digital information was able to achieve a short-term gain, by capitalising on the popular sentiment of the moment. Dictators manipulate this prevailing sentiment to control public discourse and opinions expressed on digital and other spaces. Information controls can therefore be applied in highly dynamic ways that respond to events as they are developing on the ground – when the information has its highest value, and so is the most contested. In Zimbabwe, the army co-opted the masses through a carefully-choreographed scheme that presented the intervention not just as an internal power struggle in the ruling party, but as a national issue. The public easily bought into this narrative not only because of the dominant anti-Mugabe sentiment, but also because the army had taken the unusual step of permitting them to express themselves.
However, these short-term gains have longer-term ramifications for citizens’ freedom to express different views in pursuit of democratic alternatives. The relapse of Turkey into a full authoritarian state is illustrative of this. In Zimbabwe’s case, future democratic alternatives may pay a high cost for the military’s manipulation of the digital space during the takeover. The recently appointed hybrid military-civilian government may be an early indication of relapse. The military’s scheme reflects a wider global trend whereby authoritarian regimes are creating a facade of democracy to give themselves a veneer of legitimacy; they simulate democratic institutions in order to prevent genuine democracy from taking root. Such modernized mimicry is a feature of the recent authoritarian resurgence that has created complex obstacles for democrats in autocratic settings around the globe.
Going forward, at a practical level, Zimbabwean digital rights activists should demand, as a matter of right that the new government does not encroach on the civic space that the military opened up. Secondly, they should understand the increasing trend of authority-led information access and manipulation and engage the new government to help debunk the notion that the internet needs to be controlled to be safe.
**Arthur Gwagwa is an Open Technology Fund Senior Research Fellow at Strathmore Law School. You can follow him at @arthurgwagwa