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Closing the Technology Gap — Mugabe-Style

What is Robert Mugabe missing as he tries to close Zimbabwe’s technology gap?

August 27, 2001

What is Robert Mugabe missing as he tries to close Zimbabwe's technology gap?

It is not easy these days to be the President of Zimbabwe. A country of 12 million people, it faces an abysmal economic crisis. Zimbabwe’s GDP amounts to $32 billion — about a third of a percent of U.S. GDP. The country’s health care system is in utter disarray due to the AIDS problem — and doctors and nurses are on strike over low pay.

Sixty percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is only slightly lower at 50%. That and the fact that the country’s main exports are tobacco and gold does not help the situation either — these commodities are currently not known for huge profit margins.

In his search for a scapegoat for the country’s desperate situation, President Robert Mugabe has mainly turned on the country’s minority white farmers. Government figures make it clear why these landowners are an easy target. Descendants of Zimbabwe’s former British colonizers, a mere 4,400 whites own a third of the nation’s agricultural land. Meanwhile, the remaining millions of black peasants have to be content with what is left — land which is often of lesser quality.

The digital divide itself has been another major factor that worsened Zimbabwe’s economic problems. Like many African countries, its technology sector is no match for the industrialized world. As a way of bridging the gap, a group of Japanese buisnessmen launched the Global Digital Divide Opportunity Corps prior to last year’s G8 summit in Okinawa summit to lobby G8 countries to invest in information technologies for poor countries.

And so it happened that the theme of Jakarta’s G15 summit of developing countries in May was “Towards E-Development: Closing the Digital Gap.” For Africa, the focus on technology was particularly welcome. The continent is home to about 15% of the world’s population, yet Africans account for only 1% of the world’s Internet users.

The picture does not look better when it comes to older technologies. A meager 2.1% of Zimbabweans — roughly 250,000 people — have a telephone line. This is particularly disheartening as Zimbabwe’s telephone communications were once considered to be one of Africa’s best. Today, there is no money for maintenance.

President Mugabe was quick to point to the developing countries’ difficult situation. In President Mugabe’s view, Zimbabwe’s problems have their root in the “relational phenomena of emperor and colony.” President Mugabe would no doubt have in mind to substitute “G8” for “emperor” — and “developing countries” for “colony.”

Himself a former guerilla freedom fighter, Mr. Mugabe was proud to say that most former colonies were now politically free, although he remained worried about the future of this freedom due to the technological inequality. Mr. Mugabe added that only by closing the information technology gap would previously colonized societies be able to enjoy the “liberative power” for which they struggled.

Yet, for all his concern about his country’s political freedom being wiped out by economic oppression and technological exploitation (presumably at the hands of G8 countries), Mr. Mugabe himself does not suffer political dissent at home easily.

The Zimbabwe Daily News, the country’s only independent newspaper, had its press blown up in January this year and, more recently, its editor and other staff were arrested.

Yet, what tops everything is the perverse use Mr. Mugabe makes of the technologies his country cannot afford. Around the time of the Jakarta summit, during which President Mugabe lamented his country’s technological backwardness, Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization — a sort of impoverished cousin of the CIA — acquired state-of-the-art spy and surveillance equipment, apparently from Russia.

The aim of these spying efforts are the Harare-based western embassies and international aid agencies, which the president suspects are mobilizing financial resources for the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. At the top of the CIO’s list are two German foundations — the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation as well as the German, U.S., British and Swedish embassies.

The foundations must have been a particular vexing problem for Mr. Mugabe. The Naumann Foundation’s stated vision is to “ensure the accountability of the government through a civil society and to create liberal political alternatives.” At the same time, the Ebert Foundation wants to “strengthen citizens' participation on the political decision making process.”

As it is, President Mugabe has missed some vital points in his efforts to polish up his country’s run-down technology sector. First, closing the “spy technology gap” will not improve Zimbabwe’s economic woes. Second, access to information technology as a means of “liberative power” also means a willingness to share such power.

Of course, he is right to mention the issue. But why is it that, while talking about high technology, President Mugabe resorts to old-fashioned methods such as inciting the mob to rob from the haves? President Mugabe’s focus may have to change a bit.