Zimbabwe: Technology and Terror

How are Zimbabwe’s elections influenced by President Mugabe and his use of technology?

March 8, 2002

How are Zimbabwe's elections influenced by President Mugabe and his use of technology?

It is not easy these days to be the president of Zimbabwe. The country of 12 million people stands on the edge of an economic abyss. Zimbabwe’s GDP amounts to $32 billion — about 0.3% of U.S. GDP.

A growing AIDS epidemic has left the country’s health care system in utter disarray — and Zimbabwe’s doctors and nurses went on strike over low pay.

A full 60% of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line. The nation’s unemployment rate is only slightly lower, hovering at 50%. The fact that Zimbabwe’s main exports are tobacco and gold does not help the situation. Neither commodity is known for its huge profit margin.

Worse still, Africa’s overall technology gap looms over any hopes of recovery. 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 is equally grim when it comes to older technologies. A meager 2.1% of Zimbabweans — roughly 250,000 people — have a telephone line. This is particularly disheartening because — once upon a time — Zimbabwe’s telephone communications were once considered to be among Africa’s best. Today, there is no money for maintenance.

When he sought to assign blame for the country’s desperate situation, Mr. Mugabe chose a racially charged target — Zimbabwe’s minority white farmers. Government figures make it clear why these landowners are an easy target. The descendants of Zimbabwe’s former British colonizers — a mere 4,400 white citizens — own a third of the nation’s agricultural land.

Other usual suspects round out Mr. Mugabe’s parade of scapegoats: the country’s former colonial power, Great Britain, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, and “the West” in general.

Technological inequality is also central to the president’s view that Zimbabwe’s problems are rooted in the “relational phenomena of emperor and colony.”

As a former guerilla freedom fighter, Mr. Mugabe is proud of his role in the country’s struggle for independence. He believes that closing the information technology gap would enable previously colonized societies to enjoy fully the “liberative power” for which they struggle.

Yet, for all Mr. Mugabe’s concern about Zimbabwe’s political freedom being wiped out by economic oppression and technological exploitation, he himself does not suffer domestic political dissent easily. In fact, President Mugabe has busied himself wiping out the “information” that fuels information technology.

The Zimbabwe Daily News, the country’s only independent newspaper, had its press blown up in January 2001. More recently, its editor and other staff were arrested.

A new and draconian press law was passed in February 2002. It called for the “licensing” of journalists, limited reporting by foreign correspondents and banned reports that caused “alarm and despondency.”

As he’s busily crushed the press, Mr. Mugabe has indulged in an even more perverse use of power — using the same technologies that his country cannot afford.

Enter Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, which has acquired state-of-the-art spy and surveillance equipment, apparently from Russia.

The President’s latest stunt is the release of an obviously doctored video tape showing the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai discussing the assassination of Mr. Mugabe.

The potential “assassin” is a Canadian political consultant on the Zimbabwean president’s payroll — and boasts a previous career with Israel’s Mossad. How much more of an “international conspiracy” against Mr. Mugabe can be manufactured? Most Zimbabweans — and the world — have dismissed the tape as a fraud and a hoax.

Past all his talk about the power of technology, President Mugabe still resorts to old-fashioned methods to keep power — including political bombings and inciting mobs to ransack white-owned farms. In fact, Mr. Mugabe has neglected some vital points in mastering the technology sector that he believes will free his country.

First, closing the “spy technology gap” alone will not improve Zimbabwe’s economic woes. Access to information technology as a means of “liberative power” also means a willingness to share such power.

But second, and even more basic, is to master what technology you do have. As that doctored video shows, merely importing high tech equipment isn’t enough. One needs to know how it works, too.