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Zimbabwe Drifts Towards Online Darkness

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One year after jubilant residents celebrated in the streets of Harare when Zimbabwe’s army removed Robert Mugabe from power, the country is in darkness.

Last month, after days of protests over a doubling of fuel prices, security forces launched a crackdown in which 12 people were killed and 600 arrested. Zimbabwe’s government also ordered its first, countrywide internet shutdown.

The country’s largest mobile provider, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, said it had suspended services following an order from the government. “We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control,” said the company in a text message to customers.

In a Facebook post, Strive Masiyiwa, an exiled Zimbabwean billionaire who made his fortune after setting up Econet Wireless in 1999, said that “acts of government” had forced the company to switch off internet connectivity. He added that he was informed, “non-compliance would result in imprisonment of our managers on the ground for three years.”

Partial internet service was recently restored, but social media apps and messaging services such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter remained blocked for days longer.

Zimbabwe’s assault on the internet is the government’s latest attempt to impose its will on ordinary Zimbabweans, observers and activists fear. A year ago, incoming president Emmerson Mnangagwa promised the start of a “new democracy” and an end to the country’s political divisions.

In a piece published in the New York Times, Mnangagwa vowed to transform Zimbabwe into a country with a “thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all.”

In the year since the ouster of Mugabe—who once proclaimed “only God will remove me”—Zimbabwe’s economic problems have worsened as the country wrestles with vast debts, a battered infrastructure, soaring food prices, hyperinflation and unemployment.

Having failed to bring prosperity, Zimbabwe’s government now seems determined to establish dominion over all aspects of its digital and public spaces. As it enlists foreign firms from China and Japan to help build a surveillance state, activists and researchers are worried that what lies ahead could be worse than the Mugabe era.

“Shutting down the internet has become a go-to tactic. Robert Mugabe, who was rightly reviled for the human rights abuses, did not go so far as to order a blackout. The (new) government has shown zero political will to protect rights,” said Jeffrey Smith a founding director of Vanguard Africa, a foundation advocating for open democracy, with a special interest on Zimbabwe.

The recent internet shutdown may be a harbinger of human rights abuses to come, said Zimbabwean lawyer, Arthur Gwagwa, who is a cyber threat modelling expert and Open Technology Fund Fellow at Strathmore University Law School. “Arrests, torture and beatings were perpetrated under the shadow of the shutdown, so people are fearful,” he said. “They are resigned to the militarized state, mentally preparing for it.”

Importing Authoritarian Tech

Zimbabwe’s control of online and offline spaces rests largely on foreign suppliers, who have provided the government with a host of new cyber-control tools. Last November, Japan’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Toshiyuki Iwado, delivered a grant for $3.6 million of cybersecurity equipment to Zimbabwe’s finance minister Mthuli Ncube. According to the Japanese Embassy in Zimbabwe, the grant was part of Japan’s “Grant Aid Project for Cybercrime Equipment Supply.”

Zimbabwe’s minister of communication technologies was more forthcoming about what the tech will be used for. Police will deploy it to boost digital forensics and facial recognition systems, and introduce a new data sharing platform, said Kazembe Kazembe.

The technology would also allow the government to tap electronic communications to prevent crime and animal smuggling into Zimbabwe.

But technology experts worry that Japan’s grant may inadvertently help the government crackdown on dissent.

“Although Japan has not been Zimbabwe’s ally in repressing its people, Japan may not be able to control the nefarious objectives towards which its technology may be employed,” said Gwagwa. He added, “[P]ro-democracy activists, in the eyes of the government may be classified as part of the smugglers and wildlife.”

The Japanese contract is part of a wave of imported surveillance tech. Another is China’s recent involvement in building a national artificial intelligence facial recognition database. According to a report in China’s Global Times, CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based startup signed a deal with Zimbabwe last year to provide facial recognition software for public use throughout the country.

The agreement is part of “Belt and Road,” a Chinese soft-power initiative and will extend to building infrastructure like airports, railways and bus stations as well as smart financial systems. China has traditionally been a close ally of Zimbabwe and is the single biggest financial investor in the country’s beleaguered economy.

China has invested billions in diamond and platinum mines, new highways and electricity-generating dams.

The deal potentially means Zimbabwe is one of the first countries in the region to adopt this kind of technology. CloudWalk uses 3D light facial software, which is better than traditional facial recognition at reading dark-skinned faces.

Crucially, the deal will let CloudWalk train its algorithms on data taken from Zimbabwean citizens. The resulting information will help China build one of the world’s most comprehensive and racially-diversified facial recognition databases.

This has activists worried. Essentially, Zimbabwe may be giving away large amounts of private data on Zimbabwean citizens to an unaccountable overseas tech giant.

“(These deals) allow Beijing to use developing countries as laboratories to improve its surveillance technologies,” said Gwagwa.

This is part of a larger pattern. For China, exports of AI technology have multiple purposes, said Gwagwa. “It is win-win diplomacy—Chinese AI companies get to train their algorithms on darker-complexioned Africans while collecting and retaining DNA, while at the same time setting up data centres to spur digital trade and aid conventional economic transactions.”

CloudWalk officials did not respond to Coda requests for an interview, though it told the Global Times that, “The Zimbabwean government did not come to Guangzhou purely for AI or facial ID technology, rather it had a comprehensive package plan for such areas as infrastructure, technology and biology.”

Chinese companies have also signed similar deals have in Angola and Ethiopia.

Another Chinese deal involves the Zimbabwe Republic Police, which has jumped onto the authoritarian technology bandwagon and is due to introduce powerful night vision surveillance cameras across Harare.

Drivers will be asked to install dashboard-mounted cameras and upload videos of driving infractions to a Dropbox folder. According to police, the goal is to curb driving violations and crime. The Dropbox captures the names and email addresses of motorists and citizens who upload any footage.

A Chinese company, Hikvision, will provide the police with high-tech surveillance cameras. Hikvision is closely involved with large-scale surveillance projects across Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is persecuting Uighur Muslims. One project won by Hikvision in Urumqi is worth $79 million and incorporates some 30,000 security cameras. Hikvision’s projects also utilise video analytics hubs, big data centres, police checkpoints and drones.

Harare City Council have also separately spent $2 million installing Hikvision surveillance cameras at traffic lights across the city. “The cameras will help identify traffic offenders, especially those who impede the smooth flow of traffic,” said the city’s chief engineer of works George Munyonga.

The cameras will monitor all roads and parking spaces within the central business district. Installation of the network is 70 per cent complete.

Tefo Mohapi, the founder and chief executive of iAfrikan, a digital-tech hub based in Johannesburg, is concerned about Zimbabwe’s increasing reliance on surveillance systems created in China.

“There are many possible negative concerns, especially regarding a government like Zimbabwe’s which has demonstrated it can use any means to infringe on citizens’ rights,” he said. “One of those is of restricting the movement of people deemed not to be towing the line and opposing the state.”

National Security

The commander of Zimbabwe’s defence forces has long been enthusiastic about such technology.

“As an army, at our institutions of training, we are training our officers to be able to deal with this new threat we call cyber warfare where weapons [are] not necessarily guns but basically information and communication technology,” said Valerio Sibanda.

At other times, the army has used internet access to its advantage. Crucially, during the coup, the army allowed unfettered access to the web to ensure global acceptance of the army’s narrative as it seized power.

“Rather than cut access to the web, the military allowed a free flow of online information; carefully crafted discourses and opinions,” said Gwagwa. “It used soft power and allowed citizens freedom of social media as a grand strategy to allow a fast-paced exchange of information.

This was key to ensure local and global acceptance of the coup.”

Gwagwa compares the army’s strategy with the example of Turkey, where President Recep Erdogan used Facetime to build resistance to an attempted coup in 2016.

“Authority led-information manipulation is highly dynamic when digital information has high value. In Zimbabwe the army carefully co-opted the masses through a choreographed scheme,” Gwagwa said. “The public easily bought into the narrative.”

More worryingly, he thinks the army successful manipulation of digital technology to suit its goal of portraying an “open and peaceful” transfer of power could be widely copied across Africa.

Locally, however, Zimbabwe’s government continues to tighten its hold over the internet. And it may have recently received the best defence of its push to increase surveillance. On 21 January, an anonymous band of hackers calling itself “Anonymous” claimed to have struck down 70 government websites like justice, the central bank, and water ministries in a DDoS (denial of service) attack.

The hacker claimed that they were motivated by Zimbabwe’s political unrest, rather than money. “Your banking is next,” warned the hackers.
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POLITICS

Mnangagwa appoints army General Sibanda into the Zanu PF politburo

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Philip Valerio Sibanda ZaNU PF

President Emerson Mnangagwa has appointed General Philip Valerie Sibanda, the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, to the Zanu PF politburo, in violation of the national constitution.

During a Zanu PF conference in Gweru on Saturday, Mnangagwa announced that the country’s top-ranking soldier would become an ex officio member of the party’s highest decision-making body in between congresses. Mnangagwa, who benefited from a 2017 military coup, made this announcement during his closing remarks.

“During the course of the year, we lost one of our party stalwarts, Cde Joshua Teke Malinga who was the Secretary for People with Disabilities.

Philip Sibanda’s appointment is a violation of the national constitution which says “The Defence Forces must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons and be non-partisan, national in character, patriotic, professional and subordinate to the civilian authority as established by this constitution.”

While Zimbabwe’s military is known for being embedded with ruling party politics, Sibanda’s appointment is an unprecedented case of a serving soldier taking a leadership position within a political party.

The Zanu PF-led authority has ironically hounded out of service, a lot of officers within the country’s unformed forces for associating themselves with the opposition, which protests continued military involvement in Zanu PF campaigns.

The appointment of Philip Sibanda could come as an attempt by the under-fire leader to hedge himself against a possible coup with the military ever interested in who should be in the country.

The controversial appointment could also fall within the willy politician’s paraphernalia of self-serving schemes amid subtle signals of an ambition to go for a third term.

Zimbabwe has a dirty history of military interference in the country’s political affairs.

During past election periods, partisan military commanders have vowed never to “salute” an opposition leader emerging from the country’s polls in an indirect threat to block the ascension into power of any winner of the presidential election who is not Zanu PF.

Mnangagwa could also be preparing Philip Sibanda for a post in the Zanu PF presidium.

Last year, exiled former cabinet minister and politburo member Jonathan Moyo revealed Mnangagwa was keen to name Sibanda as his second vice president.

Sibanda is among former liberation war fighters drafted into the country’s military upon independence after having waged the war as a ZIPRA combatant.

ZIPRA was the military wing of the former PF Zapu, a liberation war movement that fought side by side with Zanu PF for the attainment of independence.

The current co-vice president, also a former PF Zapu politician, is battling poor health.

Mohadi collapsed a week ago while addressing a Zanu PF rally called to drum up support for a Gutu party election candidate.

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Public Outcry Grows Over Mnangagwa’s Appointments of Family Members as Deputy Ministers

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Emmerson-Mnangagwa-sons

On Monday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was accused of nepotism for appointing his son, David Kudakwashe Mnangagwa, as the deputy finance minister in his new cabinet, after a controversial re-election. David will be working under finance minister Mthuli Cube. Additionally, the president’s nephew, Tongai Mafidhi Mnangagwa, was named as the deputy minister of tourism and hospitality.

According to Fadzayi Mahere, a member of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), the cabinet of Mnangagwa is unacceptable. Mahere stated that it is a combination of illegitimacy, corruption, violence, nepotism, incompetence, and sex scandals. She added that it lacks the ethical leadership that Zimbabweans need and deserve. It is no surprise that the national mood is dismal.

Mnangagwa appointed Christopher and Monica Mutsvangwa as ministers. Christopher will lead the new ministry of Veterans of Liberation, while Monica will be the minister of Women’s Affairs and SMEs.

David Mnangagwa graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a law degree. He was elected to parliament through the youth quota system, listed on a Zanu PF party roster from the Midlands province. Mnangagwa is believed to have almost two dozen children.

Tongai, meanwhile, is the Zanu PF MP for Hunyani constituency. His late father, David, was Mnangagwa’s young brother.

On Monday, sources reported that Mnangagwa is contemplating bestowing an official role on his son, Emmerson Junior, in his office. According to the source, Junior has already attended some of the president’s meetings with foreign investors, which has been an uncomfortable situation. Mnangagwa aims to regularise this arrangement by giving Junior an official position, such as an adviser or director.

On August 23rd, the 80-year-old Mnangagwa was declared the winner of the election amidst opposition allegations that the vote was fraudulent. He is now serving his second and final term as president, becoming another addition to the list of African leaders who have established political dynasties.

In Congo-Brazzaville, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso appointed his son Denis-Christel as a cabinet minister, a move that revived media speculation that he had a dynastic succession in mind.

Teodoro Obiang, President of Equatorial Guinea, appointed his son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, as Vice President. He has been in power since removing his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema in 1979.

The former President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is the son of Omar Bongo who held the position from 1967 to 2009. Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent-Désiré, after his assassination and remained as the head of state for 17 years.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has appointed his daughter Ange Kagame as the deputy executive director of the Strategy and Policy Unit in the Office of the President.

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NEWS

“CCC’s Ian Makone Takes the Helm as Harare’s New Mayor with Kudzai Kadzombe as Deputy

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The Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has a new mayor in Harare. Ian Makone, who represents Ward 18, won the vote of the council on Monday, replacing Jacob Mafume from Ward 17. Kudzai Kadzombe, representing Ward 41, will serve as his deputy.

The CCC won a large majority in the election, taking 42 of the 45 council seats. Makone received 46 votes from the council, while his opponent, Temany Utete of Zanu PF, received only 7. Kadzombe won with 47 votes, compared to Susan Chuma of Zanu PF, who received 7. Party leader Nelson Chamisa instructed CCC councillors to vote for Makone and Kadzombe, and issued similar instructions for the election in Bulawayo.

In his first speech as mayor, Ian Makone pledged to prioritize service delivery to all residents, regardless of political affiliation. He also promised to tackle corruption and ensure that council workers are fairly paid. Tafadzwa Muguti, Harare’s secretary for provincial affairs, offered government support to the new council in addressing issues such as water supply, garbage collection, and sewer maintenance.

Overall, the message from the council and government officials was one of unity and shared responsibility for the well-being of Harare and its residents.

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