Monday, February 6, 2017

Up the Rates: How Zimbabwe's Mugabe Found a Simple Way to Crush Organized Dissent

by Nomad

Zimbabwe's autocratic leader, Mugabe, has found a way to nip popular uprising in the bud by jacking up the price of mobile phone service. 

Zimbabwe's Proud Hitler

Mortality, not morality, is generally the enemy of even the most long-lived autocrat. If they survive assorted assassins or popular uprisings, eventually, Mother Nature and Father Time team up and end a dictator's pretty dreams of absolute oppression.

For the average Zimbabwean, it must be a little hard to maintain patience. The increasingly frail 92-year-old Robert Mugabe has hung onto power through the use of dubious election tactics, divisive politics and outright brutality since the days of Ronald Reagan.
One man rule of Mugabe is, therefore, something Zimbabweans have grown extremely weary of. They have every reason to be. Robert Mugabe and his dismal record do nothing to increase Zimbabwe's international prestige.

Here are a few fairly outrageous but typical quotes from their leader:
  • “The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans. Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans…The white man is here as a second citizen. The only man you can trust is a dead white man.” 
  • “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.” 
  • “I will never, never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine. I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.
Just last week, in a sign of just how feeble and paranoid Mugabe has been become, a pastor, Patrick Mugadz, who predicted the death of President Robert Mugabe was arrested.
(The pastor's defense was worth noting. He says that the police will have "to prove that God didn't say it".)
Forecasting the passing of 92-year old man hardly requires much supernatural talent. It is a fact of life but one that surely must haunt the president.

Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe

Outpricing Free Speech

Death isn't the only thing that threatens Mugabe's hold on power.
People-power has brought down regimes in the recent past and it seemed this summer would see Mugabe's fall too. 

In August, the government responded to the national demonstrations with typical brutality. In the capital, Harare, police used batons and teargas to drive back protesters who called for an end of the regime in the face of alleged corruption and seemingly-endless series of economic crises.

Some kind of legislative pushback seemed evitable after the demonstrations.
As the Arab Spring dramatically illustrated, any regime that doesn't pay close attention to online mobilization is probably headed for trouble. That lesson has clearly not been ignored by

In a nation in which the average citizen survives on $3 a day, the extent of Zimbabwe's mobile telephone penetration is something of a surprise. As many as 12.6 million Zimbabweans own mobile phones, representing 94% of the population.

Activists protesting against the 30-year rule of Mugabe have seized upon this technological "leapfrogging" by turning telephones into organizational tools for protests. A national demonstration and strike last summer, after a viral YouTube video criticizing the rule of Mugabe, inspired a popular hashtag that was used to unite citizens.
Last week, the other shoe dropped.

The government passed legislation to raise prices on cellphone data. This would, not so accidentally, immediately curtail the ability of opposition parties and activists to organize.  
In addition, according to an article in the New York Times:
And it is pressing ahead with comprehensive legislation that would allow the police to intercept data, seize electronic equipment and arrest people on loosely defined charges of “insurgency” and “terrorism.”
According to journalist Mako Muzenda of The UN Dispatch:
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) announced new “floor prices” for data services by network providers. This is a new legal mandate imposed by the government that substantially increases the costs that consumers must pay to use their phones and access social media and other apps, like the exceedingly popular WhatsApp.
The effect was not unexpected. Network service providers have jacked up their data prices by over 500%, far above the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans.

"A Privilege for the Elite"

Here's what that looks like in real terms. Before the new legislation, Econet, the country's largest service provider, had offered a 250-megabyte plan for as low as $1. Today, that identical service plan costs $5. Activists fear that other service providers will join Econet in raising their prices too.

Despite the claims of the government that the laws were a move to "ensure consistent and sustainable long-term provision of services to all Zimbabweans,” few citizens are buying that.   
For them, there's no question that the underlying motive was to stymie dissent and political organizing on social media.

That's not just the sound of cynics. There's a good reason for that assessment.
According to an article in the New York Times from October:
And it is pressing ahead with comprehensive legislation that would allow the police to intercept data, seize electronic equipment and arrest people on loosely defined charges of “insurgency” and “terrorism.”
Muzenda writes that the price changes will have a damaging effect on Internet access. It will become "a privilege for the elite that already benefit from the current system, not the right of all citizens."

As so often happens, moves to crack down on free speech also have unintended and detrimental consequences on the economy of a developing nation.  The increased increase in data prices will make life difficult for businesses and entrepreneurs that rely on internet connections for their work.

For both activists and the business community, the question now is what the best workaround might be.
Citizens have already started taking action against the new floor pricing. The Digital Society of Zimbabwe has launched a petition, calling for POTRAZ to “reconsider the directive and conduct further consultations on an ideal pricing structure that will ensure there is balance between citizens’ rights and business interests.”
According to the UN Dispatch article, another reaction to the legislation has been the creation of wifi hotspots created around key points in Zimbabwe’s cities. The shift from telephone to Internet isn't a perfect solution. Wifi is much less reliable in Zimbabwe and it is very possible that under Mugabe's regime, Internet service providers will soon feel the same heat as mobile phone service providers.

Attempting to keep citizens from communicating- thus organizing protests- is a hallmark of any anti-democratic regime, especially one with a hold on power as tenuous as the government of Mugabe.