Some hope to use social media to usher in the end of Robert Mugabe’s regime. This ignores the realities of power.
Zimbabwe is in turmoil. For the past two weeks, workers have been striking and angry citizens have been taking to the streets to express their discontent with unpaid public-sector wages, proliferating corruption, declining living standards, and police injustice. President Robert Mugabe’s government is broke, the result of decades of financial mismanagement, and so far it has conspicuously failed in its desperate efforts to find new sources of international financial aid. Failing new support from outside, the country’s economic collapse is almost sure to accelerate.
Many disgruntled citizens — particularly urban young people — have turned to social media, venting their frustration at the 36-year reign of President Mugabe and his patent inability to resuscitate the failing economy. Indeed, the recent protests and work stoppages have been encouraged by social media activists, most prominently Pastor Evan Mawarire, founder of the #ThisFlag movement. The influential role social media has played underlines the vast spread of internet use in Zimbabwe, primarily on mobile smartphones. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when social media was critical to inspiring and coordinating movements against dictatorship, corruption, poverty, and inequality. Some have even referred to the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak as the “Facebook Revolution.”
Some Zimbabwean activists, buoyed by their recent successes in mobilizing protests, are already proclaiming the dawn of a social media-assisted revolution. This, in turn, is prompting many pro-democracy commentators and journalists to declare that Mugabe’s rule is in its final days.
These predictions of Mugabe’s imminent downfall are wrong. The reason is quite simple: the angry urban social media activists and pro-democracy pundits have failed to absorb two key lessons of the Arab Spring. The first is that the role of the military in times of civil unrest is pivotal. The second is that social media activism can never substitute for organized political activity on the ground.
Let’s first address the issue of the military. In all of the 2011 revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, the position adopted by the armed forces was a crucial factor in determining how the popular protests would play out. In Tunisia, for example, the largely apolitical military refused to act in defense of the reigning dictatorship, thus allowing the revolution to succeed; in Egypt, the army first allowed the removal of President Mubarak, then subsequently intervened to topple the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government.
Yet activists in Zimbabwe have so far had little to say about the position of their military on the current unrest — a huge and potentially fateful omission. The Zimbabwean armed forces are highly politicized, and have a long history of close and friendly relations with the president. Most top military officers fought at Mugabe’s side during the 1970s liberation war. Since 2000, many senior officers have expressed strong support for the ruling ZANU-PF party whenever it faced a strong electoral challenge from the opposition. Cyber-activists and angry young protesters underestimate the generals’ loyalty to the ruling party at their own peril.
It is true that the Zimbabwean military is deeply divided. Personal enmities, ethnic rivalries, and disputes over the spoils of corruption have fragmented the armed forces. The top officers disagree especially strongly over who should eventually succeed the 92-year-old Mugabe.
Yet the military’s internal divisions certainly do not mean that it will automatically side with the protesters calling for Mugabe’s downfall. In fact, Mugabe maintains his hold on power largely because of the army’s internal divisions, particularly among the senior officers, which prevent them from pulling together to form a united front against him. Mugabe has also made good use of his position as commander-in-chief to maintain loyalty among the officer corps, using his powers of patronage to ensure the continued payment of salaries despite the government’s empty coffers. He has also used the intelligence services to sow divisions and maintain surveillance among the generals. Unless Mugabe’s opponents can develop a strategy to bring a decisive majority of senior military officers over to their side, even the most effective social media campaign will be for naught.
Then there is the other requirement of opposition success: a broad and inclusive political strategy. Hashtag activism and Facebook posts will never be a substitute for a well-crafted agenda; nor do they offer a successful alternative to on-the-ground political engagement. In 2011, many Arab cyber-activists fulminated online against dictatorship and social ills (and in some cases helped to mobilize actual physical protests), but few managed to devise a workable and unifying political agenda for the morning after the collapse of the status quo. Here the example of Egypt comes to mind once again. The military did not need long after Mubarak’s downfall to reassert its control over the political process; online activists had little to offer in the way of effective alternatives.
For these reasons it is not enough for Zimbabwe’s urban youth to simply oppose the status quo through social media. Let’s say that a successful youth uprising were to remove Mugabe from power tomorrow: Who would take over in his wake? What sort of political and economic agenda would this new leader have? And where are the voices of Zimbabwe’s rural youth, who despite their numerical majority, have played a marginal role in online activism, since social media use is less widespread in the countryside? Most of Zimbabwe’s social media activists have yet to give lucid answers to these important questions, while the few who do are plagued by a lack of consensus about who would lead a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and what that leadership’s agenda should be.
If social media activists want to make a successful contribution to political change in Zimbabwe, they need to work in sync with traditional civil society groups and, crucially, effective opposition political parties. But these two ingredients — an effective civil society and well-led opposition parties — are currently lacking. The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is being treated for colon cancer, sparking a succession struggle in his own party. A fully engaged Tsvangirai might have offered crucial leadership to urban youth in the recent protests. Meanwhile, the other potentially rousing opposition party leader, the former vice president Joice Mujuru, is still in the early stages of building support for her new party organization. Traditional civil society is crippled by lack of funding and is intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the unfolding political dynamic.
Young Zimbabweans should remember that protesting is not the only way to effect political change. It is striking that many of the young people taking to the streets and venting their anger online are not calling upon each other to register to vote in the next national election, scheduled for 2018. None of the leading hashtag activists and bloggers are calling for youth, whose numbers make them Zimbabwe’s decisive demographic group, to massively register to vote. Young people, urban and rural, do not seem to be discussing among themselves whom they should support in the 2018 election, or what sort of political and economic agenda they want to see for their country.
What Zimbabwe needs now, most of all, is a well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the 2018 election — one that will unite civil society, the opposition parties, online activists, and urban and rural youth. That is the key to finding a new path ahead.
Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images