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Shutdown Zimbabwe: A Tale of two shutdowns

It had been nearly 36 hours without internet in the whole country. The two love birds, Tendai* and Mudiwa* had spent the day together watching season 7 of Game of Thrones pirated off streaming websites. As he always did, Tendai escorted his girlfriend home. On the way, they saw a crowd running towards them away from security detail of armored police and soldiers. The lovebirds took too long to turn around and run away. In fifteen minutes, both of them had been beaten so badly with the butts of the AK47s, Mudiwa was left with a sprained wrist and shattered I phone 6s, Tendai crying from a head injury and swelling thigh.

On Wednesday 16 January, the Zimbabwean government turned the internet back on ending two days of a total shutdown of internet services provided by the telecommunication services and internet providers. This was a reaction to the national stay-away organized by the largest trade union in the nation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) ordering their members not go to work for three days. The stay away was a direct reaction to the 280% increase in fuel prices announced by Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The average Zimbabwean citizen has ended up suffering from both ends in the crisis, both fueled by an arrogant government which has failed to deal with the deep political and economic systematic failures inherited from the Mugabe regime.

The #NationalShutdown led by ZCTU was a necessity in a lot of commentators’ points of view. The costs of living vis-à-vis the average wages have become unsustainable. The fuel price increase meant that it could cost as much as $20 to travel to and from work when most Zimbabweans earn around $300. The stay away (which meant staying at home instead of going to work) was designed to ensure no violence occurred. Regrettably, some frustrated youths took it upon themselves to stop everyone from going to work by blocking roads with big rocks. In reaction, the government decided to use a heavy-handed approach by deploying armed police and military across the major cities and towns. This led to running battles between angry youth and government.

It has been disturbing to see government officials blame opposition and civic society for the proliferation of violence on the streets. It has even gone as far as arguing that the violence was pre-empted by enemies of the state over the last two months. It has ignored the its own actions, and lack of actions to quell the economic implosion occurring at a rapid pace.

It then took the extreme decision to block all internet connectivity which blocked all social media and halted all business for two full days ignoring the major economic and social impact of their decision, let alone the denigration of constitutional rights legally enjoyed by Zimbabweans. A major telecommunication company informed its clients that the government had acted using the Interception of Communications Act. Strangely, the Deputy Minister of information Publicity and Broadcasting Services came out on the state controlled national broadcaster arguing that the internet shutdown had been caused by “internet congestion.” The same minister took it upon himself to warn people against protesting against the government tweeting, “do not protest in the street you can lose a limp in skirmishes.”

The blame game and blatant lies have gone from being a get out of jail political card to a policy taken from Donald Trump’s alternative facts misinformation handbook. A state official has argued the fuel shortages have been caused by too much demand because of a booming economy, ignoring the fact that some fuel queues have reportedly been 15km long and longer.

The national stay away and internet shutdown created the perfect storm where soldiers and police in the early morning light marched into people’s homes in the high-density suburbs punishing and arresting them for supporting the national shutdown. The lack of internet connections means that unlike previous protests over the last 2-3 years, the human abuses are happening in the darkness of no videos or pictures going viral. This strategy has become the norm in other African nations such as Cameroon and DRC, hiding behind the politically correct curtain of protecting citizens from the harms of social media lies inciting violence.

However, it is clear that the abuse that Tendai, Mudiwa and hundreds of other civilians suffered at the hands of the military and police is at risk of becoming the norm. Whenever the citizens arise to fight unfavorable government policy, the internet is shut off from the eyes of the world taking a nation back into the last century, back into a 1984 dystopia as noted by George Orwell and being lived by Zimbabweans -as we speak.

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