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Zimbawe protests a conspiracy?

Andrew Harding | 11:50 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It started as an online rumour... talk of a "million man march" in Harare with the none-too subtle implication that this might just be the start of an Egypt/Tunisia/Libya/wherever-next uprising in Zimbabwe. Before long, the US embassy was warning American citizens to stay away from the city centre this Tuesday, with the advice that "while we do not know the ultimate scale of the demonstrations, we anticipate the government will react forcibly and the situation could easily turn volatile".

In the end... there were a few extra roadblocks around town, but so far no sign of any protests, let alone a million men.

So what happened? Or rather what didn't happen? Was it simply feeble organisation, cold feet, and a lack of official police endorsement, which kept the marchers at home?

Or was it something more intriguing.

It's always tempting - probably too tempting - to search for conspiracy theories in Zimbabwe. There have been plenty of dark mutterings that all this might be a "plot" or "hoax" arranged by President Robert Mugabe's own party, Zanu-PF - giving it another excuse to crack down on dissent.

It's certainly odd that none of the highly organised, well-connected human rights groups and pro-democracy organisations in Zimbabwe knew anything about the proposed march. Instead, the idea seemed to drift anonymously from unnamed or unknown sources on the internet.

A source at the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - now unequal members of a faltering unity government - downplayed the idea of a conspiracy. His party is more concerned at the growing harassment of its members and what it calls a "paranoid attempt by certain sections of the state apparatus" to link events in North Africa with Zimbabwe's own escalating political frictions. The police recently arrested 46 people in Harare for watching a video about Egypt's protests. Several were allegedly tortured.

Human rights lawyer Irene Petras says there are many reasons why Zimbabwe is unlikely to follow Egypt's example. "There is a lot of fear. The military are very much in control," she said. There's also "a wariness about rocking the boat", now that the economy has stabilised. Much of Zimbabwe also "lacks the infrastructure and social media... in terms of mobilisation." But in the end, she said, "If people are really repressed enough and have the ability to lose that fear then there's always the possibility in any country that this could happen."

Leaving aside the conspiracy talk, the timing of today's non-rally is certainly interesting. It came, or rather didn't come, one day ahead of a very different gathering, due to take place in Harare.

President Mugabe's party is planning to launch a national anti-sanctions campaign and petition on Wednesday, in what sounds very much like the opening salvo in an election campaign by Zanu-PF that is likely to focus on both sanctions and moves to "indigenise" companies. Mr Mugabe said recently that he wants "to get to elections as soon as possible". The rally is certain to be huge, with demonstrators brought in by bus from around the country. A handily sharp contrast to today's non-event.

The "sanctions" issue remains a tricky one for the MDC. The US and Europe are known to be keen to lift their remaining targeted sanctions against President Mugabe and his allies, because he's managed to use them so successfully as a propaganda weapon against the MDC. But that won't be possible until all parties have agreed a credible, rig-proof timetable for a referendum and elections. Zanu-PF is highly unlikely to do anything in the short-term which would enable the west to remove the sanctions and rob Mr Mugabe of his favourite campaign weapon.


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