Practically every state has an intelligence service.
This is proper and makes sense because the state is entrusted by the citizens to safeguard them against both internal and external threats, ranging from economic, political to military dangers.
In other words, state intelligence is at the service of the people to ensure they live in security, peace and prosperity.
Addressing mourners at the burial of the late Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) deputy director-general Menard Muzariri last week, President Robert Mugabe said agents are planted everywhere in the country including beerhalls and public gatherings.
That in itself is normal and expected in any society. But there was an ominous tone to it that should have the nation worrying. Mugabe said:
“Knowledge of the party (Zanu PF) doesn’t come from books, but from intelligence officers through observation, listening and even drinking in beerhalls and walking with them.”
He said through the CIO, Zanu PF was able to detect every move that “party sellouts” made and was well aware of their activities and they would be dealt with.
“We cannot chant slogans without reality to it. What happens after chanting those slogans at your home? Some run around to sell out and say what we would have discussed in meetings. All who have eyes to see very far away and ears to hear far will give us all the information. They will tell us these are sellouts.”
This a deliberate blurring of the line between state and party.
This is a dangerously narrow and partisan view of the role of what is otherwise a state institution.
Intelligence is not there solely for weeding out subversives, but to also make governments aware of prevailing sentiments in the nation so as to be responsive and serve the people better.
It has a human face, it’s not necessarily there to intimidate and eliminate.
It’s a powerful weapon, but when a powerful weapon falls into wrong hands the nation suffers.
There certainly is something odd about setting spies upon senior members of one’s own party.
If you have grown to distrust your own to such an extent, then something must be seriously wrong.
They are now seeing enemies everywhere, that’s complete isolation if ever there was. At times one can’t help wonder:
Do these people have bottled-up rage? Does this weigh heavily on them? Is this what underpins their decisions and actions?
This strikes at the very heart of freedom when people can’t let off steam over a beer, when pub talk becomes dangerous because somebody will be menacingly listening and prying.
To put the issue into perspective, let’s draw a parallel. Is this a throwback to McCarthyism?
McCarthyism is defined as “the political practice of publicising accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence”.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was able to whip up hysteria in the United States in the 1950s.
He produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of 205 known Communists working for the State Department.
By the time he won a Senate seat in 1946, World War II was over and the Cold War was beginning.
Communists had gained hold in Eastern Europe and China, and Americans were increasingly concerned about it, and about rumours of high-ranking US government officials who were secret communists.
McCarthy took advantage of the mounting fear, and started charging people simply holding different views with subversion, the “systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working from within”.
Then he got to work prosecuting them for selling or giving American security secrets to communist governments. Wrote ex-President Harry Truman:
“In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have . . . It is now evident that the present Administration has fully embraced, for political advantage, McCarthyism . . . the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.”
In 1950, a senator delivered a speech titled Declaration of Conscience. In a clear attack upon McCarthyism, she called for an end to “character assassinations”.
She said “freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America”, and decried “cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes”.
Elmer Davis, one of the most highly respected news reporters of that era, warned that McCarthyism excesses constituted a “general attack not only on schools and colleges and libraries, on teachers and textbooks, but on all people who think and write
. . . in short, on the freedom of the mind”.
Back in Zimbabwe, the CIO is being used to manage internal dissent and protect the interests of the individual members of the regime, with Vice-President Joice Mujuru reportedly put under CIO surveillance at the Zanu PF conference held in Mutare in December because she was suspected of being behind the push against the holding of elections this year.
All opponents, whether within or outside Zanu PF, are quickly labelled traitors.
The institutional toll is clear and heavy. The nation is fast losing the institutional network that has created public space where serious alternatives to the status quo can be presented.
Now there is outright repression and coercion.
Even if we were to accept that there is a security threat, at what point does it become necessary to limit the freedom of everyone in order to suppress the danger lurking in a disloyal handful?
Neither the MDCs nor even Zanu PF dissenters are enemy agents. Yes, like all people, they deserve to be watched but not to be persecuted.
This is not the time to see enemies everywhere. We are not at war, and no excuse exists for war-time hysteria.
As we observe Good Friday, Jesus Christ could well have been under close surveillance, or worse. by this regime were he living today in Zimbabwe.