PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s top ally, State Security minister Owen Ncube is the one who ordered the Internet blackout in the country on Tuesday, amid fears that it was done to camouflage gross human rights abuses by members of the security forces trying to quell protests by civilians over fuel price hikes.
BY Everson Mushava
Zimbabwe lost Internet connectivity on Tuesday morning after two days of running battles between the security forces and protesters.
Mnangagwa’s decision to shut down Internet services also reportedly came back to haunt him, amid revelations that government struggled to wire money for his upkeep in Moscow and services of the private Dreamliner luxurious jet he used to fly to Russia’s capital.
The country’s largest mobile phone operator, Econet Wireless, said its Internet services had been cut off following an order from the government and that it had no choice, but to comply with the order by Ncube through another Mnangagwa ally, Isaac Moyo, who took over from Happyton Bonyongwe as the Central Intelligence Organisation director-general after the November 2017 coup.
Econet said Ncube invoked the Interception of Communications Act.
“Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security through the director-general of the President’s Department, acting in terms of Interception of Communications Act, Internet services are currently suspended across all networks and Internet services providers,” the Econet message read.
“We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control. All inconveniences are sincerely regretted.”
This is the first time Zimbabwe totally blocked Internet connectivity in the face of protests.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe and three journalists yesterday petitioned Ncube over the shutdown, saying such blanket interference with the essential means of communication was a clear violation of universal fundamental rights recognised by international law.
Journalists Columbus Mavhunga, Godwin Mangudya, Philemon Jambaya and Misa, who are represented by Atherstone and Cook Legal Practitioners gave Ncube an ultimatum to immediately revoke the unlawful warrant and demanded a written assurance that there would be no further shutdown or suspension of Internet services.
“Our clients are unable to disseminate information essential to people’s safety and security, particularly in the context of the current situation as they have no access to their e-mails and other Internet services,” the petition read.
The journalists said they had perused the Interception of Communications Act carefully and could not find anything in that statute that authorises such blanket intervention.
The Internet was restored around 5pm yesterday.
MDC spokesperson Jacob Mafume said the shutting down of Internet meant government wanted to assault and kill citizens without the international community watching.
“We are concerned that the government unilaterally cut Internet connectivity. The United Nations spells out access to information as a basic international right. Only when there is genocide can Internet connectivity be terminated, as is the case in Zimbabwe,” Mafume said.
“There is a blanket information darkness on the country and before the world knows, many people will be dead.”
National Patriotic Front spokesperson, Jealousy Mawarire said government was trying to perpetrate gross human rights acts through the military under the cover of darkness.
“If the violence was by the opposition supporters, why blocking Internet, it could have been in their interest for the international community to know,” Mawarire said.
“They have deployed soldiers who are beating up people and it is clear that the blackout is to make sure heinous killings will be done without the knowledge of the international community. Mnangagwa is good at lying to the international community.”
Information ministry secretary Ndavaningi Mangwana told NewsDay that the action by government was common practice when a country was faced with insurgency.
“These happened because the government was dealing with a crisis situation. If the government shut down the Internet, then the government is operating within international benchmarks. There was nothing untoward about that, and any civilised country in this world would do the same,” Mangwana said.
He said the Econet text message said “warrant” which showed that the government followed due process.
Internet connection was restored last night, only for those with Wifi and VPN.
This happened as well-placed sources told NewsDay that workers at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and Treasury were yesterday summoned back to work to make transfers for Mnangagwa’s upkeep in Russia, but reportedly indicated lack of Internet connection was an impediment.
The workers also raised alarm that lack of Internet connection had affected bank deposits from non-governmental organisations and embassies from which hard currency could be drawn and sent to Mnangagwa for his upkeep on his two-week foreign jaunt.
“Government might be forced to reconnect Internet temporarily to carry out the transaction,” a source within government revealed.
“Government should send money for the President’s upkeep in Russia and other countries he is visiting. Government should also pay for the services of the private jet that the President is using.”
Mnangagwa left the country on a luxury jet for Russia on Sunday night on an official visit a day before protests broke up in the country over his decision to hike fuel prices by over 150% on Saturday night.
He is also set to visit Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Davos, Switzerland, where he will attend the World Economic Forum, the second after he took over in a military assisted operation in November 2017.
The government was also reportedly in a fix as it wanted the Internet to process salaries for civil servants to avert a strike. “This is news. I am hearing it from you,” Mangwana said.
Zimra Commissioner-General Faith Mazani confirmed the blackout was affecting revenue collection operations; although they have set up contingency measures to allow passage of goods at a small-scale because banks have been incapacitated by the Internet blockade.
“We need Internet to operate. Banks are offline and swipe cannot work. We are affected but we have a business continuity plan to ensure the passage of goods,” Mazani said.