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FREE.af [1]

'FREE Africa' project: The power of thinking and counting

Raymond Cheng

Multiracial hands surrounding the earth globe
Photo © Alex Max

In Zimbabwe

On March 23, 1990, Zimbabweans had their first taste experience of voting for their parliament's newly created [2] position of the executive president as some 4.8 million registered voters (1990 figure) showed up and voted in Zimbabwe's first direct presidential election. The voter turnout was 53.9% and Robert Mugabe, who had served as Prime Minister since 1980 and was elected president by the parliament in 1987, was re-elected, directly this time, with an 83.05% of the popular vote. Notwithstanding various criticisms, including but not limited to condemnations toward poor handling of the election process, shutting down of poll stations, chaos and confusion during election and related violence [3], low turnout rates (32.3% in the 1996 election in particular) or even allegations concerning an imperfect election system [4], the incumbent president has never been unseated and has managed to win all subsequent elections that took place in 1996, 2002 and 2008. But what was disgusting in the 2008 election was not only that it could have been manipulated, but there was also, for the first time, the use of new media (mainly by the opposition) in the first round, in which the incumbent president lost, followed by a dramatic second round [5], in which Mugabe won with an overwhelming 85.5% of the popular vote after banning [6a] [6b] the opposition from all forms of social media as well as the traditional propaganda – something that instantly grabbed not just the eyeballs of many who were following the news, but also third-party observers and election monitors like Human Rights Watch, who said that the election was likely to be seriously flawed [7]. In fact, with a rather steady population of around 12.5 million [8] (as of 2008) and a registered voter base of about 5.9 million (2008 figure) in which over 42% (42.8% for the first round and 42.4% for the second round) turned out to vote in 2008, it is reasonable for anyone to query on how social media made itself useful as a new means of political communications during the 2008 election, especially when it is also reported that there are, among the 1.4 million of the Zimbabwean Internet users [9] (or the equivalent of 11.5% of the entire Zimbabwean population), an astonishing total of 900,000 Facebook users [10] (which means over 60% of all the Internet-literate Zimbabweans, or 7.2% of the Zimbabwe population, have a Facebook account of their own). While these figures seem to have provided us with a clear clue as to why the Internet-hostile [11] Zimbabwean authorities has recently started to harshly clamp down [12] on Facebook and Twitter users within the country as the next 2013 general election approaches, they also conveniently supported the belief of some local Zimbabweans that social media is simply not widespread enough [13] to change the country (see Figure 1). But even if the opposition were not banned from the various social media and propaganda platforms in 2008, would they have been able to unseat Mugabe and won straight away in a landslide, just as the incumbent president did in the possibly rigged second round with a "popular vote" of 85.5% after he decided to suppress the media, both offline (i.e. the mainstream) and online (social)? Would providing additional and free resources and opportunities of online interactions among a larger percentage of the Zimbabweans change the situation in any way?

Internet Penetration in Africa, 2012 Q2
Figure 1. Internet Penetration in Africa, 2012 Q2.

Before we jump hastily to conclusions or come up with simple generalizations, let us look at another African country not so far away – Ghana.

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Note 1: We have chosen FREE.af as the website name of this project because unlike Asia (dot-asia) or Europe (dot-eu), Africa does not yet have its own regional domain name. The dot-af extension was originally a country-code level domain for Afghanistan but since it resembles the AF in Africa, just as the country-code dot-ch (for Switzerland) was once used for China (which should be dot-cn) when Internet in China was picking up in the late 1990s, we have thus chosen FREE.af to represent our project – one that we believe is not only short and brief enough but also easier to remember.

Note 2: The Zimbabwean parliament created the position of the executive president in 1987. The position of the President of Zimbabwe, since 1990, has been directly elected by popular vote for a 6-year term under a tworound (run-off) electoral system.

Note 3: See the BBC report titled, "Was Zimbabwe's election fair?" dated November 3, 2003, accessible online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3237327.stm

Note 4: The Zimbabwe election system was accused of being unfair in itself as state funds were only available to political parties with 15 or more seats in the parliament. See New York Times article on "Zimbabwe president's last rival withdraws from election", dated March 16, 1996, accessible online at http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/16/world/zimbabwe-president-s-last-rival-withdraws-from-election.html

Note 5: In the first round vote of the 2008 election, Mugabe lost by 4.7%, 47.9% to 43.2%, to Morgan Tsvangirai, who was challenging him a second time since the 2002 election; whereas in the second round, Mugabe won with an overwhelming vote of 85.5% to 9.3%.

Note 6a: The ban was best described in the following statement, "while the state press allowed the MDC (the opposition) no voice, (they were) refusing even to take paid advertisements, and covered the goings on as if it was the opposition that posed a threat to public order" (Alexander & Tendi, 2008). See also Politique Africaine, 111, 2008.

Note 6b: Alexander, J. & Tendi, B.M. (2008). A tale of two wlections: Zimbabwe at the polls in 2008. Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin #80.

Note 7: See CNN report on "Mugabe accused of election-rigging plan", dated March 23, 2008, accessible online at http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/03/23/zimbabwe.elections/index.html

Note 8: According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Zimbabwean population has not change significantly over the years and has remained quite steadily around 12 million since 1996.

Note 9: The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimated that there are some 1,445,717 Internet users in Zimbabwe, as of December 31, 2011.

Note 10: Among the 900,000 Zimbabwe Facebook users, some 500,000 of them are mobile users, i.e. they use their cell phones to connect to Facebook instead of a desktop computer. For details, see the article, "There are 900,000 users of Facebook in Zimbabwe", dated October 6, 2011, accessible online at http://www.3-mob.com/?p=1927

Note 11: Herbert Muchemwa Murerwa, a Zimbabwean politician who served as the Minister of Finance in the Government of Zimbabwe from 1996 to 2000 and from August 2002 to February 2004 and again from April 26, 2004 to February 6, 2007, commented on social media as follows, "The Internet and things like Twitter, Facebook are being used to destroy... We from the older generation do not know anything about Facebook or Twitter. It's (social media) being used for regime change and to make our youths revolt against their leaders". For details, see the NewsDay Zimbabwe article, "Murerwa blames Twitter for African revolts", dated May 26, 2011, accessible online at http://www.newsday.co.zw/2011/05/26/2011-05-26-murerwa-blames-twitter-forafrican-revolts/

Note 12: A Zimbabwean named Vikas Mavhudzi was arrested after he posted this comment on Morgan Tsvangirai's Facebook page: "I am overwhelmed; I don't know what to say Mr. PM. What happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey." For details, see the Daily Nation article, "Facebook post lands man in Zimbabwe court", dated December 14, 2012, accessible online at http://www.nation.co.ke/News/africa/-/1066/1168462/-/12lgdx2/-/

Note 13: See the article by Chief K. Masimba Biriwasha titled, "Social media in Zimbabwe: Not enough for democracy", dated June 9, 2011, accessible online at http://www.audiencescapes.org/zimbabwe-new-mediasocial-facebook-viaks-mavhudzi-morgan-tsvangirai-protests-egypt-arab-spring




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Professor Sidney Gluck (c) Sandi BachomI am honored to have obtained Professor Sidney Gluck's (right) permission to allow me to repost here some of his work and interview related to China and socialism. Professor Gluck is professor emertius at the New School University in New York. A classical Marxist, Gluck has been studying China for 60 years in history and modern development. He has lectured all over the U.S. and still welcomes engagement at the age of 94 – photo © Sandi Bachom

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