Arrest sparks fears of return to terror in polls
By Peta Thornycroft
Harare – Police took Zimbabwe peace activist Jestina Mukoko in for
questioning on Friday because she was setting up a Kenya-inspired social
media network which could warn voters about any political violence in
Police raided her Zimbabwe Peace Project two weeks ago and confiscated smart
phones, the essential tool for Ushahidi, a cellphone-based system developed
by Kenyans during post-election violence five years ago to quickly alert the
country where violence was happening. Ushahidi means testimony in Swahili.
On Thursday the police had flighted “wanted” ads for Mukoko on national
She was released from interrogation late on Friday but charges have been put
Mukoko was abducted from her home before dawn in 2008 and held incommunicado
for three weeks before eventually being released in poor physical health.
Police said the smart phones allegedly found in her office were “spying
gadgets” supplied by hostile forces (the West) to undermine Zimbabwe’s
Effie Ncube, chairman of the board which governs non-governmental
organisations and a political analyst, said on Friday: “The police still use
typewriters in Zimbabwe. They have no idea about IT, or social media. They
don’t know about Facebook or Twitter, so they probably have no idea about
“There was nothing secretive about this project. It was set up quite
He said he believed the confiscation of hundreds of radios by the police
from Mukoko’s office and from Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo last week, was
“collateral damage” as they are not used in the Ushahidi system.
“There is a generational problem with the ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police).
They are stuck behind many developments in IT.”
Zimbabweans are going into elections with little protection from law
enforcement agencies as the ZRP is partisan and arrests many Movement for
Democratic Change (MDC) supporters when no case can be made against them in
The courts usually dismiss such cases against most MDC but in the meantime
those detained spend weeks or months in filthy police cells or in remand
prisons where there is little sanitation and even less food.
Many Zimbabweans were hoping that the Kenyan project, using smart phones
equipped with GPS, would be an early warning system about the location and
severity of any election violence.
Several NGOs, including the Zimbabwe Peace Project, undertook to become
involved in the Kenya-inspired anti-violence programme in Zimbabwe’s next
The managers of the project would operate from a virtual office, called the
“hub” using a software platform developed by Kenyans to create a real-time
map of violence.
People from different areas would be loaned cheap Chinese-made smart phones
to inform the hub about violence, and the hub would also send out monitors
to check that the reports were accurate.
In the last Zimbabwe presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008,
hundreds were killed, thousands were injured and tens of thousands were
forced out of their homes after Zanu-PF insiders, including the security
sector generals discovered President Robert Mugabe had been easily beaten by
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the polls.
During an extraordinary five-week delay in announcing the results, the MDC
believes the partisan electoral commission manipulated the results to ensure
Tsvangirai did not win in the first round, necessitating run-off elections.
Zanu-PF militia went on a rampage during the run-up to the run-off phase,
forcing Tsvangirai to pull out of the contest to save the lives of his
supporters, he said, and giving an uncontested victory to Mugabe.
Some journalists were able to prove at the time that some provincial police
commissioners and provincial governors planned the violence in a number of
Civil rights groups are feeling growing pressure as the elections, probably
to be held in July, draw nearer. There have been several raids on them.
Many knew about Ushahidi and wanted it to be firmly entrenched ahead of the
“If only Ushahidi could have been set up openly in Zimbabwe as it was in
Kenya, but Zanu-PF would have closed it down immediately.
“It wasn’t top secret but people were quite careful not to talk about it
carelessly,” said a Zimbabwe anti-violence activist in Harare who asked not
to be named.
“Various people around the country were already being trained and Kenyans
have been in and out of Harare to help set it all up,” he said.
During elections people would be able to text information to the hub and
that information would automatically provide the location of the message and
in seconds the hub would produce an ever-changing map of violence that would
“It’s known as crowd sourcing. The Kenyans did it, and then created the
software for a platform which they pass on to anyone who needs it.”
Deputy EU ambassador Karl Skau said: “We are deeply concerned. These raids
are harassments on dubious charges and will undermine peaceful assembly.
Civil rights groups must be able to operate freely to ensure credibility of
Zanu-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo’s cellphone was switched off on Thursday and
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC failed to respond to questions about
the police pursuit of Mukoko.
Police commissioner Augustine Chihuri failed to answer his phone and his
spokesman, assistant commissioner Charity Charamba failed to answer
questions about Ushahidi and Mukoko’s position.
The police say they charged Mukoko with illegal importation of radios and
cellphones, that she ran an unregistered organisation and failed to register
as a dealer in broadcast equipment.
Welshman Ncube, leader of the smaller MDC party, said; “It is shocking to
the core that Zanu-PF, having clamoured and agitated for an election for so
long that most of us were almost fooled into believing that they were at
last ready to give the people of Zimbabwe a free, fair and violence-free
election allowing the people to express their democratic right, would then
go on to callously unleash a reign of terror reminiscent of the 2000 and
2008 elections on individuals who choose to belong to other political
“It is now clear that they never wanted an election but just another
opportunity to terrorise the people of Zimbabwe as they have started to do.
“The last few weeks have witnessed a systematic resurgence of violence and
intimidation which leads us to one conclusion, that it will not be possible
to conduct a free and fair election.”