Econet’s struggle for survival

Researchers at the University of Zimbabwe have released a paper outlining the negative effect Zanu (PF)’s politics have had on the Zimbabwean ICT sector.

An Econet roadshow in Mutare.
An Econet roadshow in Mutare.

The paper, entitled “The effect of politics on ICT for development: The case of Econet Wireless’s struggle for a licence in Zimbabwe”, is published in the latest edition of the International Journal of E-Politics.

Authors Sam Takavarasha Jr. and John Makumbe describe the government-led repression and victimisation of mobile company Econet Wireless, which has ultimately led to slower economic development and the loss of political and social freedoms in Zimbabwe.

Mobile monopoly

Strive Masiyiwa, founder and CEO of Econet Wireless, attempted to establish his mobile network in Zimbabwe in 1993, but the Post and Telecommunications Corporation refused, arguing that they had a monopoly on telecommunications.

Masiyiwa contested the issue, and in January 1994 a court ruled that there was no legal basis for the monopoly, citing the 95,000 people on the telecommunications waiting list as evidence Zimbabwe needed another operator. However, President Mugabe swiftly issued a Presidential decree stopping Econet from operating: a clear sign that Zanu(PF) feared the fertile breeding ground for activism that mobile networks provide.

To counter the threat, in 1996 the PCT launched its own mobile service, Netone; but bandwidth space remained for one additional network. Despite Econet using international experts to draw up a 1000-page bid, a three-page submission from Telecel won the contract. Telecel was backed by Mugabe’s nephew Leo Mugabe, and Zanu(PF) cronies.

Eventually, due to Masiyiwa’s persistence, the Telecel tender was found incomplete by the courts and Econet was awarded a contract in 1998. Telecel was later awarded a third contract.

Vote no

Mugabe’s fears that telecommunications would be used to organise uprisings against the government were confirmed at the 2000 referendum, when Zimbabweans began spreading a text message that said “no fuel, no forex, vote no”. After losing the referendum, Mugabe moved swiftly to pass the 2000 Postal and Telecommunications Act, giving the government extensive eavesdropping powers. Mugabe also stepped up his campaign of victimisation against Econet, labelling Masiyiwa a “dangerous person” and chasing him out of the country.

As a result of the government’s continued attempts to strip Econet of its license for allegedly supporting the MDC, the network began self-censoring. In 2010, Econet issued a statement warning the MDC to stop using its network to broadcast Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s audio updates, even though the updates were available on both Netone and Telecel.

Econet, which once challenged a Presidential decree, now bowed to extra-judicial threats in order to ensure its continued existence.

According to Takavarasha Jr. and Makumbe, the government’s actions over the past two decades highlight the central role mobile networks play in modern, free democracies.Mobile phones allow people to connect and organise in new ways, potentially undermining the state’s security.

Most advanced network

This is a particularly acute problem for the Zimbabwean government, because a kleptocratic dictatorial regime requires total control over the population to ensure its existence: true democracy would see it removed from power.

Unfortunately for Zimbabweans, Econet is easily the country’s most advanced network. While Telecel and Netone are trying to increase their share of the voice communication market, Econet has been developing its data capacity and value added services, much like other world-leading mobile providers.

If Zimbabwe’s leading network is being forced into self-censorship, then Zimbabweans’ freedom is being inhibited.

Building on work by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, the authors argue that freedom must be understood as both the political liberty to act, and the capability to act. Zanu(PF)’s fear of ceding power to the MDC has forced them to enact repressive telecommunications laws as well as threaten the country’s leading service provider. In doing so, the government has hindered Zimbabwe’s economic development – Econet is the country’s leading taxpayer and yet is forced to invest in other countries for fear of Zanu-led reprisals – and thus directly curtailed Zimbabweans’ capability to communicate.

Moreover, increased snooping laws have engendered a culture of fear, and the repeated victimisation of Econet led the network to self-censorship, further limiting Zimbabweans’ freedoms. In short, Takavarasha Jr. and Makumbe show that the story of Econet Wireless is a clear example of how Zanu(PF)’s greed and lust for power triumphed over rational analysis of the national interest, and so reversed Zimbabwe’s economic development and curtailed the freedom of Zimbabweans.

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