Further Reflections on the Afrobarometer Report

Yesterday, I published an article which presented key findings from a national survey carried out by the think-tank, Afrobarometer, in conjunction with the Mass Public Opinion Institute based in Zimbabwe.

The main message was that the Afrobarometer Report contains grim news for Zimbabwe’s opposition parties. This was because according to the report, President Mugabe and Zanu PF still enjoy the trust of Zimbabweans while the opposition parties are the least trusted institutions in the country, behind even the otherwise notorious taxman.

Let me set the record straight: It wasn’t because I agreed with these results. I was merely presenting what the survey report stated and my only advice was against knee-jerk reactions in dismissing the report but that it needed careful examination and consideration.

As expected, the article attracted a lot of debate and the report’s findings were heavily criticised by some observers, who suggested that they were not credible. My own approach to the report was that even though I found it difficult to believe the findings, I would not flippantly dismiss it but instead take the “What if it is correct?” line of thinking. In other words, Afrobarometer may well be wrong but what if they are right? I think that cautious approach is better, for strategic reasons and this is why I have urged it for the opposition parties.

For its part, and commendably so, the main opposition party, the MDC-T has already shown positive signs of sobriety and maturity in their response so far. They have said that they are studying the report and will give a response in the next few days. This is a promising attitude. In years past, there would have been a quick, knee-jerk, and probably populist response, rubbishing the report or the persons behind it, without even studying it.

What they have done is what a serious organisation faced with adversity does. It studies reports, even those that contain unpalatable material, and responds from an informed position. Many serious people who support the MDC morally and financially read these surveys and appreciate them. They take a very dim view of politicians and organisations that can only produce flippant, knee-jerk and uninformed reactions to negative data.

My aim here is to address a few issues that have arisen from the contributions that have been made towards my article and the report.

Influence of the Fear Factor

The most consistent reaction has been that the report is probably misleading and inaccurate mainly because Zimbabweans are not free to express themselves and when they do, they are influenced by fear. The argument is that most people, especially in the rural areas, are motivated by fear, given the terror that has been visited upon them by the state and the ruling Zanu PF in previous years.

That fear is an important influence is not in doubt. Zimbabweans are a traumatised people. A recent video showing Zanu PF Secretary for Administration, Ignatious Chombo, effectively setting up a terror machine and terrorising people in Hurungwe, where a by-election is due to be held is clear evidence of these tactics of intimidation that the ruling party resorts to at every turn.

It is quite possible, therefore, that respondents, especially in rural areas respond even to surveys out of fear because it is hard to distinguish between who state and non-state agents. The instinct for self-preservation commands them to say things that are likely to protect them from danger.

This line of reasoning suggests that the so-called “trust” in President Mugabe and other state institutions is, in effect, fear of the same and is expressed only for self-protection, hence the notion that the report is misleading in so far as it says President Mugabe, Zanu PF and state institutions enjoy the trust of Zimbabweans.

Let us assume that these critics of the report are correct. Let us assume that the so-called “trust” is not really trust in the normal sense but that it is actually fear or an answer motivated by fear. The next question would be, what difference does this make in the greater scheme of things? If a person feigns trust for President Mugabe and Zanu PF in a survey, is he likely to behave any differently in an election? In other words, does it matter whether this positive backing for President Mugabe and Zanu PF is motivated by genuine trust or by fear?

If indeed this data is motivated by fear, does it not mean that the opposition should be worried that people, especially in rural areas still give backing for their rivals because of the fear factor? Should they dismiss the survey data and say it is not genuine trust but fear, so there is no need to worry?

The point here, is that, for strategic planning, whether it’s because of fear or genuine trust, more people express backing for President Mugabe and Zanu PF than for the opposition. The irony is that even if people criticise this report on the basis that it is misleading on trust, they are at the same time confirming that it is an accurate reflection of the influence of the fear factor in Zimbabwean politics.

If the opposition say this is because of fear, the next question is what is to be done to overcome this fear, especially in rural areas?

Making use of the Positives

While the headline of my article captured the positives, the actual article highlighted some positives elements of the survey which the opposition parties can make use of. One of the problems of quick reactions is that you end up missing the important bits that can be useful to your own cause. But once you dismiss a report just because it says a few negative things about you, it becomes difficult for you to make use of the positive elements that could actually help you. If you do so, you risk being labelled hypocritical and few will take you seriously.

So yes, there are some negatives for the opposition in the report but there are also some useful positives. One good example is the data in respect of ZEC, the electoral body. The Herald newspaper is lying today when it says the report gives a favourable account of ZEC.

ZEC

In fact, the report shows that at 46%, less than half of Zimbabweans trust ZEC. In fact it’s one of the least trusted state institutions, behind the army, the police and even traditional leaders. Furthermore, it shows that most people in the urban areas (63%) do not trust ZEC. The provincial statistics are even more revealing, with results showing that ZEC is not trusted by the majority in the big metropolitan provinces of Harare and Bulawayo and the southern Matabeleland provinces.

These statistics show that there is a serious problem at ZEC and can be deployed to back up the opposition’s demands for electoral reforms. You can see why The Herald today tried to put a positive spin on the statistics regarding ZEC – they want to use the report to argue that there is no need for reforms as demanded by the opposition. The reality is that the low levels of trust in ZEC actually nack the opposition demands for reforms.

The fact is now, the opposition parties and civil society have independent, scientific and credible proof that can be presented to demonstrate that ZEC has serious trust issues and needs to reform. However, if people dismiss the report as misleading and inaccurate, how then can they make use of this data on ZEC? You cannot have your cake and eat at the same time.

Media Usage

The other very useful piece of data in the report is in respect of media usage, which again, can be used by the opposition to demonstrate the need for media reforms. It can also be used to devise their communication strategies. Knowing which medium of communication is more relevant and the age-groups and locations that use that media is critical in how the parties disseminate their messages.

For example, the report shows that radio is still the dominant media, especially in the rural areas. This means most of the information those people consume is disseminated through radio. It also explains why Zanu PF is intent upon maintaining the stranglehold on radio. The report also shows that internet and social networks are more dominant in the urban than rural areas but also that at around 10% they are still quite limited in their reach.

Finally, as I reflected upon the responses, I could not help but notice that all those who responded were people who have access to the internet and social networks. Moreover, most of them are urbanites – in Zimbabwe or in the Diaspora. In other words, they are part of the 10% who get their news from the internet and social networks and part of the 67% who don’t trust the police, the 45% who don’t trust President Mugabe, and the 63% who do not trust ZEC. In other words, they are well and truly represented in the survey and their significant doubts about the outcome of the survey are understandable.

However, there is also a problem and it is that there is an unwitting tendency among social network citizens to see the world within the confines of social network boundaries – the world according to Facebook and Twitter. But there is a big wide world out there, with inhabitants who have never been on social networks and have never heard of the internet. Those people also have opinions and they also vote, it’s just that their opinions are never heard on Facebook and Twitter. They have a different world-view from that one that exists in social media-scape. What we must avoid is the arrogance of speaking on their behalf; the pride of believing that the way we see the world is the way everyone sees it.

Let me end with a small anecdote. In the past year or so, I have spent many hours listening to young people and their view on politics. I decided to do so because I thought there was something politicians were missing and that politicians have a tendency to take young people for granted.

I had also observed that contrary to common perceptions, there are actually young men and women who revere, respect and support President Mugabe. I could not understand why a young, enlightened and progressive person could actually support him given how his style of governance has depreciated the country. But rather than take a dismissive approach and say they are stupid or pretend that they do not exist, I have been religiously and patiently talking to them, trying to understand their world, trying to understand their thinking.

What I have discovered in these discussions is fascinating and it shall come in time, but suffice to say this experience has taught me one thing: Never take people for granted and think you know what they think. The same applies to rural people and what many in social media think they know about them and their thinking.

I sincerely hope the opposition parties take their time to study and understand the report so that if they must criticise it, they will do so from an informed position. My disappointment with many commentators who have so far rubbished the report is that they have done so without even reading the report itself. They have just commented based on what they think they know. That culture of dismissing things before even reading them is retrogressive. It’s the same thing you see on social networks – people read a headline and they write a long comment, without even reading the article itself!

But I also hope the opposition parties take positives from the report and use it for strategic purposes. The survey is not an election. If anything, it should be a wake-up call and a strategic guide on the operating terrain. Zanu PF will milk it, naturally, but who wouldn’t? However, they are also not too naïve to rest in the comfort of its glowing statistics because they know too that they do not tally with the reality of their performance.

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