COLUMN: DR ALEX T. MAGAISA
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
The speaker may even check his mobile phonebook to prove that he really has an influential sekuru, as if that is enough to authenticate his story. Friends at the bar listen attentively to this ‘revelation’.
From the pub, the story can take any number of new lives. It will be retold at another pub and the new theorist will find it hard to resist the urge to add a new dimension for dramatic effect. The story may soon find new form on email sent to all friends and associates in the address book. An excited and creative recipient of the email may come up with his own theory and once he hits the “Reply All” tab, it creates a new wave to friends, associates and other unknowns.
Within hours there is an avalanche of information, none of which is based on fact, all being products of the creative speculation of individuals. By the end of the week, there may be so many theories doing the rounds that the ordinary reader simply struggles to make sense of it all.
This is what happens in a society where conspiracy theorising becomes the norm. It thrives in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, lack of information and unhealthy levels of scepticism. It is hardly surprising that any significant political development in Zimbabwe is often met with scepticism and conspiracy theorising.
This is the fate that has befallen Simba Makoni’s bid for the presidency. What most citizens may not realise, however, is that conspiracy theorising can be part of a regime’s architecture for maintaining its grip on power.
It works in at least three ways:
First, the regime is adept at creating its own conspiracy theories for at least two purposes: to denigrate a potential opponent and also to exonerate itself from responsibility for obvious failure. Conspiracies help to apportion blame.
Second, because of limited sources of information and mistrust built over time, citizens become overly sceptical of otherwise normal events. Whilst healthy scepticism is essential in any society, it becomes counterproductive when citizens can longer see anything outside the mist of conspiracy.
This leads to the third problem, whereby ordinary citizens feel disempowered by the apparent multiplicity of conspiracies, giving the impression of forces over which they have no control. It can reach dangerous proportions when citizens cannot even trust their own shadows, believing them, instead, to be the work of some elaborate conspiracy.
In Zimbabwe’s case all this works in favour of the Mugabe and Zanu PF. In fact, some of the conspiracy theories against Makoni and members of the opposition may be encouraged or even created by the regime because they help to neutralise the potency of the opposition initiatives. Ironically, the Internet, with the cover of anonymity that it offers, has provided boundless opportunities for the regime and citizens to peddle all types of conspiracy theories.
In Makoni’s case, whilst secretly acknowledging the usefulness of theorising which positions Makoni as a Zanu PF agent (and therefore reducing his likeability factor among the pro-MDC supporters), the regime is also promoting a contradictory conspiracy theory, which posits that Makoni is (like the MDC) a Western agent and therefore part of a grand neo-colonialist conspiracy to unseat Mugabe and undo the gains of the ‘revolution’. The latter is intended to reduce Makoni’s likeability factor among Zanu PF supporters for whom the term ‘mutengesi’ always bears ominous messages.
The more obvious use of conspiracy theory is, of course, the notion of a permanent Western conspiracy against President Mugabe and Zimbabwe. This has become the hallmark of the regime’s politics of survival especially in the wake of the stern challenge first posed by the MDC since 1999. Yet, when the High Priests of the Zanu PF ‘revolution’ speak of a permanent conspiracy by the West against Mugabe and Zimbabwe, they are hardly advancing a novel idea.
To illustrate the emptiness of this approach, it is necessary to go back in time and far away to the west coast of Africa for a regime that used similar notions of conspiracy in order to perpetuate an unsavoury dictatorship. In doing so, I rely shamelessly on the work of veteran writer, Martin Meredith whose book ‘The State of Africa’ makes both interesting and sad reading on the plight of a whole continent since independence.
In the 1960s, the West African country of Guinea was ruled by a man called Ahmed Sekou Toure. According to Meredith, Toure ‘inhabited a world of conspiracies’ and often referred to what he termed a ‘permanent conspiracy’ to unseat his regime. The culprits were Western powers and all others that he called the enemies of the ‘revolution’. Whilst Meredith admits that there were some real plots against Toure, it appears most were either ‘contrived’ or ‘fictitious’. These plots provided the pretext under which opponents were purged, often without getting opportunities to defend themselves in the courts of law.
What emerges from this is how these conspiracies and plots became instruments of control and marginalisation of the opposition. When teachers went on strike, Toure referred to it as the teachers’ plot against the revolution. Similarly, when there were shortages of medicines, Toure claimed that it was the doctors’ plot to denigrate the ‘revolution’. It got so absurd that even news of a cholera epidemic was interpreted as a ‘counter-revolutionary plot’. It is said that Guinea national football team’s loss in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1976 was also interpreted as a conspiracy.
In fact, Toure saw enemies everywhere, including the ordinary market traders so that by 1977 the informal markets were closed and substituted by huge state enterprises. When the traders demonstrated against the closures, the soldiers were ordered to shoot on sight. Meredith quotes the regime’s newspaper which described the incident as part of the ‘historical struggle between revolution and counter-revolution’. Poor planning and bad management meant that the state enterprises largely failed and the result was that whereas Guinea had been self-sufficient at independence, became a net importer of food hardly 20 years later.
Now, when one observes the agricultural decline, suffocating state intervention in industry, Operation Murambatsvina, allegations of opposition plots to bomb Harare and trains, general economic decline in Zimbabwe, etc. the Guinea account bears several similarities in terms of tactics and trends. Even the late veteran nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole was put on trial on the basis of an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. Like Toure before him, Mugabe perceives a permanent Western plot to undo his ‘revolution’. Everyone who stands up to challenge Mugabe is dismissed as a Western stooge and counter-revolutionary.
The problem is that ordinary citizens have become victims of the notion of conspiracy, giving rise to a more subtle form of conspiracy theorising among them. The trouble with the conspiracy theory culture is that ordinary citizens begin to withdraw through a process of self-exclusion, from participation in the affairs of the state, in the belief they do not have the means of control the mystic forces.
They retreat because they feel powerless in the face of seemingly omnipotent and shadowy forces over which they have no levers. This may also explain high levels of the apathy. This conspiracy theory culture among the public is a form of mental torture that is just as disempowering as physical violence.
The challenge for Makoni and his opposition counterparts is to neutralise and overcome these conspiracies by providing clear and decisive information. A more informed public is unlikely to resort to conspiracy theorising. But above all, they need to form a clear front that demonstrates to the public that they are serious about effecting change. The public itself needs to be careful. By wilfully peddling these theories, they have become willing tools for their own disempowerment.
They, too, may soon start running away from their own shadows, thinking they are products of a conspiracy.
is based at Kent Law School, UK and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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