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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 upcoming elections.
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 television.
She was released from interrogation late on Friday but charges have been put to her.
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 sovereignty.
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 Ushahidi.
“There was nothing secretive about this project. It was set up quite openly.”
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.
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 elections.
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 areas.
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 polls.
“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 warn people.
“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 the elections.”
Zanu-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo’s cellphone was switched off on Thursday and Friday.
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 parties.
“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.”