In Zimbabwe, an official's death foretold - and facebooked

A shadowy dissident who goes by the name of Baba Jukwa has found fame among Zimbabwe's Facebook users.

Tsvangirayi Mukwzhi/AP
Zimbabweans enjoy accessing the internet to read about Baba Jukwa in Harare, Tuesday, July, 9. Baba Jukwa’s name is whispered in buses, bars, and on street corners by Zimbabweans eager for the inside scoop on President Robert Mugabe's ruling party.

On June 19, Zimbabwean Member of Parliament Edward Chindori-Chininga was driving through his rural district in the northeastern part of the country when his silver SUV swerved erratically off the road and slammed into a tree. By the time police arrived, the veteran lawmaker – a longtime member of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party – was dead.

Investigators quickly cleared the crumpled Jeep Cherokee from the scene and declared the death a tragic accident, but another story started to circulate.

“Chininga wanted transparency and he [was] taken out” by his political enemies, wrote one critic of the regime, an anonymous and immensely popular Facebook user who goes by the moniker “Baba Jukwa.”

Indeed, his claim was not without reason: Mr. Chindori-Chininga had recently spearheaded a damning parliamentary report about government corruption in the country’s diamond mines. And he certainly wouldn’t be the first Zimbabwean politician to die in a car "accident" after refusing to toe President Robert Mugabe’s official line.

But something else also lent credence to Baba Jukwa’s claim. Just a week earlier, the self-declared former member of the ruling party had told his quarter million Facebook followers that local officials were “planning to sink Edward Chindori-Chininga and replace him with their puppet.”

Suddenly, the anonymous Facebook informant, who describes himself as a “concerned father, fighting nepotism” and uses a cartoon avatar of a wide-eyed old man, had the world’s attention. The Economist wrote that some thought he was “a sort of Zimbabwean Robin Hood,” while Business Insider trumpeted the “anonymous mole revealing Zimbabwe’s secrets.”

But within southern Africa, Baba Jukwa had already made waves. Beginning in March, when the Baba Jukwa account first appeared on Facebook, it drew a loyal following with its daily, gossipy missives about the internal workings of ZANU PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe since Mr. Mugabe came to power in 1980 at the end of a brutal civil war with the country’s white regime.

The party’s steely grip on power is set to be challenged again next week, when Zimbabweans go to the polls for the first time since widely criticized 2008 elections, in which opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew after widespread violence against his supporters. (Mr. Tsvangirai later became prime minister in a power-sharing agreement).

In the meantime, Baba Jukwa is waging a kind of social media war on the ZANU PF party machinery. Vicious and often intensely personal in his attacks, he posts several times daily, unflinchingly naming names – and phone numbers. Nearly every message on the site includes contact details for party officials whom the anonymous informant accuses of corruption, non-delivery of services, and other crimes.

“Asijiki!” goes his signature sign off, We are not turning back!

Baba Jukwa claims to be a single former ZANU PF member, based in the capital city of Harare and working alone. He told the Monitor – on Facebook, naturally – that he left the party 17 years ago, after seeing how the country was being run in a “partisan manner with masses suppressed, our people raped, maimed, killed and victimised.”

The vacillating tone and structure of his posts, however, has caused some to speculate that there may not be a single person behind the account, but rather a cohort of opposition members. But whoever he – or they – are, Baba Jukwa’s intricate knowledge of the ruling party’s inner cabal has caused those in power to take him seriously.  

In May, one ZANU PF official told a South African newspaper that Baba Jukwa was a “modern-day Judas Iscariot.” Meanwhile, the state-controlled Herald published a scathing editorial denouncing Baba Jukwa as a “rogue” faction engaging in “unrelenting efforts to destroy the very party that raised them from the dust.”

“Zimbabwe under President Mugabe remains the first country to embark on reforms meant to totally reverse all the ills associated with colonialism,” the editorial read. “We are … the envy of the world’s oppressed masses…. It is only the [opposition including] Baba Jukwa who still cherish colonial conquest.”

And over the last several days, a rumor has circulated widely in national and international media that Mugabe has placed a $300,000 bounty on Baba Jukwa’s head. But the Facebook informant says he is undeterred.

“I am not worried at all, these people are not intelligent as the world thinks,” he wrote in a message to the Monitor. “They are only murderers thriving on people's fear with their continued intimidation's on masses.”

Indeed, mass intimidation has been part and parcel to Mugabe’s hold on power over the last 33 years. And he has cultivated a media landscape to match.

The state controls the largest newspapers in the country and state-run channels provide the only TV and radio news access for most Zimbabweans. Arrests of independent journalists are common.

Within that context, “there’s a great appetite for alternative sources of information,” says Mohamed Keita, the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Project Journalists, an international NGO based in New York.

But such a media vacuum also means that those who enter the fray to challenge the status quo may not operate exactly like traditional reporters. 

“He’s just a citizen who’s used social media to expand the national conversation,” Mr. Keita says of Baba Jukwa. “So the way this person operates is not going to be bound by the rules of ethical journalism.”

Indeed, Baba Jukwa’s posts have often veered towards hysterical. Earlier this month he called on his followers to kidnap the children of Youth Development Minister Saviour Kusukuwere, who he says was involved in Chindori-Chininga’s death. (He also published a panicked screed alleging that Mr. Kusukuwere was gay, part of a “bandwagon of thieves and homosexuals [who] must be voted out.”)

And his impact on the wider political conversation may be limited. After all, the nearly 300,000 people who follow the Baba Jukwa page are from the minority of Zimbabweans who have Internet access to begin with – a group that is already more likely to skew educated and urban, and therefore to support the opposition already.

But Baba Jukwa insists his page serves an essential function in the country’s pockmarked political landscape.

“It's sad that the international community has let Zimbabweans down by allowing evil people to remain in the picture,” he wrote to this reporter. “Here I am giving hope to our people through the truth which they are denied.” 

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