/ 12 August 2020

Lies, damn lies and WhatsApp: Why it pays to listen to political rumours in Zim

The Chinese
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photo: Supplied


The rumours were unequivocal: It was crucial that we stay at our desks. Under no circumstances should we turn off our phones. To do so would be to miss one of the most important political events of the year: President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s removal from power in a coup d’etat. After widespread speculation and considerable planning, hardline military figures had decided to put the struggling president out of his misery. Talks on a negotiated exit had broken down after Mnangagwa demanded US$100 million to go quietly. Now it was just a case of waiting for the hammer to fall. 

Six days later, another message on WhatsApp: Mnangagwa will now be removed a few days later. The plan was to use the protests scheduled for July 31 as a cover to claim that the nation is in crisis and military rule is required to reinstate law and order. The sudden death of air marshall and cabinet minister Perrance Shiri on July 29 – officially from Covid-19 but whispered to be from poisoning – appeared to up the stakes on the coup. 

As we write it seems implausible that Mnangagwa is still in office. After all, according to Harare’s rumour mill he has been removed from power at least five times. Zimbabweans and those who follow the situation in the country will recognise the repeated – often contradictory – rumours that are shared over Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram. So too will Kenyans and Nigerians, whose rumour mill is no less rapacious. 

But it would be a mistake to think that because rumours are so often misleading that they don’t matter. Widely believed rumours may change how people behave. A president who thinks he is at imminent risk of being deposed may launch a peremptory strike against his rivals, both real and imagined – as appeared to be the case in Mnangagwa’s public address on August 4. In turn, an unprovoked attack may inspire military generals to overthrow the regime – even if they had not been planning to already. That is just one reason why, even when they are untrue, it pays to listen to rumours. 

Truth stranger than fiction

Rumours and fake news shape each other but are not the same thing. Fake news tends to involve circulating a message that claims that something has happened when it has not. Spreading a rumour involves claiming to have insider knowledge about something that is about to happen. The most effective rumours – the ones that make you stay at your desk – are therefore those from someone who really could have access to that kind of information. A former politician, a well-placed journalist, a senior civil servant – even an academic known to have contacts in high places. 

It is not just any old story that grabs your attention, but the one that is shared only with you, by someone you know, and fits with what you already suspect. “The Malawian government is planning to rig the 2020 election by mobilising underage people to register to vote.” “President Kenyatta will later today sack Deputy President William Ruto in a bid to ensure that the Kenyan presidency remains in the hands of his Kikuyu community.” “Museveni is so scared of opposition leader Bobi Wine that he will postpone the 2021 elections early next week, using Covid as an excuse.”

Each country’s rumour mill is different, of course, reflecting its own history and sense of who has privileged access to information. The Zimbabwean version is most often preoccupied with the circumstances surrounding real or alleged deaths of politicians. On July 29, it was claimed that Minister Kazembe Kazembe had been in a fatal car accident, complete with pictures from the scene – until the minister appeared at a media briefing an hour later. This rumour was believable because high-profile figures seem to be involved in car accidents at alarming rates – such as the recent non-fatal accident of the first lady, Auxilia Mnangagwa.

So robust and commonplace is Zimbabwe’s rumour mill that a novel was written about elite intrigue, political murder and the ripples of rumour in Harare. The Death of Rex Nhongo is set in 2011, just before the controversial real-life death of General Solomon Mujuru, and tells the story of characters who find themselves tangentially affected by the elite politics at play. When it was released, the book – written under the pseudonym CB George – triggered its own set of rumours, as people speculated about who might have written it. 

What rumours can teach us about Zimbabwean politics 

One reason that rumours are important is that they tell us what a lot of people are thinking. That the Zimbabwean rumour mill is preoccupied with stories of coups and back-room deals speaks to an important truth about the country’s politics: President Mnangagwa is widely seen to be in trouble. Unable to deliver on his promise of a stronger economy, unpopular with his people due to his history of violent repression, and in debt to the military that propelled him to power, Mnangagwa finds himself between a rock and a hard place. The more Zimbabweans protest against the regime, the weaker the president’s legitimacy becomes. Against this backdrop it is easy to see why so many Zimbabwean Twitterati and WhatsAppers assume that the man known as The Crocodile is living on borrowed time. 

The rumours also reveal a more subtle point about the changing nature of power in the country: Mnangagwa appears to not be fully in charge. The constant discussion of a coup is rooted in an assumption that it is the military, not the – nominally – civilian president that determines the most important aspects of government policy. While Robert Mugabe was a dominant political force right up until his very final years in power, the central role played by senior military figures in paving the way for Mnangagwa has given them a much more powerful seat at the table. 

There have been higher numbers of military appointments to the Cabinet, and greater involvement of serving and retired officers in government contracts. More bizarrely, in the midst of a global and local health crisis the country’s most senior army general and vice-president, Constantine Chiwenga, has just been appointed minister of health. 

Why false rumours have real impacts 

Rumours also matter because when they are believed they can change what people think and do. Paranoid leaders hearing a rumour of a coup attempt to purge those they suspect of being disloyal. Opposition leaders used to being harassed and intimidated may flee into exile if they hear that the security forces are about to detain them. Often, in the aftermath of a crisis, the fact that a leader initiated a purge, or that an opposition leader fled, may be taken as evidence that a coup or arrest was planned by journalists and academics, shaping the historical record. In this way, rumours can change the world, and lies can become fact. 

This can be seen from recent events in Zimbabwe. Given that the military came out to publicly deny rumours of a coup in June, elements of the ruling party were accused by the country’s spies of planning to remove Mnangagwa, and that rumours swirled that the military was funding and supporting the planned July 31 protests, it is easy to see why Mnangagwa would be feeling uneasy. This almost certainly contributed to the heavy-handed crackdown meted out to journalists, activists and a globally recognised author recently long-listed for the Booker prize (Tsitsi Dangaremba). 

In this way, rumours can both have a profound impact on real world events, and provide important insights into changing political dynamics. So, while it would be unwise to stay at your desk for days on end waiting for a coup that may never come, it is always worth listening to rumours.

Nicole Beardsworth holds a PhD in politics from the University of Warwick, an MA in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand and an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford. Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and co-author of How to Rig an Election.