In early 2021, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa officially opened the country’s National Data Center, proclaiming the Chinese-built data hub key to the country’s economic advancement.
The center compiles information from government records along with material from private companies, such as banks. Leaders of human rights and civil society groups worry that the data center can be a way for the government to track citizens’ activities and suppress dissent, in violation of Zimbabwe’s constitution.
It is Zimbabwe’s latest project embracing the use of Chinese surveillance technology. China has provided Zimbabwe with nearly $240 million to develop NetOne, the national mobile telecommunications system, which has its own data centers. Mnangagwa has boasted that the government can track where people walk, who they talk to, even where they sleep.
Nompilo Simanje of the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe said the statement by the president is “a clear example that the government has the necessary tools and the capacity to monitor people,” according to a report by The Economist.
Zimbabwe’s use of surveillance, which existed under previous president Robert Mugabe, has accelerated recently.
“When Robert Mugabe was overthrown in 2017, everyone thought this was the moment of turn around,” pastor and free-speech activist Evan Mawarire told the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. “And yet, unbelievably, Zimbabwe has become worse today than it was under Robert Mugabe.”
Mawarire was charged in 2019 with inciting public violence after he supported labor protests on social media.
In recent years, the Chinese technology company Huawei has launched its Smart Cities program in Zimbabwe. The government has signed on with Cloudwalk Technologies and Hikvision, both Chinese companies, to install facial recognition technology in public spaces. Zimbabwe is the proving ground that will train the system to identify faces of people with dark complexions, something artificial intelligence has difficulty doing, Quartz reported.
In 2018, the government began collecting fingerprints, photos, phone numbers and addresses of citizens under the auspices of rooting out voter fraud.
In 2020, Zimbabwe began its five-year, $100 million project with Huawei to expand Smart Cities beyond Harare.
Security teams have installed closed-circuit television cameras in Harare and Bulawayo with a focus on major streets and Africa Unity Square across from the National Assembly building — all locations popular with anti-government protesters.
“This confirms that there is more of a political dimension, than a public safety one in the rollout of CCTV in Zimbabwe,” media expert Allen Munoriyarwa, wrote in a 2020 report on visual surveillance in Southern Africa by the Media and Democracy Project. “The intention is to police anti-regime activists by intimidation.”
Zimbabwe’s rush to expand government surveillance is coupled with a lack of legislation regulating what happens to the data that is collected, according to Munoriyarwa.
Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s former minister of higher and tertiary education, science and technology development, went on Twitter before the National Data Center opened to denounce it as a tool for snooping on citizens’ phone and internet use.
Human and civil rights advocates are ringing alarms, saying that China has helped Zimbabwe create an environment that allows the government to target dissidents and violate citizens’ constitutional right to privacy.
“We’re in a country where the basic freedoms that are provided for in the constitution for citizens are being blatantly violated,” Mawarire told CNN.