People run at a protest as barricades burn during rainfall in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
People run at a protest as barricades burn during rainfall in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

It is the favourite tool for despots. Faced by citizens in revolt, the first thing security forces reach for, after teargas and guns, is the plug for the internet, and social media in particular.

In 2010, with his regime facing daily protests, former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s security forces took to blocking news websites. A month later, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak closed Twitter before shutting down the internet. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi followed suit. It was futile: all these dictators soon fell.

This week Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government in Zimbabwe followed that well-trodden but cowardly path. For a whole day on Tuesday, it shut down the internet to deprive the protest leaders of communication during a three-day stayaway called by trade unions to protest against the doubling of fuel prices.

This is the first time Zimbabwe has resorted to shutting down the internet to thwart protests. Not even Mnangagwa’s predecessor, Robert Mugabe, did this.

But the scale of the protests, accompanied by six reported deaths, shows that Zimbabweans are slowly losing their crippling fear of the army. The fuel price spurt may just be the spark that ignites the collective anger of a long-suffering population, who have had to contend with the highest unemployment rate in the world, coupled with a dearth of services and basic commodities.