Week 5: Zimbabwe’s Great Cheetah and its Democracy Rankings

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    Maiyiwa shown on Forbes Magazine. Image from The Juice

    Strive Masiyiwa is a prominent ‘cheetah’ from Zimbabwe and is, in fact, in Forbes’ list of “Africa’s 50 Richest.” From George B.N. Ayittey’s The Cheetah Generation: Africa’s New Hope, we learn Masiyiwa’s success story. His wealth and renown stem from his decision to challenge the nation’s corrupt president, Robert Mugabe. In 1993, Masiyiwa began the fight to build a mobile phone company in Zimbabwe. Fearing the formation of a telecommunications system that he himself did not control, President Mugabe attempted to stop Masiyiwa in his tracks. For five years, the president was successful, but Strive Masiyiwa was persistent and undeterred. He reached out to the court system declaring, “the state telephone monopoly violated the constitutional right to free speech.”

Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled in Masiyiwa’s favor, and he began to start his business. During this time, Mugabe issued a ridiculous presidential decree: if a private business built a cellular network, it would be punished with two years in jail. Luckily, the Supreme Court overruled his law as it was deemed unconstitutional.

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Econet’s locations. Image from Econet Wireless
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Econet Wireless’ logo. Image from TechZim: Technology Zimbabwe

By 1998 Masiyiwa’s company, Econet Wireless Ltd., was up and running. The telecommunications network was such a success that just weeks after coming online, it bagged forty-five percent of the market! After two years, that portion jumped to sixty percent, and international investors began buying Econet shares.

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Masiyiwa speaking at the World Economic Forum. Image from It News Africa: Africa’s Technology News Leader

Strive Masiyiwa, an exemplary cheetah, employed innovation and technology to his telecommunications project, which deconstructed the state’s monopoly and helped Zimbabweans improve their connection with each other and to the world beyond their borders. With nine million subscribers, Econet is the largest mobile phone network in Zimbabwe and has operations in eighteen countries. As Africa Progress Panel explains, Mr. Masiyiwa is highly esteemed for his leadership in “campaigning against corruption in Africa and a championing the rule of law.” 2. Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries must face several obstacles in order to rise from poverty. As illustrated above by Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, corruption and governmental instability is rampant. Even when foreign aid arrives, it may not be justly or efficaciously allocated. As a future worker in the field of public health, I believe that the lack of access to potable drinking water is a fundamental issue in many SSA nations. According to The Water Project, 783 million people do not have access to clean water, and approximately 37% of those people live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Water is an absolutely essential part of life, yet if contaminated with pathogens, it can cause sickness and death.

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A political cartoon of Zimbabwe’s weak and corrupt democracy. Image from Zapiro

3. While the emergence of democracies in Africa is incredible, it is important to note that the establishment of elections does not fully constitute a full-blown, working democracy. However, as Steven Radelet explains in his book Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, many positive improvements are beginning to happen. Democracy is a process that includes “popular sovereignty; freedom of speech and the press; rule of law; protection of minority rights, civil liberties and basic human rights; civilian control over the military; and systems for accountability and checks on power”. According to Freedom House, a country’s level of democracy is “rights-based”, or determined by basic rights and freedoms integral to democracy. On the scale of 1 (indicating the highest level of freedom) to 7 (indicating the lowest level of freedom), Zimbabwe falls at 5.5 in the “Not Free” category. In contrast, the Polity IV Index  bases its democracy rating on measurable characteristics of regime type and political authority, which is measured on a scale from -10 (most autocratic) to +10 (most democratic). According to this assessment, Zimbabwe’s governance is an open anocracy, which ranks somewhere in the 1-5 range. As these two indicators illustrate, democracy in Zimbabwe is relatively feeble and quite hallow.

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