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.
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.”
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