LONDON– In a desperate bid to thwart feared mass uprising in the country over a worsening food security situation, health crisis, and economic disfunction, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, has allegedly secretly courted the Islamic Republic of Iran, to help Harare build a cyber army, to contain political revolution threats posed by the internet and social media, which could topple the ruling Zanu PF from power, Spotlight Zimbabwe, can exclusively reveal.
The country is facing it’s worst drought in four decades, with over 7 million people in need of urgent food assistance, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), which is struggling to raise more than $200 million needed to ease the food insecurity disaster, coupled with price escalations and the collapsing health sector, is seen as creating conditions ripe for waves of opposition demonstrations and protests, which this time around government intelligence officials fear will instigate a total revolution altogether.
Mnangagwa is said to be afraid and very nervous, about prospects of an Arab Spring-style revolt against his regime, which took place in the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2012.
High ranking army officers inside the ministry of defence this week said Mnangagwa has signed a military deal with Tehran, to help establish the new cyber army, which is going to be a special department within the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) structures, working in close collaboration with the administration’s e-government department in the President’s Office.
“Yes Iran is helping Zimbabwe to build a cyber army with formidable capabilitties,” said a senior officer working close to defence minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri’s office. “Actually the project is at an advanced stage, and Iran is not only setting up the cyber army but also a multi- million dollar helicopter training and maintenance facility for our airforce. That facility might become a base for Iran in the future. I’m not sure what Iran is going to get in return, but our information here at the ministry indicates that they have applied to mine uranium at Kanyemba, so they can have access to yellowcake for their steadily expanding peaceful nuclear program. They’re also interested in our oil deposits, and planning to launch a new oil refinery in Zimbabwe by 2024.”
Yellowcake is an impure uranium oxide obtained during processing of uranium ore. It is used in the preparation of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.
A former state intelligence minister confirmed to Spotlight Zimbabwe that indeed Tehran was helping Zimbabwe with setting up a cyber army for national cyber and military defence purposes without giving much detail.
“That’s true and Mnangagwa himself can confirm that, because he was personally involved around 2012 while he was still the minister of defence. At the time he flew to Tehran where a defence agreement was signed between Zimbabwe and Iran. We now have hundreds of military and intelligence officers that were trained in Iran, specifically for that realm of cyber warfare and technology.”
Another cabinet minister currently serving in government, who requested not to be named, said the whole task and purpose of the cyber army, apart from policing social media and cyber threats both foreign and domestic, was to actually establish and run a new state-controlled intranet to replace the internet in the near future, taking a leaf from Iran’s intranet, known as the National Information Network (NIN).
“For national security purposes, the real goal and motive of the cyber army apart from policing social media and cyber threats both foreign and domestic, is to run a Zimbabwe intranet system, similar to the one Iran is implementing,” the minister said. “Such a robust intranet will allow government to cut access to the internet without completely cutting it off. China has done it with the great firewall, to keep out unwanted internet services and platforms. The Russians are moving towards a similar model, and as you know Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are key allies of this country, it only makes sense for us to follow suit, because we share common foreign policy ideologies.”
ZDF boss, General Philip Valerio Sibanda, seems to have hinted and confirmed about the existence of the cyber army, shortly before leaving the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), to his current powerful position as the nation’s top soldier during a state media interview in 2016.
At the time General Sibanda said insurgent groups were now resorting to cyber warfare hence the need for the country’s security sector to increase alertness, in the wake of unsubstantiated accusations from the late President Robert Mugabe’s government, against the United States, Britain and France for allegedly funding destalibisation in Harare.
“We are already dealing with these threats,” General Sibanda was quoted saying.
“As an army, at our institutions of training, we are training our officers to be able to deal with this new threat we call cyber warfare where weapons — not necessarily guns but basically information and communication technology — are being used to mobilise people to do the wrong things. We will be equal to the task when the time comes. The most important function, as outlined in the Constitution is to protect Zimbabwe, its people, national security, territorial integrity and to uphold the Constitution.”
Government admitted in shame in January this year, through Mnangagwa’s wordsmith, George Charamba, that it was behind the internet shutdown in the country, which arose following protests fueled by massive fuel hikes.
Relations between Iran and Zimbabwe gained momentum when the late vice president, Simon Muzenda, visited Tehran to meet leaders of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Zimbabwe opened its embassy in Tehran in 2003.
According to a 2014 report by Institute for National Security Studies, an independent Israeli research institute and think tank, Iran is “one of the most active players in the international cyber arena”. In 2013, a Revolutionary Guards general stated that Iran has “the 4th biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies.”
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