HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe moved Patrick Chinamasa from the finance ministry on Monday to lead a new cyber security ministry that will focus on crimes on social media and other websites ahead of an election due next year.
Chinamasa will be replaced at the treasury by Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo in a cabinet reshuffle that also diminished the role of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen as a potential successor to Mugabe.
Chombo’s move, announced in a government statement, comes against the backdrop of a severe hard currency shortage that has dealt a fresh blow to confidence and investment in the southern African economy, which uses the U.S dollar.
Chinamasa was appointed finance minister after Mugabe’s re-election in 2013 and his move to head the new Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation was unexpected.
Its creation comes after Chinamasa said last month the government would now treat social media as a security threat after accusing users of spreading rumors about shortages of basic goods, which caused panic buying and price increases.
The government has been uneasy with social media after activists such as pastor Evan Mawararire and his #ThisFlag movement last year used social media to organize a stay-at-home demonstration, the biggest anti-government protest in a decade.
Government critics took to Twitter deriding Chinamasa as new “minister of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp affairs”.
Chinamasa, a lawyer by training, will also be responsible for bringing to parliament a long awaited cyber crimes bill that criminalize false information posted on the internet, revenge porn, cyber-bullying and online activity against the government.
Meanwhile Chombo, who does not have a finance background and is a staunch Mugabe supporter who comes from the 93-year-old leader’s rural home district, was the surprise pick for minister of finance.
He will have to contend with a serious shortage of foreign currency that has seen U.S. dollar bank balances lose value against cash dollars, fanning a thriving black market.
The worthless Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by the U.S. dollar in 2009 but the economy has struggled over the past 18 months because of a massive domestic shortage of greenbacks.
As a result, cash, especially crisp, new, $100 bills, has enjoyed a steady 10 percent to 20 percent premium over dollars stored electronically in bank accounts - nicknamed “zollars” - meaning people have to transfer more than face value to the person selling the dollars on the black market.
When Mugabe said on Saturday he was going to review the performance of his ministers, speculation was rife that Mnangagwa, who said last week he had been poisoned in August, would be among the casualties.
Mnangagwa has come under attack from a ruling party faction that accuses him of seeking to force Mugabe to resign in his favor. The ZANU-PF is divided into two camps, one supporting Mnangagwa to succeed him and another rallying behind First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Mnangagwa, who denies the accusations, lost oversight of the Justice Ministry to the head of Zimbabwe’s spy agency Happyton Bonyongwe.
Bonyongwe, a retired army general who headed the national intelligence agency for 15 years, will be responsible for new legislation and will supervise the election due next year, including determining which foreign observers to invite.
Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, has said he plans to run for another 5-year term next year, his last under the constitution, when he will be 94.
In total, 10 cabinet ministers changed posts while two were dropped entirely.
Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Alison Williams