One year ago today, an advertising professional-turned-Evangelical pastor draped Zimbabwe’s flag over his shoulders, logged on to Facebook and delivered a passionate appeal to his fellow countrymen. He urged them to have the courage to fight for their nation’s future, using the hashtag #ThisFlag.
It went viral. The pastor, Evan Mawarire, found himself at the head of a new movement in Zimbabwe that expressed the frustrations of citizens who’ve spent decades under the authoritarian rule of dictator President Robert Mugabe. On July 6 2016, he and his supporters participated in a general strike that shut down schools, banks and businesses across the country. Now, nearly a year later, Mawarire – who initially spoke out not as a politician or activist, but as a citizen – finds himself awaiting a politically motivated trial for sedition and contemplating a presidential campaign.
Mawarire’s announcement had its sceptics. Some questioned his intentions, while others pointed to his stint travelling in the United States as evidence of a lack of influence or even sincerity. Even opposition leader and former vice-president Joice Mujuru, who also plans to run for president, dismissed him as a “mere social media sensation”.
#ThisFlag supporters kneel for prayer at the Harare magistrate’s court, where Pastor Evan Mawarire appeared on charges of inciting public violence on July 13 2016. (Jekesai Njikizana, AFP)
To be sure, any bid to unseat Mugabe faces tough odds. But Mawarire is exactly right in his commitment to oppose Mugabe, no matter what. The ageing dictator has committed countless human rights violations and sent his country into a downward economic spiral. Mawarire’s determination to end Mugabe’s rule through the ballot box is nothing short of heroic.
Mawarire has already paid a high personal price for having the audacity to voice his opinion. In July last year, the strike he called for succeeded, shutting down much of the country. But his penalty was a jail cell. He was released on a technicality – that is, until Zimbabwean authorities arrested him again two months ago on the same trumped-up charges. If convicted, he will face up to 20 years in prison, just for calling a peaceful protest.
Today Mawarire is out on bail and the court has been postponing his trial again and again. On April 11, the court finally gave Mawarire back his passport, allowing him to visit his family in the US. He is due to make a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway on May 24, but the authorities may not let him leave the country.
This crackdown on dissent is standard practice under Mugabe’s regime. His government fails to meet all legal standards for freedom of speech and assembly. Hundreds of protesters remain in prison after participating in last year’s upheavals. In the same month that Mugabe’s thugs arrested Mawarire, they also arrested another pastor, Patrick Mugadza, for participating in #ThisFlag protests and for predicting that Mugabe may die within the year.
Elections, in particular, are a dangerous affair in Zimbabwe. Although the country technically allows opposition leaders to run for office, Mugabe and his party use the entire power of the state to prevent meaningful competition. In 2008, the opposition posed a serious threat to Mugabe’s electoral victory despite Zanu-PF’s attempts to rig the vote. In the first-round vote in March, opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) garnered 48% of the vote, beating Mugabe, but narrowly missing victory.
The electoral commission scheduled run-offs three months later – and Mugabe used that time to target MDC supporters in bloody attacks that author and human rights lawyer Peter Godwin deems a “campaign of torture”.
Mugabe’s spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation, worked to intimidate opposition party leaders by abducting their family members, looting their homes and setting party office buildings on fire.
Mugabe’s thugs systematically hunted down first-round MDC voters and beat them to the brink of death, filling hospitals with assault victims – even sending some to “re-education” camps where they were assaulted repeatedly and, sometimes, killed.
In his book The Fear, Godwin recounts one case where a gang of Mugabe supporters attempted to arrest an opposition voter. When the voter asked the gang why, they replied: “This is the scene of a crime. This is where you voted for the wrong party.” Then they beat him bloody with sticks until he lost consciousness. Fear of being smashed to a pulp is one reason opposition candidates did not campaign strongly and perform well in the 2013 elections.
Chances for an opposition victory are low in 2018, but there may be a window. Mugabe is ageing, even though he seems completely unwilling to give up power. His wife, Grace Mugabe, in a blatant attempt to inherit her husband’s rule, even suggested that the party run her husband’s corpse for office if he dies before the 2018 vote.
Yet rumours suggest that Zanu-PF is looking for new options. With Grace Mugabe and the current vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, positioning themselves as his successor, the ruling party may be divided. The recent democratic victory in the Gambia and the opposition’s strong showing in Gabon provide examples that Mawarire and his allies can emulate in 2018.
The fact is that dictators don’t go away on their own. Research suggests that in the vast majority of cases, the death of a dictator does not lead to democracy. In 92% of the time, the regime survives. If Zimbabweans hope to one day live in freedom, they will have to follow Mawarire’s example and join a public movement for change.
Mawarire’s willingness to challenge Mugabe, even when it puts him and his family in danger, is admirable. But he can’t do it on his own. He will need Zimbabweans — and the world — to rally around him, to defend the country’s future.
Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Prachi Vidwans is the foundation’s communications specialist.