Rallying Around #ThisFlag: Zimbabwe’s Pastor Evan Mawarire’s Holy Struggle in the Age of Social Media

The more things have changed in Zimbabwe, the more they’ve stayed the same. Faced with days of protests, businesses in the capital, Harare, remain closed, the government has shut down internet access, and security forces are currently cracking down on protestors, several of whom have been killed in the process. Popular pastor and political activist Evan Mawarire, who often faced harassment, arrest and even charges of treason under previous President Robert Mugabe, has again been arrested this morning. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is looking awfully like the regime he pushed out last year.

Pastor Mawarire’s arrest for “inciting violence” (his campaigns have consistently called for nonviolent resistance) is very reminiscent of the repression and misinformation of the previous regime. It may also be counterproductive: arresting Mawarire and blaming him for the country’s turmoil only ignores the country’s real problems and, even with the internet being suppressed for the time being (which did not prevent Mawarire from posting an image on Twitter of his Twitter account being blocked) brings back to prominence the pastor’s #ThisFlag campaign, a movement that combines the longstanding power of religion to challenge power (in Africa and elsewhere) with the power of social media to mobilize citizens and supporters locally and across borders.

Mugabe, Mnangagwa and Mawarire: The Old Men Face New Media

A year ago, hopes were high (but cautious) in Zimbabwe following the removal of Robert Mugabe from power. Mugabe was one of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state, having been in power with his ZANU-PF party since 1980. During his decades in office, Mugabe used a combination of electoral rigging and repression to “win” elections and squash opposition from parties like the Movement for Democratic Change (which likely won presidential and legislative elections in 2008, not that Mugabe let a little thing like that convince him to leave office).

With electoral victory denied to the formal opposition again and again and the country sinking deeper into repression and economic turmoil, Zimbabweans began expressing their disappointment in various ways. Evan Mawarire, a young pastor, went to social media and posted a video of himself, venting his own frustration in spoken word while wearing the Zimbabwean flag, with the refrain and hashtag #ThisFlag.  The post, imagery and hashtag went viral, and like many times in history, a movement was born rather by accident. Since its launch in 2016, the #ThisFlag movement has highlighted the government’s failures and the Zimbabwean citizen’s anger.

Mawarire’s position as a pastor also aided his cause. As was the case in the US with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday just passed, clergy have often been effective voices for social change in Africa, especially under repressive regimes that stifle other sources of opposition. In some places, institutional religion plays the oppositional role (see the Catholic Church in DRC for a recent example), while in others, an individual woman or man of God, like King or Mawarire, can make a difference and inspire mass dissent.

Also helping Mawarire was the widespread use of social media, which has emerged to be an effective source of mobilization for both protestors and governments in different circumstances. So although the #ThisFlag movement did not topple the Mugabe regime, it did help create an atmosphere of open criticism and non-partisan opposition that made a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe something the average citizen could envision.

Mugabe, Mnangagwa and the Illusion of Change

As the nonagenarian (first time I’ve ever gotten to use that word-yay!) Mugabe’s age eventually indicated that his time in power was approaching its twilight, Mugabe and his younger wife Grace sought to transform the presidency into a family dynasty (as the Bongos, Kabilas and others had successfully done) by positioning Grace as Robert’s designated successor.

This move angered many of Mugabe’s longtime aides, such as Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been by Robert’s side since their days as guerrilla fighters against white rule. When Mnangagwa was fired from his position as Vice President and pushed aside in favor of Grace last year, his allies in the Zimbabwean army staged a coup (which they were bold enough to announce before it happened, Babe Ruth style!).

Mugabe was deposed, and Zimbabweans, many of whom had never known another president in their lives, were hopeful that the coup would usher in democracy and reform. Many of these hopes were dashed when Mnangagwa was installed as interim president and head of ZANU-PF before winning a close election against the main opposition candidate from the MDC.

Mawarire declined calls to run for President (yet) and did not endorse either party in the 2018 election (although he did warn of potential election rigging by the government); instead, the pastor unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in Harare, and he has remained a critical voice and a symbol for resistance in the country. Meanwhile, fears remained that Mnangagwa, who is known as “The Crocodile” for his political shrewdness and who was a major player in the violence and repression of the Mugabe regime, was merely the status quo with a different face.

Recent events in Zimbabwe show that these concerns have been valid. Protests broke out days ago, as Mnangagwa announced a massive hike in fuel prices (a big deal for a country where many people are barely scraping by) as he hopped on a plane to Russia (yes, I’m shocked Donald Trump didn’t do this when the US government shutdown started). Although the fuel price thing is the immediate cause of the protest, citizens are also expressing their disapproval of the government and the state of democracy more generally.

Meanwhile, a government that recently came to power in a coup is of course concerned about its own security, but it has responded in a heavy-handed and violent way that is only confirming its critics’ fears: severe economic hardships continue to be a reality for much of the population, several Zimbabweans have been killed by government forces, and Evan Mawarire is once again in jail as a scapegoat for the country’s unrest.

Mawarire is especially dangerous in the eyes of the government.  President Mnangagwa has been around long enough to see the toppling of former “Presidents for Life” in nearby countries, like Hastings Banda of Malawi and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, who both saw their decades long reigns end largely due to pressures from Christian churches and organizations; Kaunda’s replacement, trade union leader Frederick Chiluba, was, like Mawarire, a devout Evangelical and political outsider.  Mawarire has not ruled out running for President in the future, and both his popularity and his humble hesitancy to step into the political fray make him a powerful potential rival for Mnangagwa.

I reached out to Former US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry K. Thomas, who was the US presence in the country during Mawarire’s protests and the coup against Mugabe and who has been critical of the ruling party in the past, for comment. I’ll quote his statement at length:

“The ZANU-PF led government is unwilling to allow peaceful protest and freedom of speech as mandated by Zimbabwe’s Constitution.  It has attempted to stop dissent by shutting down the internet.  The government must halt arbitrary arrests, prosecute those who are attacking civilians and destroying property.  It must release Pastor Evan and all those it has arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to use non-violent protest.  Ham-handed means of stifling criticism will harm Zimbabwe’s attempts to re-engage the global democratic community. ZANU-PF should understand that dissent, especially from the clergy and media, is necessary in a democracy.

“I regret that Zimbabweans were deceived in 2017 and so desperate to oust Mugabe that they accepted Mnangagwa a.k.a the “Crocodile” in his place.  It will be difficult to effect positive change because the military supports the corrupt government. That said, the ruling elite and their friends in business depend on ZANU-PF’s  patronage to survive and cannot be depended on to help find a way forward. They too, share responsibility for Zimbabwe’s years long downward spiral and their contribution to this dire situation should not be ignored or forgiven. ”

At this point, it seems unlikely that Mnangagwa or ZANU-PF will simply decide to radically shift gears and move away from the repression of the past, but we’ve seen many times in the past (and recently) the power of factors such as nonviolent protest, religious-based political opposition, and social media to challenge and pressure repressive governments. Pastor Evan Mawarire and the #ThisFlag movement have embodied all three of these forces, and the government’s attempt to silence the pastor and mute his virtual platform are likely to backfire.

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