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Mawarire: The birth pangs of a second coming

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SOCIAL activist, #ThisFlag leader and cleric, Evan Mawarire could turn out to be among the most divisive political and social actors in Zimbabwe’s political terrain ahead of a make-or-break election next year.

BY RICHARD CHIDZA

Social activist, Evan Mawarire in handcuffs after his arrest
Social activist, Evan Mawarire in handcuffs after his arrest

After leaving the country abruptly citing threats to his life, Mawarire made a shock return to Zimbabwe early this week and, as had been expected, he was pounced on by security agents. Mawarire drew President Robert Mugabe’s ire in July last year after the release of an emotional video that went viral on social media and in the process galvanised a new social movement that took the country by storm.

In an address to Zanu PF supporters at his party’s headquarters in central Harare, Mugabe did not mince his words.

“I am warning Mawarire and others, I want to warn them very strongly; Zanu PF will not tolerate any nonsense … you are courting real trouble.

“We know how to deal with our enemies, who have been trying all along to bring about regime change in the country; we have the means to defend and protect our hard-won freedom. That is crucial to us,” Mugabe said ominously on July 27 last year.

Mugabe’s word is law and the Zanu PF leader rarely issues idle threats. Liberation war hero and late Vice-President Joshua Nkomo would have testified to that after he was hounded out of the country, forced to flee as Mugabe closed in on him in the early years of independence. Nkomo was then leader of the opposition Zapu, having led the prosecution of the liberation of the country from Zambia as Mugabe fought from Mozambique.

But scepticism is growing and the manner of Mawarire’s sudden return and the selfies from Harare Central Police Station’s Law and Order Section have added to the intrigue. There are muted accusations that he might be a Zanu PF mole, while there are sympathisers in equal measure. Others argue that traditional opposition activists were rattled by the meteoric rise of Mawarire’s political star, hence, felt threatened.

As is the case everywhere in the world, social media has become the new political battleground, but few local political parties have the capacity to use this to their advantage and woo a hitherto untapped generation that could determine the result of the next election. The hashtag generation could be a defining factor and Mawarire seemed to have captured the imagination of their hippy-group that usually has a cynical view of politics.

His abrupt decision to leave the country did not go down well with millions of Zimbabweans, who had turned him into an overnight cult-hero in the decades-old fight against Mugabe. In Mawarire, Zimbabweans had seen a fresh-faced and techno-savvy leader, who had taken the political fight to a whole new arena, one which Mugabe had little control over.

Social media, Mugabe has admitted, is, for Zanu PF, a political swamp that could sink him because, except for few of his close aides, the majority can hardly operate a smartphone.

But unlike the outpouring of emotions that left Mugabe shocked when Mawarire was arrested last year and the success of the demonstrations, the cleric’s return has been muted at best. Given he did not announce he was returning, but his contemporaries in the civil society movement have been cynical at best with a handful of friends keeping watch at the Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court, where he was supposed to appear on Thursday. The State hung onto him instead and added fresh charges.

Political analyst, Pedzisai Ruhanya said Mawarire might have failed to read the mood of those who have been in the “trenches” fighting Zanu PF, but still has a lot to offer the broader democratic agenda.

“I think the cynicism is coming from what was seen as a superstar approach that Mawarire took. However, I must say the accusations that he is a Zanu PF mole will not stick. Mawarire is a genuine citizen, who found a niche to express his feeling. The opposition movement would do well to try and harness his capabilities for their benefit,” he said.

MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai reacted angrily to Mawarire’s arrest, warning this could be a harbinger for a fresh season of impunity by Mugabe ahead of the 2018 elections. His party’s spokesperson, Obert Gutu yesterday said the MDC-T had one foe, Mugabe.

“The MDC always looks at the bigger picture and not narrow, individualistic and parochial interests. In that we do not see Evan Mawarire as our foe, not by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone and everyone who is fighting Zanu PF can never be our enemy,” he said.

The Welshman Ncube led-MDC’s spokesperson, Kurauone Chihwayi condemned Mawarire’s arrest, adding the cleric would “never suffer alone”.

“He is a fighter and he will never walk of suffer alone. We will work with other peaceful advocates of change around the country. The cooked-up charges against Mawarire will not delay Zanu PF’s inevitable demise next year,” he said .

People’s Democratic Party spokesperson, Jacob Mafume called for “all shoulders to the wheel”.

“We need the church in our ranks and if we can welcome former Zanu PF members, then surely we can have Mawarire and other people from the church,” he said.

Ruhanya added that Mugabe’s opponents lacked “the nationalistic approach” to the democratic struggle.

“They lack the selflessness that the likes of Herbert Chitepo had during the colonial struggle. The idea is to aggregate the interests of the opposition parties, Mawarire’s interests and those of other democratic groups for the broader national benefit. It is no longer about the individual that is Mawarire, but the content he brings to the struggle,” he said.

The then relatively unknown Baptist cleric led demonstrations against Mugabe calling not only for change, but action against corrupt officials of the Zanu PF administration. Mawarire was arrested, hauled before the courts on charges of subversion or alternatively seeking to overthrow a constitutionally elected government.

Mugabe’s lieutenants bungled the whole thing leaving the Zanu PF leader with egg on the face after a brave Harare magistrate, Vakai Chikwekwe let the cleric off the hook in a night ruling that could have been inspired by hordes of people, who staged an unprecedented vigil outside demanding that Mawarire be released. Chikwekwe left the bench immediately after and now serves as Gweru chamber secretary. Nobody knows the reasons for his leaving.

The die has been cast and Mawarire will have to worm his way into the hearts of sceptical Zimbabweans with time running out before Mugabe calls the next general election date.

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