12 February 2017

Zimbabwe: The Return of Evan Mawarire

Photo: Atlantic Council’s Africa Center | AtlanticCouncilLive ‏@ACEventsLive
"We have unified Zimbabweans and raised their voices. And to me, that is a victory" - Pastor Evan Mawarire Founder #ThisFlag Movement at the Atlantic Council, August 17, 2016.

After spending a week in remand prison following his arrest as he returned home from a brief stint in exile, many had expected outspoken pastor Evan Mawarire to scale down his activism and take stock after his brave decision to return home.

They were mistaken. The Harare-based pastor was back and took no time before unleashing a video on his favourite platforms Facebook and Twitter on Friday, a day after his release from Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

He thanked Zimbabweans for standing by him and sent a defiant message to President Robert Mugabe's regime.

"I'm so glad to be back home in Zimbabwe where I belong," Mawarire said in a Facebook post accompanying the video that had already been viewed by thousands of people yesterday.

"Thank you for your support and for speaking out for Zimbabwe. None of us should ever be intimidated into silence.

"This is our home and we have the full right to participate in making it a better country, like we said in the beginning."

Mawarire was released by the High Court on $300 bail.

He is facing charges of subverting a constitutionally elected government and insulting the national flag. The subversion charge carries a 20-year jail term, if he is convicted.

His legal team that comprises Harrison Nkomo and Jeremiah Bamu convinced Justice Clement Phiri that Mawarire was a suitable candidate for bail and that their client was a victim of political persecution.

Mawarire walked out of Chikurubi gates on Thursday afternoon and despite claiming to be in high spirits, refused to give media interviews.

However, the bigger battle awaits him to regain the people's confidence after the unsavoury episodes that began with his first arrest on treason charges in July last year.

Mawarire's appearance at the Harare magistrates court on February 3 was an anti-climax compared to his initial appearance at the same courts over six months ago.

There were no 200 lawyers or thousands of supporters standing in solidarity with him though the media did not disappoint, as journalists dutifully covered the story of a man of the cloth who has become a thorn in the flesh for Mugabe's government.

So much has changed on the ground since that cold July night when citizens held a vigil at the courts until Mawarire walked out of the courts a free man on a legal technicality.

Instead of emboldening the cleric, the expRank    ( + / - )erience left him traumatised and he fled to South Africa enroute to the United States where he was feted by the media.

Mawarire's decision to go into exile in the US divided opinion among his followers and neutrals.

The anger by some supporters who felt let down is seen mainly on social media, with many accusing Mawarire of being a government mole.

One Gibson Marwa wrote on Facebook, "A captain is the last to be evacuated. The pastor should not have left Zimbabwe in the first place. He sold out."

Another Facebook user on the same thread, Hulu Maq Bhila concurred saying, "I seriously think he came back as an opportunist. Can you imagine how powerful he was when he left? Zanu PF was on the verge of collapse, now things have changed, Zanu PF is stronger, it won a by-election. Then he comes back at such a time, pathetic."

However, others like Cape Peninsula University lecturer Blessing Miles Kwibi-Gavhure believe Mawarire is still relevant and would continue to give Zanu PF sleepless nights.

"Instead of having solidarity with Evan Mawarire, the so-called opposition forces are busy celebrating his incarceration. Some are even peddling lies that he is a Zanu PF project," Kwibi-Gavhure wrote.

"You cannot monopolise the fight for liberation. It is and should be a collective effort."

Mawarire seems to have alienated himself from a section of local political activists when he revealed that he harboured political ambitions and is considering running for public office in an interview with South Africa's Daily Maverick.

Many analysts believe the July 2016 momentum was a lost opportunity, and Zanu PF had since reorganised.

For instance, the government banned the use of the national flag by protesters and successfully introduced the much- maligned bond notes -- was one of the issues that galvanised Zimbabweans against the government.

#ThisFlag failed to transform itself into a structured organisation and with Mawarire in exile, the movement became rudderless and floundered.

It remains to be seen whether #ThisFlag would be able to reinvent itself, recapture the country's imagination and reassert itself as the premier social movement, or if that was a mere flash flood in a desert.

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