What makes a man with a two-month-old baby fly back home to a regime that’s almost certain to detain him?
Homesickness? Hope? Or could it be ambition?
Few in cash-strapped, preoccupied Zimbabwe were aware that protest pastor Evan Mawarire was on his way back to Zimbabwe on Wednesday.
The #ThisFlag leader left the southern African country last July, dashing the hopes of many who’d believed in his potential to spark change in Zimbabwe.
President Robert Mugabe’s government reacted scornfully to news that the pastor, his wife Samantha and their two young daughters had settled in the US.
But the authorities must have been secretly relieved.
With the honest, heartfelt videos he posted to Facebook, Mawarire managed to raise the hopes of those frustrated with the corruption and chaos in Zimbabwe in a way that Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai had long ceased to be able to.
‘We are not afraid’
Elderly women, young people, and those who would certainly not consider themselves MDC supporters: so many people found their voices through Mawarire and his “we are not afraid” mantra.
Few will forget the singing, praying crowds outside the Harare magistrates’ court on July when Mawarire was released after a night and a day in custody following a successful nationwide strike. Or, earlier than that, in May, the quavery but resolute voice of “Hector’s granny”, who phoned in to a live radio show with Mawarire and said she’d lost her life savings during Zimbabwe’s 2008 crisis.
By leaving Zimbabwe, Mawarire took all that bravery and unity with him. Many felt betrayed. Protests since his departure have been sparsely followed. The activists who tried to fill his shoes, though undoubtedly brave individuals, don’t have his charisma. Put bluntly, Zimbabweans don’t trust them.
So: will they trust Mawarire again?
Wednesday’s news of the pastor’s arrest at Harare International Airport – so quickly overshadowed by news of Beyonce’s pregnancy – was greeted with caution on social media in Zimbabwe. In the hours that followed, there were a few dozen likes and slightly less comments on his #ThisFlag supporters Facebook page. One man thanked Mawarire for “paying the price”, others quoted Bible verses.
‘Backward and nauseating’
The MDC’s secretary general Douglas Mwonzora described the arrest as “backward and nauseating”.
Mwonzora tweeted that he could not understand why Mugabe’s government “would jump to arrest Mawarire”.
But news of fresh charges laid against the pastor should give Mwonzora a clue.
Along with “outstanding” charges of trying to overthrow Mugabe’s government, the #ThisFlag leader apparently faces additional charges for anti-Mugabe demonstrations held in New York. He’s also bizarrely being charged for demonstrations that took place in Zimbabwe after he left, according to lawyer Fadzayi Mahere.
It’s clear that more-tired-than-ever Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party want to stop Mawarire any way they can. After all, Mawarire has reportedly hinted that he may be willing to stand for public office in elections next year.
Arresting him may spark something the Zimbabwe authorities cannot keep a lid on. Though no-one doubts the lengths to which they will go to try.
What happens next?
As prominent UK-based lawyer Alex Magaisa tweeted, Zimbabwe’s government has an “uncanny penchant for making heroes” .
State-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) did not on Wednesday report on the arrest, with an unusually short 20:00 TV news bulletin. Even the normally-loquacious Jonathan Moyo, Mugabe’s spindoctor-turned-higher-education-minister studiously avoided the topic on Twitter.
“The continued persecution, intimidation and harassment of activists by the Mugabe regime is paving the way for their own demise,” Jeffrey Smith, founding director of @VanguardAfrica told News24. “Instead of stifling dissent as in years past, the continued crackdown might actually embolden more of it.”
As Mugabe opponents dust off their FreePastorEvan hashtags, it is not just them wondering: what happens next?
The world may end up watching.