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What everyone’s getting wrong about #ThisFlag movement

By Chloe McGrath | Foreign Policy |

Zimbabwe’s nationwide protest on July 6 was a clear sign that its citizens have had enough — and are discovering the courage to call their government to account. The country’s 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party have run the economy into the ground and appear to be out of options:

Zimbabwe anti-riot police guard the entrance at the Harare magistrate's court where pastor Evan Mawarire was due to appear in court on charges of inciting public violence following his arrest ahead of a planned mass job stayaway on July 13, 2016 ©Jekesai Njikizana (AFP/File)
Zimbabwe anti-riot police guard the entrance at the Harare magistrate’s court where pastor Evan Mawarire was due to appear in court on charges of inciting public violence following his arrest ahead of a planned mass job stayaway on July 13, 2016 ©Jekesai Njikizana (AFP/File)

Diamond reserves have run out, China is no longer interested in extending condition-free loans, and government coffers are completely empty.

The situation is so bad that even military personnel did not receive their pay on time last month. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the country is facing a severe El Nino-induced drought that has forced the government to declare a state of disaster in some of the worst-affected areas.

At this critical juncture, the recent surge of citizen-led activism — united under the banner of the #ThisFlag movement — has the potential to upend the status quo. It began this April, when a previously unknown pastor, Evan Mawarire, posted a video on Facebook that went viral and unwittingly launched a nationwide social media campaign.

Soon, Zimbabweans at home and in the diaspora began posting videos of themselves draped in the national flag and calling for government reforms to address the numerous serious issues facing the country.

Last week, the movement won a critical victory when a court in Harare dropped charges against Mawarire, who had been detained by police following the nationwide protest.

The events in Zimbabwe have captured the attention of the world. But commentators have persistently failed to identify the essence of the movement’s significance. Prevailing sentiment makes two main errors:

Analysts either dismiss #ThisFlag as no more than a social media campaign or assert that it is calling for an Arab Spring-like revolution to remove President Mugabe.

Both perspectives miss the point: This citizen-led movement is neither restricted to social media, nor is it calling for a revolution. Instead, it aims to mobilize citizens to hold the government accountable for the “poverty, corruption, and injustice” that plague Zimbabwe.

Although it began online, #ThisFlag has long since moved beyond the confines of the internet. In June, the movement organized a public debate with the Reserve Bank Governor to air citizen discontent about the forthcoming “bond notes” — Zimbabwe’s proposed “own version” of the U.S. dollar.

Public engagement of this sort in Zimbabwe is rare, as officials are loathe to place themselves in the firing line of disgruntled citizens. During the event, a lawyer linked to #ThisFlag presented an articulate legal argument against bond notes and has since begun building a case to challenge the constitutionality of the Reserve Bank’s actions.

Next, the movement organized a peaceful nationwide “stay-away” protest on July 6, resulting in eerily empty streets and an unprecedented one-day closure of schools and businesses across the country.

The state responded by arresting Pastor Mawrire, which precipitated the movement’s next mass demonstration on July 13, when thousands of people thronged around the courtroom in his support. (President Mugabe finally broke his silence on the recent events at a state funeral on July 19 when he called for Mawarire to leave the country.)

Such effective use of social media as a tool for mobilizing grassroots activism has rocked the government. You can tell by its reaction: On the day of the nationwide shutdown, it allegedly blocked the WhatsApp private messaging service, which is widely used in Zimbabwe.

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And, even as it denied any involvement, the country’s Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority released a menacing statement “noting with concern the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunications services” and threatening to identify “perpetrators” through “registered SIM cards.”

The government’s nervousness shows that it is aware of the role that social media, especially secure private platforms like WhatsApp, can play in mobilizing non-violent resistance to its rule.

Another common misunderstanding about #ThisFlag is the assumption that the movement is calling for the end of the Mugabe regime. In fact, up until now, its messaging is notable for lacking any such demands.

Although other affiliated movements such as #Tajamuka (“we have rebelled”) have repeatedly called for Mugabe’s removal, #ThisFlag has carefully chosen to avoid the “Mugabe must go” mantra that has been repeated by Zimbabwe’s opposition movements for decades to little effect.

The lack of “regime change” rhetoric has been so noteworthy that Mawarire has even been accused of being a government plant, despite his recent assertion that Mugabe is as complicit in the country’s woes as the rest of government.

In fact, it is both politically astute and eminently realistic to avoid calling for the president’s removal. In the past, the ruling party’s propaganda has capitalized on denouncing any “regime change” agenda as subversive, whether it comes from Zimbabwe’s citizens or from the international community.

#ThisFlag’s rallying cry against “poverty, injustice and corruption” has made it much more difficult for government spin doctors to twist the movement’s central message. In any event, it’s unlikely that Mugabe’s immediate removal from office would provide any solutions to the country’s woes.

Under a transitional clause in the constitution, upon Mugabe’s death, resignation, or removal, the ruling party can install a leader of its choice. And those waiting in the wings are just as much part of the problem as Mugabe himself.

Instead of focusing on the president, #ThisFlag has sought to break people’s fear of speaking out, creating an active citizenry ready to hold its government to account. While #ThisFlag remains explicitly non-partisan, the movement’s activists are already encouraging citizens to register to vote ahead of the 2018 polls.

The efficacy of non-violent civil resistance has been well documented. Research shows that non-violent campaigns have significantly higher (53 percent to 26 percent) odds of success than violent resistance for two main reasons.

First, non-violent resistance movements enjoy more legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. Second, it is more difficult for an oppressive regime to justify violent crackdowns against a nonviolent movement — and any such action is likely to backfire.

#ThisFlag has been explicit in its call to non-violence, denouncing any acts that involve vandalism or destruction of property and instead encouraging peaceful demonstrations.

The movement has focused primarily on policy issues — such as the impending bond notes and a crippling import ban — rather than on personality politics. And this distinctly non-partisan approach has transcended ethnic, racial, and party divisions, mobilizing citizens around bread and butter issues.

Zimbabwe’s notorious security sector — which includes the military, the police, and the intelligence service — remains the elephant in the room.

Though these bodies once presented an insurmountable obstacle to any political transition, the situation is no longer so certain. The military’s loyalty is divided among various factions of the increasingly fractured ruling party, and unpaid salaries show that even those essential to bolstering the regime are not escaping the country’s economic crisis.

There have already been some glimpses of softening attitudes among the police, despite the widespread brutality it wielded against protesters in the wake of the shutdown. During Pastor Mawarire’s court proceedings, police officers stationed within the court room joined in song with scores of well-wishers as they awaited the verdict.

At one point, riot police stormed the courtroom, but left less than five minutes later after a polite exchange with a defense lawyer. While there is no certainty that #ThisFlag will gain any traction with the security establishment, the movement’s nonpartisan commitment to demanding economic accountability has the potential to resonate with the security forces, particularly when their salaries are delayed.

In these early stages, it is hard to know just how effective #ThisFlag will be. There is much left undone — most importantly, activists must find a way to reach the rural areas where two thirds of the population lives. The movement must also address how to keep its central message clear while working with activists that may hold different values.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the movement’s significance and its potential to bring about transformative change. The combination of dire economic circumstances and innovative civil resistance methods places the government in an unfamiliar corner, and may just set the stage for serious changes as the 2018 elections get closer.