By Bridget Mananavire
In a shocking move, police yesterday arrested outspoken cleric Evan Mawarire as he conducted a church service — fuelling fears that authorities are now in full panic mode over the country’s collapsing economy and the growing talk of imminent socio-political upheaval in urban areas.
Mawarire’s arrest came hardly 24 hours after he had revived his #ThisFlag campaign and produced a video broadcast urging Zimbabweans to rally against the government’s poor policies which have taken the country back to the doom and gloom days of 2008.The popular cleric’s lawyer, Harrison Nkomo, told the Daily News yesterday that he had since been charged with “subverting a constitutionally-elected government” — charges similar to those that he is already facing at the High Court in a different case.
Mawarire’s arrest comes as analysts issued a fresh warning at the weekend that Zimbabwe is on the cusp of experiencing another economic disaster similar to the meltdown of 2008 when local inflation hit world record levels and supermarket shelves went empty for months on end.
This followed the re-emergence of long fuel queues, as well as worsening shortages of cash, drugs and basic goods — which has seen panicking Zimbabweans stampeding to hoard these commodities.
Police swooped on Mawarire as he was in the middle of delivering his Sunday sermon to his Milton Park congregants, at the His Generation Church. He was later whisked away in an unmarked grey Isuzu double cab.
Before he was taken away by authorities, his stunned congregants prayed for him fervently after he asked for divine intervention in the country’s worsening crises during his sermon.
On Saturday, Mawarire had urged Zimbabweans to take peaceful action against the government over its failing economic policies.
“The job of politicians is not to force policies on us but to make policies that speak to our needs. If we don’t want it, we ask for it to be scrapped.
“I want us to get to a point where in the next few weeks, the citizens of this country are going to have to come together and decide on an action that they are going to do, an action that is going to speak to government,” he said in his video broadcast which had garnered 38 000 views by early afternoon yesterday.
“If the issues we are facing right now do not bind us together as citizens of Zimbabwe, nothing else will. We have to take this opportunity to look each other in the eye and say listen, it doesn’t matter which political parties we support, it doesn’t matter what our ideologies are, the one thing that we support is Zimbabwe and we can’t allow this country to keep going down,” he added.
The popular pastor organised one of the most successful and peaceful strikes in the history of post-independent Zimbabwe last year, with long-suffering citizens heeding his call to stay away from work to protest the country’s worsening rot.
Dubbed “Shutdown”, the crippling strike forced the panicking Zanu PF government to use excessive force to quell subsequent protests, as Zimbabweans agitated for change.
Later in the year, panicking authorities introduced the bizarre law which criminalises certain uses of the national flag, under the Flag of Zimbabwe Act, in what was seen as a desperate bid to clamp down on the #ThisFlag movement.
At the time, the Zimbabwe flag had become a major rallying instrument both at home and internationally, following Mawarire’s resonant patriotism campaign.
He had done this by engaging Zimbabweans while drapped in the national flag, which stirred deep nationalistic emotions among ordinary citizens fed up with the country’s deepening political and economic problems.
Mawarire was later arrested on what his lawyers said were trumped-up charges that led to his initial contentious detention, allegedly for inciting public violence and stealing a police baton and helmet.
After he was given bail, the clergyman relocated his family to the United States of America, before returning to Zimbabwe in February this year, when he was arrested again at the Harare International Airport.
Pro-democracy groups and political analysts said yesterday that the country’s worsening economic rot was likely to spark social unrest in the coming months, unless the government moved to address the crisis.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Mawarire’s stance on the deteriorating economic situation could never be “a justification for the violation of his basic right to free expression”.
“Arresting Mawarire will not make the bond note gain value, neither will it solve Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. The government must respect constitutional rights and uphold the law,” HRW director for southern Africa, Dewa Mavhinga, said.
Political analyst Gladys Hlatywayo said the government needed to address the deepening rot, instead of turning on citizens “whose rights to free expression is guaranteed by the Constitution”.
“The supreme law of the land provides for the right of citizens to demonstrate and petition. . . . Mawarire has committed no crime and this vampire regime must release him unconditionally.
“The current appalling situation is likely to trigger social unrest and the government must work towards rectifying the food, fuel and cash shortages among a myriad of challenges affecting the country,” Hlatywayo told the Daily News.
The MDC said it was clear that Zanu PF was panicking and had “no solution to the country’s worsening economic troubles”.
“The bad news is that things will get worse before they can get better. The economy has tanked, and things have fallen apart. Only a complete and total removal of the corrupt and incompetent Zanu PF regime is a viable solution. Nothing else will do.
“Zimbabweans generally have a very high tolerance threshold and thus, we might not witness an uprising in the mould of the Arab session, but certainly things will hot up as the economic meltdown gets out of hand.
“We will witness some mass demonstrations as people demand an even political playing field and electoral reforms,” MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said.
Piers Pigou, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, also said things were not likely to get better anytime soon.
“If basic commodities become unaffordable, this significantly raises the risk of unrest. The rise in fuel prices that will accompany shortages will have knock on effects for costs in every sector of the economy.
“This will more likely mobilise people to the streets than reported threats over the flawed BVR (biometric voter registration) process.
The situation on the ground is getting more combustible.
“The situation is exacerbated by a predatory elite who continue to profit from the misery of ordinary Zimbabweans.
“An inclusive national solution to all this is now critical. Elections predicated on a winner take all formula, whether held early or not, is unlikely to provide a sustainable solution,” Pigou warned.
Meanwhile, panicking shoppers and motorists continued to besiege shops and garages yesterday, as the climate of doom in the country worsens.
Most shops in Harare were limiting purchases of oil and sugar in the wake of the rampant hoarding of these items by jittery Zimbabweans.
Similarly, motorists were filling their vehicle tanks and jerrycans using cash, amid rejection of bank cards and mobile money by some service stations.
Revellers who tried to swipe their cards at nightclubs and bars were also left stranded, as most owners demanded cash.
In addition, Zimbabweans have over the past few weeks been greeted by sharp increases in the prices of basic goods, as retailers hike prices continually in response to the high cost of money on the parallel market.
Yesterday, one US dollar was trading against the bond note at up to 1,40 on the parallel market, while bank transfers were being transacted at 1,60 bond notes for one greenback.
The majority of companies which fall outside the RBZ’s priority list for foreign currency rely on bank transfers for their needs, and use the parallel market.
As a result, prices of basic consumer goods have been shooting up sharply as companies and retailers pass on their exchange costs to their customers.
RBZ governor John Mangudya has said that he is allocating $30 million a week for basic consumer goods and $15 million for the importation of fuel and electricity.
He has also said that the RBZ is introducing a US$600 million stabilisation facility to address the country’s biting foreign currency shortages. Daily News