The national flag draped around his shoulders, Zimbabwe’s most unlikely dissident said Wednesday that his popular protest movement has already triumphed over the government of authoritarian President Robert Mugabe and outlined plans to turn up the heat against the government in the run-up to elections in 2018.
In just four months since his Facebook protest video went viral, Evan Mawarire, the 39-year-old Christian leader of the tiny His Generation church in Harare, has emerged as the focus of perhaps the most dangerous challenge to the 92-year-old Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled the impoverished southern African country since its independence from Britain in the 1980s.
At times emotional and at times mocking, Mr. Mawarire told a packed Washington think tank audience Wednesday that a rising generation of Zimbabweans, angered by economic crises and savvy in the new ways of communicating and organizing through social media, have run out of patience with the Mugabe government. Adding fuel to the movement are older Zimbabweans daring to speak out for the first time and key members of Mr. Mugabe’s political base — notably veterans of the country’s independence wars — who have broken with the president.
“We’ve already achieved our victory,” the pastor said at an event organized by the Atlantic Council, where many in the audience were also wrapped in the gold, green, red and black Zimbabwean flag. “Something has been seen in Zimbabwe that we can never unsee.”
Leading a movement
Under what has become known as the #ThisFlag movement, Mr. Mawarire’s supporters have taken to the streets to demand an end to corruption and economic mismanagement, which have put their country at the bottom of virtually all global rankings. On Wednesday, the pastor spoke harshly of yet another plan by the Mugabe government to replace the country’s widely rejected currency and a new ban on importing basic commodities that Zimbabwe’s battered business sector can no longer supply.
The Mugabe government has a long history of cracking down harshly on popular movements that challenge authority. The pastor was briefly detained in mid-July after a popular protest. On Wednesday, Zimbabwean police in riot gear fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse a march of some 200 protesters in the heart of Harare, the capital.
After his July arrest and a series of death threats, Mr. Mawarire left Zimbabwe for South Africa and then the United States, a trip that some in the anti-Mugabe movement have questioned. Critics on social media warn that his decision to remain abroad gives credence to charges by Mr. Mugabe and his government that foreign forces are behind the protests.
The State Department sidestepped direct questions Wednesday on whether the pastor was meeting with Obama administration officials while in Washington.
“Pastor Evan has arranged his trip privately, without the involvement of the U.S. government,” a State Department official told The Washington Times, speaking on background Wednesday. “We support his right to speak and travel freely but were not involved in his plans to visit the U.S.
“While the U.S. government took no part in organizing the protests, we strongly support the rights of all Zimbabweans — regardless of affiliation — to protest peacefully,” the official said. “We also call on the government of Zimbabwe to exhibit restraint and respect the human rights of all Zimbabwean citizens, including the right to free speech and freedom of assembly.”
Mr. Mawarire did not detail his agenda for Washington and did not address directly the concerns about whether and when he would return home.
He joked at one point that he might stop by the International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington to discuss the government’s plan to replace the Zimbabwean currency with a bond pegged to the U.S. dollar. With memories of record-setting hyperinflation under Mr. Mugabe, popular skepticism about the proposed currency swap runs deep.
Expatriate Zimbabweans at the Atlantic Council session appeared to be strongly in support of the pastor and his work. Many said he can be an effective ambassador for the anti-Mugabe movement from outside the country.
Mr. Mawarire also revealed plans for a major demonstration at the annual U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York next month, saying he hoped to organize “the biggest protest ever [by expatriates] outside of Zimbabwe.”
Although Mr. Mugabe has a long record of cracking down violently on political rivals, Mr. Mawarire insisted his movement was determined not to respond in kind because that would play into the president’s hands.
“My faith teaches us that violence only begets violence,” he said. “Whatever we obtain by violence, we would have to maintain by violence.”
The video spark
Mr. Mawarire acknowledged Wednesday that he did not anticipate sparking a national protest when he released his first video. It was only when Zimbabwean Education Minister Jonathan Moyo mocked the post as a “pastor’s fart” that the movement took off, he said.
“At that point, things started to change ,” the pastor recalled. “At every point when the government attacked our citizens, the movement grew and grew.”
He gave a riveting account of his detention in early July, when he was handcuffed while government security officers searched his house.
A tense magistrate’s hearing nearly resulted in a charge of treason, and he said he avoided being rearrested as he left the jail only because a sympathetic guard steered him to a side exit, where he was immediately surrounded by a host of supporters and sympathetic lawyers.
“Beware these men of the cloth,” Mr. Mugabe said. “Not all of them are true preachers of the Bible.”
Senior officials from the State Department’s Bureau of African affairs attended the Atlantic Council session with Mr. Mawarire, but a department spokesman said they did not hold any formal meeting with him.
“We’re not doing anything with Pastor Evan to incite Mugabe or his people,” said the spokesman, speaking on background.
• Staff writer Guy Taylor contributed to this report.