Zimbabwean pro-democracy dissident and protest leader Pastor Evan Mawarire addresses the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On 19th April 2016, a day after independence day in Zimbabwe, I sat in my small church office disappointed and upset at what Zimbabwe had done to me as a person. Our government had stripped me of any sense and chance of living safely, and prosperously in the only place that I have the right to call home. As an ordinary citizen and a pastor of a small church, I had no options to remedy the sorry state that Zimbabwe had become. What remained that millions had done was to leave the country. So I sat up and used two simple things that I had in that very moment. My phone and my voice. It was my last ditch effort and a call to my countrymen to save our country.
I posted that first video entitled #ThisFlag on facebook talking about how our government had taken us for granted, broken our constitution and robbed our future. I spoke about how it was now our job as ordinary citizens to reclaim the pride of our nation as reflected in the emblems of our national flag. That video and many others after that cracked open a journey in the rise of citizen power that no one expected to see under the brutal dictatorship of Robert Mugabe.
A movement of citizens standing up against corruption, injustice and poverty was born. #ThisFlag Citizens movement was and still is about holding government to account through the citizen’s voice. This voice had been silenced for 36 years through intimidation, abductions, murders, political violence, economic exclusion and state capture. Our mantra was “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we MUST inspire the citizen to be bold.” I was first arrested on 12th July 2016 after organising a national shutdown. We refused to go to work, school or open our businesses as a way of sending a message to the regime that we were no longer afraid of them and no longer tolerated their misrule.
I was charged with subversion and accused of attempting to overthrow the government. I faced up to 20 years in prison. My pregnant wife and 2 infant daughters were threatened with rape and death whilst I was in prison. I was interrogated and threatened with torture if I did not disclose who was funding me or if I vowed to continue. After a lengthy and dramatic court hearing the courts had to let me go because the arrest had violated my constitutional rights. The greatest victory that day was not the court’s decision. It was the thousands of citizens who gathered at the courts from morning till the night and demanded my release. We had not seen this kind of mass boldness in a long time. Upon my release I immediately fled the country under the cover of darkness through a small boarder. There was a plan to abduct, torture or re-arrest me. My family too was in grave danger so I had them taken out of Zimbabwe to a safer place.
President Robert Mugabe publicly threatened me by name and promised that I had no place in Zimbabwe except specially prepared treatment and jail. He threatened the pastors, and ordinary citizens who had rallied with me in protest. For close to six months I lived in exile unsure whether going back would be the strengthening of citizen power or the demise of the little hope we had garnered. Hope is the only thing that has kept Zimbabweans going. The hope that one day we will find it within ourselves to respect our children’s future enough by standing up for it today.
On 1st February 2017 I returned to Zimbabwe and was immediately arrested at the airport. I was charged with subversion for the events that I had escaped from in the previous year and additionally for a protest against Robert Mugabe, which we held at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York in September of 2016. I was thrown into the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security prison along with convicts of crimes ranging from rape, armed robbery and murder. The harassment was unbearable but I had no choice but to face it and survive it. Out on bail I began yet another journey of more arrests, intimidations, torture and harassment that lasted 11 months. My passport was taken from me and I was to report to the police every Monday and Friday. I was arrested and imprisoned again for praying with university medical students who where protesting poor learning conditions. I was arrested yet again whilst in the middle of a sermon on Sunday at our church for posting a video on facebook in which I spoke about the shortage of fuel and the increase of basic food prices.
Why did I start all this? Why did I come back? Why did I continue? You may ask. I found out something after that first video and subsequent arrest. I found out that there is no one who brings a fight for Zimbabwe that is more sustainable and passionate than a Zimbabwean. There are no heroes coming to save us except ourselves. What we needed was to find that courage to stand for ourselves. I came back because it was time to model a Zimbabwean who refuses to run, rejects intimidation and demands their voice be heard. It was worth it because you cannot put a price tag on restored dignity and true freedom. We had longed for Mugabe to just die away. But that would have robbed us of something even better. Our expectation of a better Zimbabwe was not in the hope that our oppressor would die, but that whilst he lived we stood up to him.
On November 18th 2017 Zimbabweans took an opportunity to confront Mugabe’s rule. We stood together in a powerful act of unity and demanded a new start. It was unthinkable that we did what we never thought we’d see in our lifetime. We had to play our part and send a message to both Mugabe and future leaders that we had found our voice. On 29th November 2017, after 11 months of arrests, jail time and court appearances, the High Court of Zimbabwe ruled that due to a lack of evidence I was not guilty of the charges of subversion and the many charges of inciting public violence.
It has been said by our new president that Zimbabwe is open for business. However, the question that must be asked is; is Zimbabwe open for freedom? What we have discovered is that we the citizens must never accept a government that muzzles our voice, brutalises us and subverts our will. It is not enough to promise free and fair elections. There must be the corresponding enactment and observance of the laws that guarantee freedom and diversity. We ask you to take note of the culture of violence, oppression and denial of fundamental constitutional rights that has been the culture of the past. It must not continue to happen in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe cannot go into the future with money for business only. She must walk confidently into tomorrow with real freedom for her people too. That is why I choose to continue till today to speak truth to power and never ever be cowed into silence again.
10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 19, 2018